03 Aug Compassion Extended
How many times does the same miracle performed by Jesus get recorded in all four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John)?
Honestly, I’m not going to give you time to really think about this, because the total number doesn’t require too much counting. That’s because the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story to be repeated in all the gospels. (cf. Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15).
Whenever any event is recorded more than once in the Bible, especially in the gospels, it should make us ask, Why this story? What is so important about this story? What does it reveal about God, about Jesus, about who we are called to be in the world that’s so important that each of the gospel writers decided that this story is definitely worth remembering?
Of course, the obvious reason this story is recorded four times is that it’s a pretty awesome miracle story. There’s a pretty big ‘wow factor’ going on here. It’s a story that shouts, “pay attention to this person, Jesus!” His miracles reveal that God’s power is in him.
But today I’d like us to look at two other aspects of this miracle that under-gird Jesus’ actions. There are two remarkable pieces of information which Matthew records that are extremely insightful and deserve our attention.
Insight One: Compassion of Jesus
While it is extraordinary to learn what Jesus does here in feeding so many people, it’s equally extraordinary to learn why Jesus does this. The why is revealed a single word, “compassion.” Matthew says that when Jesus saw the great crowd that had followed him, he had compassion on them. And so, he healed their sick, tended their needs, and shared with them his presence. And then, when evening came, and the crowds found themselves without food, Jesus fed them too.
While we all know Jesus so well that we may think, “Well, duh! Of course, Jesus had compassion on them!” I’d like us to pause and consider the remarkable context from which this compassion comes.
Our gospel began with the transitional line, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.” The “this,” the thing Jesus just heard about, was John the Baptist’s murder by King Herod. John was beheaded in the middle of a lavish party at the king’s request.
Now think about that shocking contrast! Just prior to this story of Jesus feeding 5,000 needy people, Matthew tells us that John the Baptist has had his head cut off and presented to the king on a platter. This happened because of the whim of a dancing girl and her mother who make the request to the king. The rich and powerful have just recklessly killed the remarkable prophet John. The king’s callous lack of value for human life, along with his wild party is a glaring contrast to the kind of God Jesus represents: a God of compassion who truly cares for people.
God compared with gods
And should we zoom out further for a bigger picture, in Jesus’ lifetime, gods aren’t normally believed to care about people like the crowds who gather bringing their needs before Jesus. The gods of the Greek and Roman empires, for example, were notorious for using humans as playthings. Greek gods were believed to turn the world upside down whenever they wanted to have their own fun. Maybe you took a Greek mythology class at some point in your schooling. If so, you remember those kinds of stories of gods toying with human beings. At best, gods were otherwise known to only side with the rich and powerful – to stand with people like King Herod and his well-fed party goers.
Contrast these gods with Jesus, the Son of God, who has just learned that his cousin, the prophet John, the one who baptized Jesus himself – is dead. Jesus tries to go away to a lonely place to grieve this news, only to be followed by thousands of ordinary people.
This Jesus, even in his sorrow, turns to these crowds clamoring after him and he has compassion on them.
Compassion for all
Most people in our world would still believe that either there is no God or that the god who does exist, likes to torment and toy with our lives. We Christians believe no such thing! We believe in a God who is ‘slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We believe in a God “who is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100) We believe “that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and will execute justice for the needy.”(Psalm 114) Jesus is this God in person. He turns to all with compassion – to this day just as back then when this story was recorded. Our God heals the sick, delivers the lowly, and feeds the hungry.
Which now brings our attention to those of us who call ourselves the disciples of this compassionate Jesus.
Insight Two: Jesus uses the Disciples, even when they’d rather look after only themselves
The disciples in today’s gospel story are nearly as spent and exhausted as Jesus. It’s been a long day. They’ve stayed with Jesus as he’s healed people and they’ve been inside this crowd of thousands all day too. When the end of the day comes, these guys, these disciples, are done. They’ve hit their wall. They are ready to wrap it all up and get somewhere away from it all. They literally turn to Jesus and say, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
Jesus, it’s time to go home. We are done here. What more do you want?
But it is precisely in this moment that Jesus teaches his disciples that His compassion doesn’t reach a quitting point. We disciples may we reach our limits. But that’s always where God comes in. God in Jesus Christ moves beyond the limits. And the lesson for us is that if we’re to be Jesus’ disciples, we are to share Jesus’ compassion with others even in those times when it’s NOT convenient for us to do so.
Preaching Professor at Luther Seminary, Karoline Lewis, puts it this way, “There is a sense that this story sums up discipleship. It’s an invitation to action and involvement. Discipleship is not just about following, but participating…”
You do it
Jesus tells his disciples, who want the crowds to go away and get their own dinner, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” In other words, you do it!
“This is a major lesson in discipleship, Discipleship 101, to be exact…Discipleship is rarely tidy or convenient. What you will be asked to live, and when, may just be a miracle itself.” ( Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014)
A relevant example of Christian discipleship for me this week appeared as Representative John Lewis was remembered. He certainly was remembered for making “good trouble,” for being the conscience of the House of Representatives, and for his historic place in history as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement. But if you listened to any eulogies given about him, John Lewis was also best known for respecting all people. Not only on both sides of the aisle – Republican or Democrat, but all people he met.
At his funeral the other day Jamila Thompson, his Deputy Chief of Staff, remarked that any day you worked for Representative Lewis, you ran on John Lewis’ time – meaning you were always running late. The real reason you were always running late was that Representative Lewis made time for everybody. Walking with Rep. Lewis through our nation’s capitol on any given day, constituents, fellow lawmakers, tours of school children going through the capitol – everyone wanted to stop and talk to him — and Lewis gave them his time. John Lewis would especially love to greet young people touring the Capitol, to talk to each one. This was part of his practice as a legislator and a civil rights icon, but also as a Christian. To extend himself. To participate. To connect with others in a way that was transformational. To listen. To care. To inspire individuals to know that they each matter in a democracy. Deputy Thompson summarized John Lewis’ example and called us to live the same way saying, “Be kind. Be mindful. Recognize the dignity and the worth of every human being.”