David A. Davis
August 6, 2017
It was evening. They were in a deserted place; Jesus, the disciples, and a great crowd. The disciples come to Jesus and point out to him that it was getting late and that its pretty sparse out here. “Send the crowds away so that may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus’s response is that the people didn’t need to go anywhere; they don’t need to go away. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus says. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus tells them, “So bring them to me.” And then he told everyone to sit down on the grass. That many people, it must have been “a word spread” through the crowd kind of thing; “sit, sit down, sit here on the grass.”
Jesus takes the five loaves and the two fish. He looks up to heaven, and with words and action that will be remembered to eternity, Jesus blesses and breaks the bread and gives the pieces to the disciples. The disciples pass the bread through the crowds. Matthew doesn’t say what happens to the fish, but as for the bread, there were leftovers. Twelve baskets full. And everyone ate. Everyone was full. Twelve baskets of bread pieces left. And in a Bible-like crowd assessment, Matthew records that “Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
Thus the “feeding of the five thousand” as tradition calls it. Or “the multiplication,” the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. The traditional site along the Sea of Galilee is the village of Tabgha. The site where Jesus blessed the loaves and the fishes. The name of the church there is “The Church of the Multiplication.” And after that meal in the Upper Room, that meal on that holy, heartbreaking night of betrayal and desertion, at some point in that meal the disciples had to have thought back to how Jesus stood before the crowds in that deserted place and took bread, and blessed, and broke it and gave it to them. The disciples, the church, the followers of Jesus, you and I, we don’t miss it, we can’t miss it, the sacramental action when it comes to the loaves and fishes. Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And they were filled. They were all filled.
But before that, before the disciples told Jesus to send the crowds away, before he asked for the five loaves and two fish, before the crowds sat down on the grass, before Jesus looked up to heaven, before take, bless, break, give, before the twelve baskets came back full, before all ate and all were filled, before the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, before all of that, and it is so easy to miss. Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and he cured their sick.” Before they all ate and were filled, he was filled. Filled with compassion.
Earlier in his gospel, Matthew tells of Jesus going about all the cities and villages, teaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom. “When Jesus saw the crowds,” Matthew writes, “he had compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36). Just a chapter after this account of the loaves and fishes, Matthew tells again of “a multiplication.” “Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat, and I do not want to send them away hungry’” (15:32). And in the 20th chapter, Matthew tells of the two blind men sitting by the side of the road outside of Jericho. “Lord, have mercy on us,” they shouted. The crowds told the two to be quiet but Jesus stood still and called out to them. As the gospel records it, Jesus was “moved with compassion” and he touched their eyes. They regained their sight and followed him. He was moved with compassion.
Before they were filled, he was filled… with compassion. Jesus had just been told about the death of John the Baptist; the brutal, violent, head-on-a-platter death of the man who baptized him. He went to be by himself. He wanted to be by himself. If there was ever a time to be by yourself to grieve, to weep, to pray. Matthew says “he withdrew.” Jesus went to the deserted place by himself by boat. But the crowds followed him on foot along the shore, keeping him ever in their sight. So when he got there, they were there already. Instead of having the deserted place to himself, which was clearly his intent, “he saw a great crowd.” And despite his own grief, despite his clear intention and desire to be by himself, instead of the heartbreaking, good cry that would be so warranted after John’s murder, Jesus still had compassion. He had compassion for them… still. Even then. Still. Compassion.
He didn’t ask for a few hours, or for some time alone, or even for a moment. He had compassion. He didn’t try to explain his situation or share why some time alone would probably be good for him, a “put your own oxygen mask on first” kind of thing. He had compassion. He didn’t pretend that he didn’t see them. He didn’t turn away, or get back in the boat, or go find another spot, he had compassion.
Jesus didn’t require them to listen to a sermon first, or to show their religious stripes, or pass a scripture test. He had compassion. He didn’t wait for them to ask, or make them beg, or convert them first. He had compassion. He didn’t expect them to justify themselves, their sickness, or their hunger. He had compassion. He didn’t demand they shout out, or bow down, or perform a sacrifice, or praise him, or express their gratitude first. He had compassion.
Jesus didn’t wait to find out if they could afford it. He didn’t check to see if they came from the right family. He didn’t search the Hebrew scripture for a justification. He didn’t stop to ask himself if they deserved it, or if they earned it, or if they even wanted it. He had compassion. This time there was no talk of the sheep and the goats. He didn’t ask for the true believers. He didn’t preach about a narrow way, or the eye of the needle. He didn’t tell them to go and sell everything and give it to the poor. He had compassion.
Jesus didn’t wade into the crowd to see which ones agreed with him. He didn’t ask them if they bought into his interpretation of this text or that. He didn’t examine their views on piety, or temple practices, or the Sadducees and the Pharisees, or rendering under Caesar, or marriage, or heaven and hell, or salvation. He didn’t require them to attest that he was the only way. He had compassion. He didn’t divide them into groups based on where they came from, or what dialect they spoke, or what side of the street they lived on, or who were haves and who were have-nots. He didn’t check to see who was pulling on their own bootstraps, or who was trying help themselves, or even who was sicker or hungrier. He had compassion. He didn’t ridicule them, or question them, or demonize them, or label them, or tell them they were wrong, or yell at them. He didn’t lead with cynicism, or lack of trust, or fear. He led with compassion. He didn’t stoke their fear, or pit them against each other, or threaten them, or assume they were lying, or they were out to get something they in no way deserved. He had compassion.
Before “the Multiplication,” there was “the compassion.” Remarkable? Yes. Miraculous? Yes. But a miracle? No. Compassion ought not to be that much of a stretch. It shouldn’t be so unexpected. Compassion shouldn’t be reserved for only the holiest, or the most divine. Compassion ought to be so utterly human. It was just such a part of his DNA. Jesus and compassion. Part of his DNA and part of ours. When Jesus said to the disciples, “you give them something to eat,” it was like he was saying, “Go and do likewise.” Go and have compassion. Live and breathe and act “compassion.” It is as if Jesus is saying to them, “Compassion. It’s who I am. It’s who we are.” See those crowds. See the crowd. Don’t just have “some compassion.” Have compassion. Before they all ate and were filled. He was filled… with compassion.
What Jesus did with the bread, with the five loaves that evening in the deserted place among the crowds, what he did was the only sacramental action. His compassion, that ordinary human love and mercy and care, his ordinary compassion conveying, communicating, bearing the extraordinary love of God. That’s sacramental. Like the waters of baptism, marking our ordinary lives with the extraordinary grace of God. Like bread and wine that nourishes us with God’s promise, fills us with God’s grace. To taste and to see and to be filled with his compassion so that our compassion can anoint the world around us, the people around us, with the extraordinary love of God.
Before “he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves” and gave it them, he had compassion. Before the Last Supper, and before crucifixion and resurrection, there was his compassion. Before the canon of the New Testament took shape, before the Apostles’ Creed, before Christian doctrine, before biblical interpretation, there was his compassion. Long before the Reformation, and before liberals and conservatives, and literalists, and fundamentalists, and progressives and evangelicals, there was his compassion. Before the King James, the RSV, the NIV, the NRSV, the CEV, there was his compassion.
Before those who take the name of Jesus — before Christians — disagreed and argued about pretty much everything, there was his compassion. Long before it became more important to be right rather than be faithful, there was his compassion. Before Christians became so enamored with who is in and who is out, there was his compassion. Before the Bible and Christianity and the name of Jesus were used to invoke violence and hate and slavery and oppression and exclusion, there was his compassion.
Before the expression “follow the money” became an adage in politics and business and corruption and life, the Christian should have been taught to “follow the compassion.” For the Christian, for the church, for you and for me, today, now, there can’t be much that is more important than bearing, communicating, exhibiting, living, breathing, acting compassion.
Before they were filled, before they were all filled, he was filled… with compassion.
© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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