“When Compassion Comes First”

Matthew 14:13-21
David A. Davis
August 6, 2023
Jump to audio

My first visit to Israel/Palestine was in 2008 with a group of pastors who were all graduates of Princeton Seminary. One hot summer afternoon, the twenty-five or so of us were gathered for a communion service along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We were next to the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. Tradition tells that this church was built at the place along the water where the Risen Jesus made breakfast for the disciples who had gone back to fishing. The breakfast when Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him. Next to the ancient church there are several areas for visiting groups to sit in the shade. Sort of like picnic shelters intended for prayer, worship, teaching, or listening to a tour guide talk about the church.

It was a beautiful place. The breeze was coming off the water. We could hear the water lapping against the rocks. The communion table was set. We enjoyed some singing at the beginning. As we began to share the bread and the cup, it was amazingly quiet. We went up to the table two by two. All of us in prayer. Some in tears. Others in wonder at the view, at the place, at the moment. Where we blessed and broken the bread could not have been far from where Jesus fed the five thousand besides women and children. The silence among us was as if you could hear the Holy Spirit.

We were still “communing” when three school buses pulled up just at the top of the hill. Young children rushed out and made a bee line for the shore, the rocks, the water. They passed right in front of our view of the water. They came right through our holy moment, our holy space. They weren’t so much interested in the ancient church or the sheltered spaces for prayer. They went for the water. Skipping stones. Throwing rocks. Wading in the water up to their knees. Laughing. Screaming. Yelling to one another in Arabic. It’s what children do along the shore! Not long after the children arrived, when about half of them had made it to the water, one of my fellow ministers, fearing our sacred moment was going to be ruined, stepped out from our shaded gathering to try to appeal for quiet. He didn’t speak Arabic so all he could was “shh!” as the kids ran by. As he ran around among them, it was like he was playing a game of  “Shh” tag or trying to “shh” them away rather than shoe them away. Trying to tell the small crowd of joyful children to go away.

The disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowds away. It wasn’t because they were too noisy but because it was getting late. They were in a deserted place. It was time for the crowd to go and find something to eat. Jesus says “You give them something to eat”. “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Jesus tells them to bring him the loaves and fish. Then he tells the crowd to sit down on the grass. “Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled….about five thousand men, besides women and children.”  They all ate and were filled.

But before they were filled. 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 all of that, according to Matthew, 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 doctrine or temple practices, or the Sadducees and the Pharisees, or rendering under Caesar, 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 accuse them of trying to get something they in no way deserved. He had compassion.

Before the Last Supper when he again blessed and broke, before his betrayal, his torture, his crucifixion and his resurrection, 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 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 miracle of feeding the five thousand, besides women and children, there was his 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 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.” Before the expression “follow the money” became an adage in politics and business and corruption and life, the followers of Jesus  were taught to “follow the compassion”. For the Christian, for the church, for you and for me, today, here and now, there can’t be much that is more important than bearing, communicating, exhibiting, living, breathing, acting compassion.

Back in 2008 at the Sea of Galilee, as I watched one pastor look rather foolish running around pleading for quiet, the wiser pastor next to me leaned over and said “you know”, with a head nodding toward the kids at the water’s edge, “that’s what it ought to sound like at this meal. That’s what it is going to sound like in the kingdom of God.”

Come to the Table this morning and be filled…with compassion and joy.