12th Sunday after Pentecost (August 3, 2008)
"The Compassion of Jesus" (Matthew 14:13-21)
The Dalai Lama was here in Seattle earlier this year. Most of you probably already know who he is. He’s the exiled spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people. He’s quite the celebrity. The event surrounding his visit to our region was entitled “Seeds of Compassion.” The purpose of the event was to promote compassion and empower citizens, especially the younger generations, to be more caring and concerned about others and their communities.
Now that’s all well and good. Being more compassionate is an honorable goal. But the means to promote this compassion seems to be a dead-end street to me. I won’t go into the details, but the website for “Seeds of Compassion” gives a 7-step guide to practicing compassion. Great. Just what we need. More rules to follow. And you know what’s going to happen. You are going to come to the end of the week and find that you blew it. You weren’t as compassionate as you should have been. You had some harsh words for your spouse. You lost your temper with your children. You said you were too busy when a friend asked you for help, even though you had plenty of time in your schedule. You saw a guy on the I-5 offramp holding a cardboard sign, and your first thought was, “He’s probably an alcoholic or a drug addict...he deserves to be where he is.”
Why do we do and think these things? Because no matter how many times we try to be more compassionate, our sinful hearts keep us from being perfectly compassionate.
In English, to be compassionate means “to suffer together with.” Have you ever told someone your troubles and they reply, “I feel your pain”? But do they really? Are they really suffering together with you? Do you really suffer right along with those with whom you are trying to be more compassionate?
There’s only one person who ever lived who was truly compassionate. And it’s not the Dalai Lama. It’s Jesus. When he came into this world as a Man, he came “to suffer together with” us. He came to “sympathize with our weaknesses,” the author of Hebrews writes (Heb. 4:15). Humbling himself as a Man, Jesus gave up his rights as God and lived in the midst of this messed up, sin-filled world. He walked right alongside of us. “In every respect” Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin.” The prophet Isaiah foretold that Jesus would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows. The Lord “laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53:4, 6) Jesus suffered right along with us, not just to sympathize with us, but to be our Savior. With his perfectly compassionate heart, he willingly bore your sins and mine at the cross and paid the price for our sins. Now, we are forgiven for all the times when we have not been compassionate. And in today’s Gospel lesson we see the compassion of Jesus demonstrated as he received a crowd of over five thousand, fed them, and gave an ample supply to the disciples after the feeding was over.
Jesus Compassionately Receives
Today’s Gospel reading begins with Jesus having just heard about the execution of John the Baptist. This news apparently disturbed him so much that he decided to get away for a while. So Jesus hopped in a boat with his disciples and set off to what Matthew calls a “desolate place.”
The crowds who had been following Jesus heard that he had set out by boat, so they high-tailed it along the shore to see if they could find him. When Jesus’ boat landed, a huge crowd was sitting there waiting for him.
Now if that was me in the boat, I would have said, “Can you people not give me one moment’s rest? This was supposed to be a little vacation! Yet here you are, expecting more from me!”
But that’s not how Jesus reacted, is it? St. Matthew records, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them.” The Greek word for “compassion” means something along the lines of “moved to the depths of your soul.” Instead of resenting the crowd and wanting them to go away, Jesus felt compassion for them deep down in his gut. Jesus compassionately received them and healed those who were sick among the them.
The Bible says that Jesus is the same “yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) So you can count on the fact that he is the same compassionate Savior for you right now. When you come to him with a heavy heart, with a sin to confess, with a need to be met, he will not turn you away. Jesus is moved to the depths of his soul over your condition or your situation. He will compassionately receive you. He will comfort you, forgive you, and meet your needs as he knows best.
Jesus Compassionately Feeds
When the sun began to go down, the disciples figured it was time to send the crowds away. You can just imagine them saying to one another, “Man, I’m hungry! When is Jesus finally going to tell these people “Enough’s enough”? Let’s get going before it’s too dark to travel. I sure hope there’s a Taco Bell in that town on the other side of the hill. There’s sure nothing here in this place.” So they came to the Lord and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Wow. Real compassionate, guys.
Yet isn’t that exactly how you and I would feel? We’ve been here all day. Let’s go eat. The others can fend for themselves.
Jesus gives the disciples a little test. After they suggest to him that he send the crowd away, Jesus says to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
I can just see the incredulous looks on the faces of the disciples as they look at Jesus and say, “You’re kidding, right? All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.”
Well, that’s good enough for Jesus. He takes what the disciples have on hand. And the same Lord who turned water into wine at a wedding now takes a few morsels and turns them into a magnificent feast. He fed five thousand people, not counting women and children. “And they all ate and were satisfied.”
But this feeding doesn’t only show Christ’s power to do miracles. It can remind us of something else. First off, remember where they were. They were in “a desolate place.” A wilderness. This reminds us of the children of Israel in their years of wandering through the desert after leaving Egypt. Second, they were fed with bread in a miraculous fashion ... just like the Israelites were fed with manna from heaven in the wilderness. And there happened to be an expectation in those days that when the Messiah arrived on the scene, he would feed the people in a similar way. That’s probably why we learn in John’s account of this event that after they were fed, the people said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”...and they tried to take him by force to make him king. (John 6:14-15) They wanted him to keep on giving them bread!
So it appears as though Jesus is giving us a picture of the Messianic feast promised in days of old. He took the fish and the bread, looked up to heaven, said a blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to the disciples. Does this remind you of another meal that Jesus provided? “On the night when he was betrayed, he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples...” God himself feeds his people. And when God feeds his people, they all eat and are satisfied. Jesus will feed you today with his body and blood. It’s not going to fill your tummy. But it will indeed fill your soul with Christ’s goodness as you receive his body and blood with faith in those words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all your sins.” In this way, you will eat and be satisfied.
Jesus Compassionately Supplies
Finally, notice what happens after the meal is over. There are twelve baskets full left over. One for each of the disciples. Not a coincidence. The disciples learned that they had nothing to offer the crowds. But with Jesus providing for them, they have more than enough to spare.
The Twelve can represent the Church for us here. And Jesus continues to compassionately supply his Church with resources ... the Gospel itself, Baptism, the Eucharist, and a multitude of spiritual gifts distributed for the edification of the Church. The Church goes out with the compassion of Jesus and announces that Jesus himself is the Bread of Heaven ... the Bread of Life. Whoever feeds on this bread will never go hungry. Whoever believes in him will never thirst. (John 6:35)
So after you have been fed today, dear Church of God, elect and glorious, you will each have a basket to carry with you. Each basket is full of Christ’s resources for you to proclaim and to share. Take them with you. Use those resources to show Christ’s compassion to those around you. And the most important way you can do this is by telling how Jesus suffered right along with us all the way to the cross and how he conquered sin, death, and hell at the empty tomb. You can do this, dear people of God, because you have a Savior who compassionately receives you, feeds you, and supplies you with all that you need for you life now and for your life to come. Amen.