Feeding the five thousand
13 When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”
17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
Pictures tell us so much. A picture is worth a thousand words. The pictures I want to show you are pictures of compassion. The first picture is taken at the naming of a baby born to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The mute Zechariah, a priest of God who lost his ability to speak when he doubted the angel’s message to he and Elizabeth, writes down the name of his newborn son, John. This scene offers a prophetic picture from God.
(Luke 1:76-79) “You, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. 77 You will tell his people how to be saved through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s deep compassion, the dawn from heaven will break upon us, 79 to give light to those who are sitting in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide us on the path of peace.” What a picture! A baby preparing the way for the Most High Lord!
The second picture in the series is of Jesus, God’s Son. Jesus lived a life of compassion, driven in part by the overwhelming need he saw in humanity. As he travelled through the cities and villages, he saw crowds of people struggling under the pressures of life in the Roman Empire. He saw people struggling to be faithful to God through attempting to follow the Law. (Matthew 9:36) “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
Jesus’ compassion new no bounds. Crowds of people followed him. There were lepers, the lame, the blind, the hungry. There were sinners, and persons who were demon possessed. There were even the religiously rigid who were following him. Consider the compassion Jesus showed. First there was Nicodemus, who came by night. Jesus welcomed him without condition and blessed him with a clarity for his life that showed itself after Jesus was crucified. (John 3). Then there was the time that Jesus had dinner at the home of a Pharisee leader (Luke 14:1). All these pictures of compassion show that it didn’t matter who you were or your wealth or your status. Jesus compassion was always there. Even when he was chastising the religiously rigid, he was doing to in order to bring them fully into the family portrait.
The third picture is in today’s scripture. Jesus is offering a lesson in compassion to his disciples – and to us. The crowds that were following Jesus were huge. In this case there were five thousand men along with women and children. At the end of a long day the disciples pointed to a need. The crowd was hungry, and the day was late. “We should send them on their way so they can feed themselves.” But Jesus wanted them to look beyond their own limitations. God could take care of this huge crowd! The loaves and fishes ended up feeding everyone, and the twelve basketfuls of leftovers gave testimony to God’s abundant provision and compassion.
We need to know the needs that are all around us, beginning with our own, but always reaching out beyond ourselves. Paul said that this was being interested in each other’s lives and wellbeing. In 1 Corinthians 10:24, Paul says, ‘Don’t look to your own interests, for your own advantage, but look out for each other.’ Be another picture in the album of Pictures of Compassion.
These pictures of compassion point to the fact that Jesus had an ability to know the needs of those around him. And his compassion shined through as he met them exactly where they were. There were no conditions, just compassion.
First and foremost, for us to be instruments of God’s compassion, it involves listening – listening with the heart – to the people around us. Since we don’t have the divine ability that Jesus had, we have to rely on the divine capability he gave us through inviting the Holy Spirit to keep us sensitive to need around us. We need to trust that God will bring in to focus those opportunities to be compassionate for him.
Often, God will help us be most sensitive to persons with experiences like our own. When I was divorced in 1992, I discovered a class called the Divorce Recovery Workshop. It was an opportunity for people who had experienced divorce to come together and share insights on the long journey of recovery. After going through it myself, I realized that I could help others on their journey by continuing to offer those classes.
A fourth picture of compassion is a more contemporary one, and relates to Rev. Earl Miller. Earl had polio when he was in his twenties. He used leg braces and gate canes just to get around. From his experience he was so aware of the overwhelming needs of the physically and mentally handicapped. God brought focus to this picture of compassion. Earl had a dream to minister to persons with handicapping conditions in the most wonderfully compassionate of ways – summer camp. There was already the Lions Camp, but campers had to be self-sufficient in order to attend. Earl envisioned a summer camp where everyone was welcome. Starting with limited resources and fueled by his passion, God was able to reach a population that had too long been neglected. The camp was a group setting, yet each camper had a special advocate, a “friend” for the week of camp. We had campers who were nonverbal, who had seizure disorders – some of whom could do nothing by themselves. We accepted everyone! Earl held our feet to the fire when we would advocate giving up on a person. One week, we had a camper who was a runner. She would just take off into the woods whenever her special friend wasn’t looking. The staff got together one evening and suggested we send her home. He behavior was a danger and would frequently take several staff members away from their campers in order to go out and find her. Earl reminded us that our compassion needed no bounds. Even this “runner” needed the experience of Camp Hope. We doubled our efforts and she ended up having a wonderful week in the mountains enjoying camp.
What needs has God made you sensitive to? It is important to know that we may not be the vessel of compassion for everyone. There may be situations or persons that we would have a hard time showing compassion. God is not calling us to meet every need. But we can know for sure that God will raise up the right person at the right time and God’s compassion, through us, will shine through.
Who are those you’ve seen who have been the picture of the compassion of Jesus to people in need?
Then, maybe a harder question, “How have you been the hands and feet of Jesus’ compassion?” No before you dismiss this question with “I can’t think of anything,” don’t let false modesty cloud your assessment. In some way we each have been Jesus’ compassion to someone else. Your homework assignment is to honestly look at your impact on other persons around you. Make a list, just for yourself, as a way of reminding you of how God has shown compassion through you. It may be to a family member, a neighbor, a stranger. Then, thank God for using you in that way. Your thankful heart will open doors and bring focus to those to whom you could be God’s compassion. In addition, make a list of those who have shown compassion to you. Give thanks and revel in what God did through them.
Feast on God’s compassion, share that compassion with others, work to join compassionate people together for the greater impact of our God. Let us be a picture of compassion for the world. Amen.