Now when Jesus heard this…
What did Jesus hear? That John the Baptist was murdered. Jesus’ cousin, the one who baptized him, quite probably Jesus’ mentor was dead. Someone close to Jesus was killed for teaching similar things to what Jesus taught. It probably didn’t take the knowledge of God for Jesus to predict his own death at this point. We also know Jesus was not above mourning. Given all this, who would not need to withdraw to a deserted place by themselves?
But the place he got to wasn’t deserted. He saw the great crowd, and found himself moved with compassion for them. We’re at a crucial point in this story now. A point where Jesus’ dual nature can keep us from seeing all that is happening here.
Undoubtedly, the love of God is in operation here. All love comes from God, ultimately. But before you conclude that it is only because Jesus was God that he could overcome his grief and love the crowd, be aware of this. There are times when God’s love for one of Her children will flow through you, love bigger and more powerful than your personal love. And maybe that’s what the human nature of Jesus experienced here; unexpected compassion, compassion that altered his plans.
Another possibility is that Jesus’ reflections on the future helped him to see a crowd that soon might not have any leaders left that can see what he sees. How long does he even have left to be with these people? Of course why Jesus was moved by compassion is all supposition, what we do know is that Jesus acted on that compassion.
The original Greek word translated as compassion literally translates as being moved in the inward parts. Some translations use the word pity rather than compassion. The word pity has bad connotations for us today; usually connotations of superiority and inferiority. Not to suggest that God isn’t superior to us, but the incarnation tells us God wants to be close to us, to be with us. Compassion means to “suffer with” there’s a sense of solidarity in the word that pity is lacking for us today. And compassion isn’t necessarily just an interior experience. Compassion is also a word used to name a spiritual discipline. When used in that case it implies moved into action.
And so Jesus heals the sick in the crowd. He acts on the compassion he finds instead of the solitude he sought.
Now, I often put myself into the place of the disciples when I reflect on a Gospel story, and sometimes give them more of a break than the text implies. When the disciples 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." I like to think in part they are trying to get Jesus the solitude he originally sought. I might add the words, “You’ve done enough for them now, it’s time for you to get the rest you need.”
And on some level maybe Jesus partially agreed with my hypothetical words because after he tells them he’s not going to send the crowd away, he says “YOU give them something to eat."
To which the disciples respond by telling him about their own lack of resources for this situation. "We have nothing but…” Their glass is half empty; possibly their hearts too. Some of them may have known John as well and had their own processing to do.
And Jesus tells them to bring him what they do have. And Jesus looks up to heaven and blesses the resources available, whether his disciples think they are enough or not.
I want to call your attention to the looking up to heaven part. Really just to point out that even Jesus makes embodied gestures when he prays. And that is one way we can reorient ourselves to the task at hand when we think it’s beyond us. Because our bodies sometimes know what our conscious mind does not, and can redirect our minds appropriately.
The crowd in this story had no clue about the emotional resources that were spent for them, a crowd that big wouldn’t likely even know how limited the material resources were when the disciples began feeding them. Yet all were filled.
And the word all would include Jesus and the disciples. They too were filled by this. Now before we conclude with a clichéd use of the quote from acts, “It is better to give than receive,” I want to bring to mind what prompted these acts of generosity; compassion; God’s Love.
I do not believe that self-sacrifice is an end in and of itself. What we didn’t read tonight was the paragraph immediately following this story. Where he does dismiss the crowds and sends the disciples off and has his alone time. It’s necessary.
There will be times when you find yourself depleted and you lift what you have up to God and there is nothing moving within you. It’s important to honor that.
There will be other times, however, when despite your lack of resources, you will find yourself moved; perhaps because it’s important to you, perhaps because you feel the importance of the situation to God. That is the time to take your resources to God and ask for the strength to use those resources and act.
Don’t worry how little you think you’ll accomplish. More may happen than you expect.
Just this past week a taskforce I’m associated with accomplished something spectacular. Though many people don’t know about it or fully understand it. Basically, a subcommittee of lawyers were trying to get the Insurance Board of Illinois to spell out specifically what the Affordable Care Act meant when it said Insurance companies couldn’t discriminate against people based on gender identity. There was some resistance to the specifics we were asking for because that would be seen as “interpreting law” not enforcing it. Much to my surprise, most of what we wanted specified ended up in the final document.
And I announced this victory in a trans* activist group, so that those affected will know about it. I was met with disappointment that it didn’t go far enough. Honestly at first I was miffed, but then I realized they had no way of knowing what went on behind the scenes, of how hard people worked to get as far as we did, farther than we hoped. And the critics have a point. Yet some people will be “filled” by this. People who are suffering, who I personally have “suffered with,” will get some relief.
Our text tells us the crowd was filled, not that it was grateful. Acting from compassion isn’t about seeking reward; whether the reward is accomplishment or gratitude or self-satisfaction. Not that those things are bad, or if you experience them it cheapens your actions.
Nor is acting out of compassion about doing the right thing, being good or moral, it’s about letting love guide your actions. If love is guiding your actions, then you are up to the task.
Trust God and trust when God moves your inward parts.