Freed for Absurd Compassion
A sermon on Matt. 14: 13-21
Show of hands. How many of you have heard the story of the feeding of the 5,000 at least once before?
What about, at least five times before?
What about so often that your eyes kind of glaze over when you hear it again?
That’s one of the challenges of preaching on this Bible story. It’s REALLY familiar to most church folks, and even to many people who were not raised in church. It is the ONLY miracle story that appears in all four of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and it has made its way into popular culture is well. EVERYONE knows this story.
So much so, that the POWER of the miracle perhaps loses its impact. We aren’t surprised by the reversal from inadequacy to abundance. We know what’s coming, so it’s only to be expected. OF COURSE Jesus can meet the needs of the crowd despite the apparent lack of resource. This is what Jesus does!
But I actually appreciate this lessening of the impact of the “miracle” part of this story, because that allows us to notice the other elements of the story – the parts that perhaps feel more relevant to our lives… because – to be frank – our lives don’t tend to be populated by miracles.
We need to hear the story that speaks to our reality, not just to God’s incomprehensible power.
With this need in mind, there are three things about this miracle story that, I think, speak to the heart of human experience, and especially to the experience of human NEED – because NEED is something we encounter every day of our lives (especially in the age of the 24 hour news cycle).
The first I notice, is Jesus’s starting place. Verse 14 tells us that when Jesus saw the large crowd, he had compassion for them.
I have preached before about the root of the word compassion. That it comes from the Latin word for suffering. To have compassion for others means suffering WITH them. It is a much deeper response than simply feeling sorry for them, or pitying their needs.
Compassion is an experience of entering in and sharing the pain. Letting it get past your self-protective barriers, and actually affect you.
When Jesus saw the large crowd, he suffered with them…. Even though he was already suffering.
Remember, Jesus had withdrawn to a deserted place… to mourn. He was mourning for John the Baptist – his cousin, and the spiritual leader who had baptized him and proclaimed the coming of the same Kingdom Jesus was proclaiming. He was mourning because he had just heard that John had just been killed by the king.
Jesus doubtless felt personal grief for this loss. And he may also have been facing the reality of his own road, and where it was leading… to his own “passion” on the cross.
Jesus was not, so to speak, in a strong place emotionally – he did not have endless reserves from which to draw in response to the needs in front of him… he went there to be alone for goodness sake! But his own suffering was not a barrier to responding to the needs of others. Rather, it was their common ground. It opened his eyes to see their need and to respond…with compassion.
The second thing I notice in this story, is that the disciples had the exact opposite reaction. The disciples recognized the needs of the crowd, but their response was “send them away.”
Now, this was not a heartless response. They saw the practical need that they knew could not be filled where they were. The disciples, in their own way, were seeking a solution to the problem: “send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
But that solution reveals the fundamental difference between the disciples’ response and the response of Jesus. It’s not just that they lacked the miraculous power to multiply food, the disciples also lacked Jesus’s willingness to identify – to enter in and share in the suffering.
The problem was defined as the crowd’s problem, and therefore the solution must be the crowd’s responsibility. When Jesus tells them that there is NO NEED to send the crowds away, and calls on the disciples to give the people something to eat, the disciples say “We have nothing.”
But it turns out they don’t really have nothing. They just have nothing to share. In other words, “we only have enough for ourselves. We have taken care of our own needs, now tell the crowds to take care of their own needs.”
The disciples’ response to the need they see is to dis-identify, rather than suffering with. The disciples define two group: us and them, and they make it clear that the needs of “them” have nothing to do with the resources of “us.”
“We have nothing.” But Jesus doesn’t let them leave it there. Even after his followers have revealed their resistance to the self-giving compassion Jesus showed, Jesus still includes them in the sharing of the meal. He sends them to look into the faces of the same people they had told him to send away. And he lets them help to distribute the food, the provision for the need – to see that there is, in fact, enough.
But here is where the familiar story starts to feel disconnected from our lives, doesn’t it? Because the miracle that vindicates Jesus’s compassion, over the disciples’ practicality, is NOT something we usually get to witness in real life. The third connection to our very human experiences of need is the absurdity of the command to “give them something to eat” when we can’t see where that something is going to come from.
Remember, the disciples don’t have the advantage of already knowing the end of the story. Jesus takes their food and tells them to share it BEFORE they can see that there will be enough. He doesn’t abandon them when they fail in compassion, but neither does he explain the plan. He just calls them to help.
And this is where it is so hard to hear the good news in today’s gospel story. How are we supposed to live in response to this example? How are we supposed to just help when that help seems impossible? We are regularly bombarded with calls to respond to a deeply needy world… and the challenges we face are much, much bigger than just supplying a few thousand meals in the wilderness:
Climate change, and millions of refugees, and actually making health care affordable for everyone, and famine in Africa, and unaccompanied immigrant minors, and prisons for profit, and the welfare state, and failing schools, and,… and… and…
And even just talking to each other, about all these problems, can feel like an impossible task.
When I asked all of you for your questions for God, two of you asked about the distressing trends in human relationships:
"When will everyone respect everyone else?"
"What can we do to stop hatred throughout the World?"
When I look at the state of our world, ending hatred and universalizing respect feel just as impossible as feeding a few thousand people with a few loaves and fish!
We can see the needs, just like the disciples did, but they just feel overwhelming. And the recognition that God calls us meet those impossible needs feels ABSURD. What can we possibly do that will make a difference?
This is the deep challenge for us in this story – a call to trust and act without knowing how it is going to work –without any assurances.
Without assurances that when we share, we will still have enough.
Without assurances that when we strive to give respect, we will be respected.
Without assurances that when we try live according to love, it will do anything to stop hate.
The story of the feeding of the 5,000 does not offer us any assurances of the miracles for which we see a desperate need.
Instead, it offers us an example. An example of starting with compassion, with the willingness to suffer with, and of NOT distancing ourselves by talking about other peoples’ responsibilities, regardless of what we see as our capacity, or the immensity of the need.
This is an absurd way to live… if we treat it like law – if we see this as a standard of righteousness we need to achieve in order to win God’s favor.
But this is a gospel story. This is a story of the way that Jesus transforms what human community can look like because of what he has done – the way he has FREED us to love without counting the costs, because we have what we need.
So I can’t tell you when everyone will respect each other, or how to stop hatred in the world. But I can tell you this:
It starts with compassion – with seeing the pain of the other and refusing to protect ourselves from it.
And it flows from trust in a God who can perform miracles.
Starting with our hearts.
Thanks be to God.