Lectionary blog for Aug. 6
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21;
Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21
The first line of our Gospel lesson is “when Jesus heard this.” “This” is the beheading of his cousin John, John the Baptist, by the evil King Herod. When Jesus learned that John was dead, I’m sure his heart sank and his eyes swelled up with tears and his stomach hurt and all he wanted was some time and space to think and pray and be alone with his friends. There’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but I’ve always enjoyed imagining Jesus and John playing together as boys, at family reunions and such. After all, they were practically the same age—surely, they saw each other at Grandma’s house and maybe hung out together as teenagers, perhaps fishing and swimming with the gang. As I said, there’s nothing in the Bible to back it up, but it’s likely, don’t you think?
Of course, as adults they went their separate ways. Apparently, Jesus stayed near home, working in the carpenter shop while John “got religion” and went off into the desert to study at the Essene Bible College. When John started making a name for himself preaching and baptizing down at the Jordan River, Jesus heard about it and decided to go see what cousin John was up to. And when he got there he was baptized by John and his life changed forever. Jesus came up out of that water, and the Holy Spirit spoke to him and his ministry began.
When Jesus heard this, he was deeply, deeply hurt. He needed time, time to be alone, time to pray, time to gather himself, time to grieve and time to cry. So, he got in a boat and headed out across the water to a deserted, lonely place. But for Jesus there was no getting away. There was no opportunity for grief, no time to pray. The people followed him, ran around the lake to meet him. When Jesus got out of the boat, there they were, thousands of them, waiting for him.
If Jesus had sent them away, asked them to leave him alone, well, that would have been understandable, wouldn’t it? But that’s not what he did. Jesus looked at them, and the Bible says, “He had compassion for them.” Maybe he looked at their faces, stared deep into their eyes and saw there the same sadness and loneliness and yearning for healing that he felt deep within his own soul. That’s what the word compassion means, to “suffer with” another person.
So, Jesus sat down with them and had a healing service. He “cured the sick” throughout the long afternoon. The dinner hour came and went and finally the disciples got hungry. They went to Jesus and said, “Uh, look Jesus, why don’t we call a break. It’s getting late and these people need to eat. If we stop now, they’ll have enough time to walk back to town before the stores close.” Apparently the long afternoon had restored Jesus’ spirits. He started teasing the disciples. “Hey guys, why don’t you feed them yourselves?” Jesus was probably grinning while the disciples protested, “But Lord, all we’ve got is five loaves and two fish!”
Could it be that the disciples were saying, “All we’ve got is what we brought for our own supper. We’ve only got enough to take care of our own needs. We care about these people and their hunger, but, hey, we’ve got to take care of ourselves first, don’t we?
Jesus smiled and said, “Bring me what you’ve got.” Then he had everyone sit down and he said the blessing and he started breaking the food into pieces and had the disciples give it out to the people. And it was enough. Actually, it was more than enough; they had more left over than they had when they started. Then and only then did Jesus dismiss the crowd, send the disciples away in the boat and slip away into the mountains to pray.
“And he had compassion.” In the middle of the world’s trials and tribulations, pains and sorrows, missteps and misdeeds, disappointments and despair these four words, “and he had compassion,” reveal to us the heart and soul of the gospel. The assurance that God knows and God cares. The promise that God understands and God heals is the one thing that can keep us going when all else fails. Jesus’ response to John’s death and the crowd’s need is a gentle whisper across the centuries that the God of our salvation is a very present help in time of trouble.
Jesus knew through personal experience, the pain of loss, the emptiness of the death of a loved one. Jesus felt the shock and hurt of betrayal and misunderstanding. Jesus experienced first-hand the utter loneliness of feeling abandoned by God. Jesus knew the confusion when you do your best, but your best doesn’t seem to be good enough. Jesus’ compassion for us is rooted in his own experience of the troubles we face in life.
The Incarnation, the belief that Jesus was God in the flesh, is not important because it is a miracle that proves that Jesus is God’s Son. It is important because it teaches us that God is not distant and removed from us but is here, in the midst of life with us, not judging and critical but caring and compassionate. Jesus’ acts of compassion—healing the sick and feeding the hungry—teach us how to be the body of Christ in the world. What Jesus began then, he continues in us today.
All too often we are like the disciples. We recognize the needs of others; we shake our heads and fret over their troubles. Perhaps we even offer them suggestions as to how they can fix themselves. But when it comes to going beyond that we say, “We’ve only got enough here to take care of ourselves.” The important thing about the feeding of the 5,000 is not the miracle of Jesus turning those five loaves and two fish into a meal for the multitude. The important thing is that this story calls us to raise our eyes above our own needs and above the limits of our own resources so that we can see the needs of the world around us and the power of a compassionate God who will take what we freely give and turn it into enough and more. We are called to be a community of compassion, a place and a people who show the world that God is alive and God is love.
Amen and amen.