13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore, he saw agreat crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
15 When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “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.” 16 Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And all ate and were filled: and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
We have looked into Jesus’ parables recently from Matthew 13, which is kind of an extension of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, his teaching on the kingdom of heaven. In Chapter 13, Jesus ended his teaching with a question posed to his disciples, asking, “Have you understood all this?” And his disciples answered, saying “Yes” (13:51).
Now, I wonder about this “yes” —which I imagine to be somewhat emphatic, like students who think they have fully grasped the gist of the lesson. And I wonder if the disciples really understood what the kingdom of heaven is all about when they said “yes” to Jesus. I wonder because of what they ask in today’s story: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”
Between their “yes” and today’s story of the feeding of the five thousand, what the disciples witnessed were rejection and persecution. They saw Jesus being rejected by his hometown people. And then they heard the news of the death of John the Baptist, the one who baptized Jesus, his trusted colleague and forerunner.
Perhaps, this news of John’s death also hit Jesus in a different way. Upon hearing it, he withdraws to a deserted place by himself, a response that is also familiar to us, a response of grief, anguish, and pain, aretreat to process, to mourn, and to pray.
But the crowd does not want to leave him alone. He’s a teacher. He’s a healer. He’s a miracle worker. He’s the talk of the town. So, they follow him on foot. Who cares if he is grieving, who cares if he is praying, and who cares about his privacy? After all, they are not following Jesus for who he is, but they are following him for what he does. All the crowd can see is their own needs. All they can feel is their own pain.
Now, Jesus sees these people, and I don’t know why, but he has compassion for them and cures their sickness (v. 14). Instead of pleading for his privacy, Jesus has compassion for them; instead of being annoyed by his stalkers, he has compassion for them. In Jesus’ eyes, they are harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matt 9:36). And so, Jesus cures their sickness.
See, this story of the feeding of the five thousand is not only about feeding the crowd; Jesus begins with healing the sick. Because of compassion, Jesus sacrifices his personal time. Because of compassion, he sacrifices his own needs and his own pain. Because of compassion, he decides to be with the crowd who seems self-centered and insensitive. Because of compassion, Jesus continues to perform his healing miracles. Jesus is moved with compassion, sees beyond his own pain, and feels the pain the crowd has brought.
Now, the disciples witness how Jesus is responding to the crowd, seeing his utmost compassion in action, healing the sick until the evening even when his own time alone is being interrupted. Perhaps out of their concern for Jesus or out of their own concern for the crowd that’s been out with Jesus until the evening, the disciples suggest something to Jesus: “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” (v. 15).
Jesus responds by saying “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat” (v. 16). Here, Jesus does not say, “I will take care of it.” He does not say, “Let us help them together.” But here, Jesus directly says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” Here, Jesus is pretty much giving the disciples the responsibility of feeding the crowds.
It makes perfect sense. Just like their teacher, the disciples saw the crowds with compassion. That’s why they noticed what the crowds needed at the moment: food. And since the disciples noticed the people’s need, it was now their turn to take responsibility and provide that need. And this is what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples: Go take ownership of your compassion.
Previously in Chapter 9 of Matthew, there was a similar instance where Jesus felt compassion as he saw the crowds. Upon having compassion for the crowds, Jesus said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few; ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (vv. 37–38; NIV).” And here, Jesus is again reminding his disciples that they too are workers in God’s harvest field.
As soon as the disciples heard this command from Jesus, they immediately respond by saying, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Doesn’t this sound familiar to you? I am pretty sure we all have said something similar before, if not multiple times this past week.
I think they are looking for people to talk to, but… I’m not that great of a talker. Someone else will surely talk to them.
I think they are looking for help, but… I don’t think I’ll be much of a help. I don’t even know what I can do to help them. I don’t want to offend them.
I think these people are hungry, but… I only have five dollars and two cents; what I have is not enough. What I have isn’t going to make a difference.
A lot of times, we try to avoid taking ownership of our compassion, and refuse to take responsibility by saying, “we are not enough.” And this is what the disciples are implying here: “We would love to feed them, but we only have five loaves and two fish.What we have is not enough. So, we cannot give them something to eat.”
We are always tempted to believe, as the disciples did, that we have nothing to offer in the face of overwhelming needs. It seems like we have nothing to offer, nothing to give. It seems like what we have is not enough, and what we are able to do is not enough. What we have and what we can offer seem to be so small and worthless compared to the overwhelming needs we see out there; just like how the five loaves and the two fish sound so insignificant to the 5,000+ empty stomachs.
But Jesus simply responds, “Bring them here to me” (v.18). Once he takes the five loaves and the two fish, Jesus looks up to heaven, blesses and breaks the loaves, and gives them to the disciples (v. 19). Jesus does not give the food directly to the crowd, but first gives it to the disciples. Then the disciples distribute the food to the crowds. Jesus makes sure that it is the disciples who give the crowd something to eat.
Through Jesus’ blessing and the disciples’ hands, everyone is fed, with twelve baskets left over. Through Jesus’ blessing and the disciples’ hands, the five loaves and two fish become more than enough to feed the 5,000+ people (v. 21).
The disciples who initially said, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” are now caught up in Jesus’ words of abundance and gratitude. Now, not only do they understand the teachings of the kingdom, but they also experience what it means to be part of it. Jesus showed these disciples that they are more than enough, what they have is more than enough, and what they can offer is more than enough. And, through Jesus’ blessing and the disciples’ hands, there was more than enough food to feed the crowd.
In going through Jesus’ parables in Chapter 13 over the past month, reflecting on the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, you might have asked yourself, “Yes, that is a wonderful news, but then what?” Should we just bask in the wonders of God’s kingdom? Should we just understand the meanings of these parables? Should we just remain where we are and wait for God’s kingdom to happen?
Stanley Hauerwas writes that “...any “yes” we may give to Jesus’ question must be a yes of a promise rather than a result.” So, our “yes” to Jesus means we commit and promise to strive to live as the kingdom people. This commitment is one of constant struggle, learning, and growth. And this commitment is one of always accepting Jesus’ call for us to take ownership and responsibility of our compassion.
Being created in the image of God, we are compassionate people. We hear, see, and witness the needs of the people. We recognize and understand what is not right, not fair, and not just. But often times, we don’t step in and we don’t step up because we only have five loaves and two fish in our hands. We are afraid that our effort will not be enough. We are afraid to fail and disappoint others. We are afraid of the thought of ourselves not being enough. Yet, we are still compassionate, and therefore, Jesus is speaking to us, “You give them something to eat.”
As I was reflecting on the legacy of Congressman John Lewis this past week, I believe this is exactly what he was talking about when he said that we have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate. It is to take ownership of our compassion, and to say something and do something when we see a need. As God’s people living in the kingdom here and now, we cannot be afraid of our effort being too small, too ineffective, too insignificant, because with Jesus’ blessing, our small actions can make a difference. To be God’s people means knowing that who we are, what we have, and what we offer is more than enough to do God’s miraculous work of loving God’s people and God’s creation.
So, what does your compassion allow you to see, hear, and witness right now during these trying times? Who is in your heart, what issue is keeping you up at night, and where do you see yourself stepping in and stepping up to serve God’s kingdom? God is speaking to you right now, “You give them something to eat.”