~ Matthew 14:13-21 ~
Jesus was not having a good day. In the days prior, according to Matthew, Jesus had gone to his hometown of Nazareth and had been rejected badly. As Matthew puts it, “he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith.” Now, today, Jesus gets word that his cousin and friend, the man he called Elijah, has been cruelly executed. John the Baptist had his head cut off and served on a platter to the daughter of Herod’s wife. Having buried his body, John’s disciples come to Jesus on this day to tell him the news. Now all Jesus wants to do is get away. He wants to be alone in his grief. He takes a boat to a solitary place. But the crowds hear of this and they seek him out. They come from the towns and search the coastline for Jesus. And they find him. Can you picture it? There is Jesus sitting in the bow grieving for John as his disciples row the boat along the shoreline. Then, as the boat rounds an out-cropping of rocks, Jesus sees thousands of people, men, women and children, gathered on the shore waiting for him. Then comes the key moment, the reason for this whole story. Jesus sees the crowd and, as it says, he was “moved with compassion.” As a result, he spends the rest of the day with them, speaking to them and healing the sick. Jesus had compassion.
The renown Catholic priest and author, Henri Nouwen, along with two of his colleagues, Donald McNeill and Douglas Morrison, wrote a book that has been a big influence in my life. Simply entitled Compassion, it is a small book but with great insight into the nature of compassion. As Nouwen, McNeill, and Morrison point out, this phrase, “moved with compassion,” is found only twelve times in the Bible and refers exclusively to Jesus or God. The Greek phrase for “moved with compassion” is (and I say this just because it is so fun to pronounce) splagchnizomai. Now splagchnon is the word for intestines or guts. For ancients the guts are where the most intense and intimate emotions are located. The guts are the center from which both love and hate grow. Today, we talk about the heart as the center of our feelings; they talked about their guts. So when the Gospel speaks of Jesus’ compassion they are saying he was moved deep in his guts. Jesus’ feelings were quite different from superficial or passing feelings of sorrow or sympathy. Rather, his feelings extended down into the most vulnerable part of his being. This Greek word is related quite closely with the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim. This word actually refers to the womb of Yahweh. So, compassion is such a deep and powerful emotion in Jesus that it can only be described as a movement of the womb of God. As Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison put it:
There, all the divine tenderness and gentleness lies hidden. There, God is father and mother, brother and sister, son and daughter. There all feelings, emotions, and passions are one in divine love. When Jesus was moved to compassion, the source of all life trembled, the ground of all love burst open, and the abyss of God’s immense, inexhaustible, and unfathomable tenderness revealed itself. Jesus is tired and wants to be alone. He is sick with grief about John. The crowds relentlessly press after him. They probably just want to see works of wonder, a show. And yet, when Jesus sees people the very womb of God trembles with divine compassion. And so, Jesus spends the rest of the day with those he elsewhere calls harassed and helpless, sheep without a shepherd. He heals those who are sick, counsels those who are bereaved and oppressed, and probably plays with the children. As the day moves into evening everyone is getting quite hungry. The disciples, concerned for their master as much as they are for the people, approach Jesus. “Don’t you think we should end this,” they say, “and send everyone away so they can find something to eat?” But Jesus, obviously still motivated by the compassion which has infused the entire day, says, “We will find a way to feed them”
As a result, one of the most dramatic miracles in all the Bible occurs. And in the very act Jesus again deeply challenges the assumptions of 1st century Jewish culture and religion. That is the way it is with God’s compassion. It cannot be contained in prescribed ways of doing things. It goes outside the lines of accepted practice. God’s compassion overflows the brim, spilling out onto the floor of the world. It can be downright messy, but it is wonderful to behold.
But it can also shake things up. Turn things upside-down. Confuse people. Get people upset. Challenge assumptions. One of the assumptions that almost everyone bought into in Jesus’ day was the assumption of limited goods. There was only so much stuff to go around and so one had to guard his resources carefully. Associated with this was the law or reciprocity. If I give you something it is fully expected that you will give back in like manner. If I invite you to dinner it was with the full expectation that you will invite me to dinner in return. It would be highly inconsiderate to invite you to dinner if you were not able to return the favor. I would be putting tremendous pressure on you to give back to me in kind if you were not able to afford it. Also, it would be beneath my honor to invite someone to dinner who could not repay in kind. So as long as everyone stayed in their place the status quo was maintained and the world went on as it should.
Ah! But Jesus, by virtue of who he was, could not stay in his place. His compassion compelled him to encounter people in their need and respond. And his response was an overwhelming flood of abundance. He fed thousands of people in one setting because he was moved by compassion. And in the process broke all the established rules. Here there is no sense of “just enough” to go around. Here there is no hoarding of goods. Here there is no carefully guarded treasure. Rather, here is abundance; here is spaciousness. Here there is no carefully calculated dinner invitation designed to get the proper invite back. Here there is no concern about associating with those who are beneath your station. Here there is no concern about pay back. Rather, here is the free giving of one’s goods without any expectations. Here is unconditional giving. Here is the very nature of God expressed in the very humanity of Jesus. Here is God-with-us.
This is, in fact, the nature of God’s movement towards us. When we talk about the incarnation we are talking about Jesus sharing our pain and suffering. Out of his compassion Jesus felt the depth of sorrow of those he met on the way. He became lost with the lost, hungry with the hungry, and sick with the sick. As Nouwen, McNeill and Morrison put it, “In him, all suffering was sensed with a perfect sensitivity.” It is a great mystery that Jesus, the son of God, chose in total freedom to suffer fully our pains. In and through Jesus Christ we know that God is our God, a God who has experienced our brokenness. Jesus has embraced everything human with the infinite tenderness of his compassion.
Just as Jesus fed the thousands of people on that day out of the abundance of his compassion so Jesus moves toward us with that same compassion. Just as Jesus healed the sick and counseled the bereaved in that desolate place on the side of the sea so does Jesus suffer with us in our pain and suffering. Just as Jesus provided an outrageous feast for those very hungry men, women, and children so long ago, so does Jesus provide to us a great feast of grace. May we all join in the feast of God’s abundant grace. Bon appetite!