Reading: Matthew 14:13-21
13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed those who were ill.
15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’
16 Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’
17 ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.
18 ‘Bring them here to me,’ he said. 19 And he told the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
This reading is one of the well-known miracle stories which is mentioned six times in all four gospels. It seems to tell us of the significance of this miraculous event. But, it would be more sensible to look at the meaning behind this event rather than explore the questions of whether it was a miracle or not. In this sense, we may need to look at the background of this story, its context.
Just before this happening, in Matthew 14, we read the terrible story of the death of John the Baptist. He was executed by the king Herod. He had been in prison, then suddenly he was beheaded while the king Herod was enjoying his birthday party. It’s a terrible execution. Jesus heard this shocking news about John, who was a forerunner, his friend and colleague, and personally his cousin. This must have made him terribly sad, devastated in his heart, and made him to think of his future seriously. So, he might have wanted to have a private time in a solitary place. We can understand the feeling he had, as a human being. Maybe he wanted to have a quiet time with God, to be comforted by Him.
However, as we see, the crowd never let him go, so they went ahead and waited for him to come, on the other side of the lake. Can you imagine how he felt, when he saw them? He could have said, “This is my day off!” But, he didn’t say that. Rather, when he saw the crowd, we see his heart go out to them and have compassion on them. Although he himself needed space and he himself was grieving, we see him not caring about himself but going out to meet their needs, whatever they might be. That is compassion. Compassion is not just a feeling of love. It is something, coming out of the gut, even out of the womb. It is something much deeper than love. And, in many stories of the gospel, we see ‘compassion’ always come first, before Jesus heals the sick or performs miracles. So, we need to notice that this compassionate heart is the source of power in performing the miracle.
And, his compassion never stops here. Although he satisfied them with healing and teaching, he never forgot their imminent need, that is, their hunger, not only physical hunger, but also their spiritual hunger. And, he couldn’t ignore this essential, basic need for their lives, even though they didn’t ask. That’s why he told his disciples to give them something to eat, although he knew they didn’t have enough. It may have sounded strange. But he insisted on it. It’s because he wanted to see their compassion. It may be a test to them, a test of whether they see the people as Jesus does, whether they have the same compassion as he has. The disciples might have thought “You’ve done a great job today. You healed them and taught them. That’s enough for today. Now, it’s time to retreat!” It may sound sensible and fair enough, but it’s not something coming out of the compassionate heart. It could be seen as a job done, but not the mission completed. Here, we need to notice that Jesus wants to meet their needs completely, physically as well as spiritually, even before they asked.
It is to show that our job is not just meeting their needs physically, but also feeding them spiritually as well as materially, to save their souls, by doing something extra with the compassionate heart. That was his ultimate goal. Amen.
Lord, we bring you our spiritual hunger, our yearning for inner contentment, knowing that you alone can feed our souls, and do so in ways exceeding all our expectations.
So, Lord, may you come now, and reach out to us, filling us with spiritual food – bread of life and living water – so that we may go on our way, nourished, filled, truly satisfied. Amen.