By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
August 2, 2020
Matthew 14:13–21 (ESV)
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I often find myself in awe of the concept and reality of “God with us” or Emmanuel. We sing about this during the Christmas season, but how often do we reflect on the reality of God being with us every day? How often do we look at the gospels and recognize the things that God did with us while he walked in the dust of this earth, as being the things, that God wants us to do with him today?
I want us to think about this. There is a reason that God sent his son to live among us. There is a reason that God’s advent began as an infant and he lived a complete human life. The reason goes beyond providing substitutionary atonement for our sins, but he lived so that we can live through him. When Jesus said that he came that we might have life more abundantly, he showed us what that life would be in his life. And he calls to us as he did his disciples so long ago to follow him into that great adventure.
I want us to consider this life with Christ as we approach today’s passage. This is probably one of the greatest, or at least most recognized, miracles that Jesus performed. I think raising a few people from death to life, including himself, are a bit greater than feeding a few people. We remember the miraculous, but we often forget or overlook everything that is involved.
When we read this passage how many of us are aware of Jesus’s emotional state? The passage begins, “Now when Jesus heard this.” What did Jesus hear? Jesus had just heard about the death of his cousin John. We do not fully know how close the relationship between Jesus and John was, but there are some scholars that believe that they were close. They go as far as saying that John and Jesus may have been ministry partners. I am not sure how true this might be, but scripture does tell us that they could be found ministering in the same areas, and both encouraged the ministry of the other. Jesus said that there is no great man born of a woman than John, and John said that he must decrease so that Jesus may increase. Those words speak of mutual respect and cooperation. There is no competitive aspect in these words like we would often hear among people of the same professional industry today. We are in a political season yet again, how many of you have heard the candidates speak encouraging words about their opponent?
Jesus had just heard of John’s death. He knew that John was in prison, and John’s disciples came to Jesus after they had buried the body, telling him how John’s demise occurred. I do not know if we allow our minds to wrap around the perverse nature that lead to the death of John the Baptist. But the reason John was in prison was because he spoke out against the morality of the political leader of his day. This leader had an affair with his brother’s wife, which lead to a divorce and remarriage. Herodias was the daughter of Herod the Great’s son Aristobulus IV and Berenice, who was Herod the Great’s Sister’s daughter. Herodias’ father was executed by her grandfather and Herod the Great gave her to be married to her uncle. Herod had a few wives and sons, and his remaining eldest son was upset about this engagement and because of that Herod II or Phillip lost his place as heir. It is confusing but important, Herodias’ father was the son of Herod’s Hasmonean wife, and the Hasmoneans’ were the Jewish royal line that claimed the throne after the Maccabean revolts that lead to their independence from Greece. Herodias was the link that gave Herod the Great the right to be king of the Jewish people. But Herodias was not marred to Herod’s heir, because he was demoted and lost his position completely when Rome found out that his mother was involved with the plot to kill Herod the great which left the dynasty of Herod up to Rome. Rome divided the kingdom between the remaining family, but Herodias wanted to have a place among people, so she divorced her husband and married his brother Antipas who again is her uncle. John the Baptist was sickened by the perverse nature of this family and their quest for power and this led to his arrest. But that was not the worst of it. Herodias had a daughter with Phillip, and this daughter was sent in to dance for her uncle/stepfather Antipas as a birthday present. This is not a simple dance, this was a dance performed for the men of Herod Antipas’ court, Simone a child was performing an erotic dance for those in power and her step-father/uncle was enjoying it so much that he decided to give her whatever she would ask. John the Baptist called this family immoral because of their incestuous quest for power and this story only confirms it. Simone asked for her mother to silence the Baptist.
Those in the governmental courts did not care about anything other than Herodias’ linage she was the last surviving heir of the Hasmonean line and the Herodians wanted to preserve that line so that they could have their Jewish king. And these theocratical ideologs cared nothing about the faith, only power. Their queen was living in sin and pushing her own daughter into that same lifestyle and they overlooked it for the sake of preserving an idea. Jesus heard this and he got into a boat and went out to a desolate place to pray.
When we look at today’s world many of us are appalled by the amoral behaviors. How can we live for or with Christ in a place like this? Guess what, ancient Israel was not much better. And when Jesus heard about the extent of their depravity, he did not mount up a culture war, he withdrew to pray. Prayer is where we must begin, because it is in prayer that we listen and unite with God in his spirit. This is part of Jesus’s holy rhythm of life. And we cannot do anything if we do not pray.
But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. This week as I considered this, I wondered why the Gospel writer wrote the words in this way. I looked deeper at the words and let them soak in my mind. I thought about the word crowds and when you look at the usages of this word it is more than a simple group. It is an undisciplined thong. This group of people are an excited and nearly out of control mob. We do not know from what Jewish ideology they are involved with, and by all likelihood they are from every aspect of the religious spectrum, but they heard that Jesus left, and they are going after him. Maybe for an answer, maybe for an explanation, maybe they are going to finish the job Simone started. But then they went after Jesus on foot whereas Jesus crossed the sea by boat. This means that Jesus had time to pray. Jesus had time to let the human emotions of the situation be tamed by the divine spirit. And when he saw this undisciplined group, this crowd, he had compassion for them, and he healed their sick.
Jesus had compassion for them. Jesus withdrew from these people because of the great sorrow he had over the loss of his cousin in such a disgusting manner. This crowd, this undisciplined mob, let it happen. They were so focused on everything else that when John spoke about the sins of their own government, they listened they even agreed but they did not really care. They did not protest to Rome over the wrongful death of a prophet. They gathered on the shore and Jesus had compassion for them. They were not concerned about justice; they did not even care that Jesus might be having a bad day. They were an undisciplined mob that were trying to make sense of life. And Jesus had compassion and he healed their illnesses.
The first thing we learn from this passage is that Jesus withdraws to pray. When the world seems to be falling apart all around us the first thing, we as followers of Jesus should be doing is withdrawing from the unruly crowds to pray. As we pray, we need to allow the spirit to change our perspective of that unruly crowd, that undisciplined mob within the world so that we can like Jesus have compassion for them.
I stopped at this point and I thought about compassion. This word is empathy, or an emotional movement to the core of our being. Do we have that kind of concern for those around us? Do we even care? So many within the emerging generations look at the church in judgement, yet they long for Jesus. They love the idea of Jesus, but they look at the church not as the key to Christ but as the unruly mob. This concerns me and I hope it concerns you. Because when they speak of the church in that manner it means that somewhere along their pathway of life Jesus was not reflected through the church. Somewhere along their journey through life, we the church failed to reflect Christ. Jesus looked at the unruly crowd and he had compassion for them, and he ministered to them.
They were out there in that desolate place all day, they were talking to Jesus and listening to Jesus. Jesus spent the entire day listening to this crowd’s concerns and for many he brought healing into their lives. He did this all while he was still mourning the loss of his cousin. His compassion for others was greater than himself. He did not yell at them to give him space, he was moved in his soul to bring healing. How often do we step back from ourselves and our desires for the good of others? That is what Jesus does. He did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited but he humbled himself and he took on human form to live with us, in our neighborhoods, and he had compassion for us an unruly mob of selfish individuals.
The disciples looked at the crowd and the setting sun, and they pleaded with Jesus to tell the crowd to leave. They demanded God to tell the crowd to leave that place. Why? The disciple are practical people. They knew that this crowd was huge, and they also knew that many had not prepared to spend an extended amount of time in an isolated place. They knew that there would not be enough to eat and that if the crowd would leave now, they might be able to make it to the nearest towns to get what they needed to survive another day. Often, I am like the disciples. I really do not like crowds. I like smaller groups of people I can get to know. In those small groups I would bend over backwards to help in any way, but if the group gets too large, I just want them to go somewhere else. I do not take pride in admitting that, but I love my friends and I often lack compassion for the masses. But Jesus looks at his disciples and he tells them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
There is an enormous crowd of people. This crowd could fill the Independence Event Center, where my family often goes to watch hockey games, to capacity. This crowd has been in one place for the entire day without anything to eat. It is like the entire crowd at the T-Bones stadium, in Kansas City Kansas, going at once to the concession stand between innings and no one knows where the hot dogs are. And Jesus tells the disciples you give them something to eat.
I said that I am not a fan of large crowds, but that does not mean I do not have any compassion. Much of my hesitancy for crowds is because I know my limitations. I know that I do not have enough. Yet Jesus is telling us to feed the multitude. Every social ailment that causes us to cringe, Jesus is telling us, do not send them away… help them. In 2019 it was estimated that Missouri had just over 6,000 homeless people. Jesus looks at that crowd and what do you think he is saying? In 2017 four thousand seven hundred and ten abortions were performed in Missouri. Just under five thousand women had to make an extremely difficult decision. I do not want us to get into a debate about the morality of that, I want us to consider that there were five thousand women that felt that that was their best or only option. And there are over thirteen thousand children in foster care in Missouri and of those fifteen hundred do not have a home to go to. Jesus is looking at that crowd and at us, and what is he saying? Are we feeding and providing shelter for the homeless? Are we providing encouragement and a home for women in need and their children? Are we showing the world that there is hope?
The disciples looked at Jesus. I imagine that they were in shock. “We have five loaves and two fish.” There are five thousand people in need, and they have a couple of tuna salad sandwiches. They take that meager offering to Jesus and I can almost feel the shame. When I see a homeless person on the sidewalk my heart aches because I do not have anything to offer. My heart aches when I hear many of the statistics concerning our society, and I feel like all I have to offer is a tuna fish sandwich.
Jesus looked at that crowd. That undisciplined unruly mob and he had compassion for them. He looked at his disciples who were also concerned for the crowd’s wellbeing, but at a loss as to how to help and he tells them to feed them. The disciples look at Jesus in shock and bring Jesus five loaves and two fish.
We can often get overwhelmed by the world around us and the problems we see. We can be overwhelmed by the corruption and immoral behavior of those that hold power within our lands. We can be overwhelmed by our own self pity and even our own selfishness. The world around us is a mess. But when Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said, “Our Father in heaven hallowed be thy name. they kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus looks at the world and has compassion, he looks at us and says feed them, and we look at ourselves and say how?
Jesus took the bread, looked to heaven, and blessed it. He broke the bread and handed it to the disciples, and they handed the pieces to the crowd, and all ate and were satisfied. And they gathered twelve basketfuls of leftovers after over five thousand people ate.
Each of us struggle, and even Jesus struggled with the raw emotions of life. He watched as the undisciplined world killed his cousin in the pursuit of worldly power, and the crowd did not slow. We are often overwhelmed, but the world still needs us. The need us to reflect the compassion of Christ, they need us to bless them with the manna from heaven, they need us surprise them with hope. But what do we have to offer to a world filled with such need? We have Christ. We have his holy rhythm of worship, prayer, and service, and we have ourselves. So, let us pray. Let us look at the world with compassion and let us bring what we have and allow Jesus to multiply it. Let us bring our five loaves and two fish and see what God can do.