A barbed wire
surrounded the relief compound to protect the relief workers. The
thousands of desperate Ethiopians compared to the limited supply of
food and medicine required it. People from across the famine stricken
African nation had walked to the compound hoping to receive some form
of aid. They were malnourished, dehydrated and suffered from
dysentery, malaria, cholera, and tuberculosis. With limited
supplies, the relief workers could only help a fraction of the people
who were standing outside the fence. Dozens died overnight just
outside the compound's perimeter.
Congressman Tony Hall to join him on his morning rounds. The doctor
had a grim task. He had to wade through the mass of people looking
for a half a dozen children who were most likely to survive the
several stages of recovery from starvation. Most of the others would
die within a few days. While they walked, people grabbed at their
hands and tugged at their pant legs begging for help. Parents would
hold up their children and thrust them into their arms. The
Congressman fished into his pocket for his sunglasses and put them
over his eyes, not to protect his eyes but to hide his tears.
If Jesus were
before us today, would he ask the same question he asked Phillip,
“Where shall we buy bread for these people?” to test us about our
faith or to gauge our compassion and generosity? Would he be asking
us “Do you believe that I can meet the needs of all these people?”
or would be asking “Are you willing to use the resources you
possess to meet the needs that are before you?” Either question
challenges us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of others. This
is something that we are not accustom to doing. Most of us attend a
Sunday morning worship service hoping to hear a word of encouragement
or inspiration that helps us make it through the next week. We long
for a song or prayer to touch our hearts and give us an inner peace.
We are hoping to receive some kernel of guidance from the preacher's
many words. But today's lesson confronts more than it comforts. It
inflicts more than it inspires. It is not about how Jesus fulfills
that familiar petition: “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is
about how Jesus interacts with the needs of humanity and what he
expects of his disciples.
His Compassion for the Multitude
first lesson we glean from this passage is Jesus' attitude toward the
people's physical needs. While John does not specifically use the
word compassion in the passage, the emotion seems evident. The gospel
writers use the word in several other passages to describe how Jesus
was affected by the physical needs of people.
Early in his
man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees to make him
clean. Filled with compassion, Jesus touched the man and healed him
(Mk1:41). Later, while Jesus was leaving the city of Jericho, two
blind men were sitting along the roadside. Hearing that Jesus was
passing by, they shouted, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us.”
Jesus once again had compassion on them and touched their eyes.
Immediately, sight returned to both men (Mt 20:29-34). In his
introduction to this story, Matthew notes that Jesus, seeing the hurt
and pain of the people, had compassion on them and healed the sick. A
few days later, Jesus specifically told his disciples that he has
compassion for the people because they have been with him for three
days without food. He then feeds 4000.
Jesus does not
the human condition with an aloof detachment. God became man to
struggle with the frustrations of human frailty and to share the pain
of human suffering. This required his active participation in the
human condition. It required him to experience social and political
turmoil. It necessitated his exposure to people suffering from the
lack of food, disease, political oppression and exploitation.
In a recent
news story on
PBS Radio, a reporter was describing a very tight senatorial race.
Between his commentary, sound bits from the campaign trail could be
heard in the background--the opening and closing of the door,
cheerful hellos, the exchange of pleasantries between the candidates
and the local people. These sounds conveyed to the listening audience
that the political candidates were touching base with the grass root
voters to hear their concerns and to listen to the opinions of the
voting public. Jesus did not wait for an election year to enter into
our human condition. From his birth to his death, the Son of God felt
the suffering of his people.
compassion is not as prevalent an emotion as we would like to assume.
We may feel a sense of shock, or pity when we see pictures that
depict the suffering in Africa or the Middle East but that is
decidedly different from the gut wrenching emotion that Jesus felt.
Neil Kinnock, the head of England's Labor Party during the 80's and
90's once said in a speech before the House of Commons:
Compassion is not a
sentimental feeling for people who are underprivileged or sick … it
is an absolutely practical belief that, regardless of a person’s
background, ability, or ability to pay, he should be provided with
the best that society has to offer.
Young people go on mission trips for many different
will do anything to get away from home for a week; others like the
thrill of adventure or the promise of a theme park or white water
rafting. Many will even say that they are going to help others.
During their first few days they will share with deep emotion their
sympathy for people who live in poverty. However, careful observation
of their actions will detect when a change takes place; when their
feelings move from sentimental pity to heart-felt compassion.
Sometimes this conversion requires more than one mission trip.
Sometimes it never happens but when it does the change is profound.
The teen suddenly grasps with a completely different perspective the
suffering of the people they are serving and his responsibility to
help. Suddenly the teen wants to help everyone. She does not want to
leave the site. He feels uncomfortable leaving because they know that
they could do one more thing to help.
Do you feel that sort of compassion for the hungry?
Responding not Discussing
lesson we glean
from this passage is Jesus' response. After asking Phillip directions
to the nearest grocery store, he takes the lunch of a small boy. John
is the only author to describe the bread as barley loaves. Barley was
the food of the peasants, the poor man. Barley does not make very
good bread by itself. It must be mixed with other flours. One Greek
writer said that it was food suitable for irrational animals and men
in unhappy circumstances.
But Jesus uses the food of the poor and the powerless. He does not
have to rely on the wealthy and prosperous. He uses whatever is
offered to him in faith to feed the people. He did not wait for the
donations to reach their target level. He acted. He took the loaves
and the fish, blessed them and dispersed them.
Jesus told parables that recognized people who responded quickly to
the circumstances before them. In the parable of the scandalous
steward, Jesus compliments a man who after hearing the news that his
master is about to fire him, goes and quickly cancels the debts of
people who owe his master money in hopes of winning a friend and new
job. The shepherd who loses one of his sheep, is commended because he
put aside all other responsibilities until that one lost sheep was
found. The man who discovered a great pearl is praised because he
responded immediately and sold everything he had to buy the field in
which the treasure is buried.
with procrastinators. He was looking for people who heard the good
news and acted without delay. In his own life, he lived out what he
taught. The challenge for modern day disciples is whether we will
live out what Jesus taught.
The feeding of
the 5000 is
a social conservatives dream come true. The disciples did not have to
solicit any donations, and not one nickel from the government coffers
was spent. From a trickle of five fish and two loaves, the hungry
were fed. The disciples only had to pass out the food. Someone else
did the hard stuff. That is how a lot of people act when they hear
about famines or disasters. They feel great pity and sorrow for the
people. They complain that the church or the government should do
something but they themselves do little or nothing. Maybe they will
write a $25 check or maybe they won't.
people justify their non-response by saying, the problem is so big
and complicated, my small donation would not help the situation at
all. The hour a month that I could serve at the Hospitality House
would only be a drop in the bucket. Someone once told Mother Teresa,
“Don't you think that what you do is kind of a drop in the bucket?”
She answered, “No, its a drop in the ocean. But if I didn't do it,
it would be one less drop.”
The problems of
Lakes Area community are so vast that one small church cannot solve
all of them. We could not possibly feed all the hungry people in our
community all by ourselves. But we can add one more drop to that vast
ocean of human need.
Over the years,
noticed that this church is very good at responding to specific
requests for donations to a specific need. You have given generously
to the special offerings that are used to feed the hungry. However,
we need to step up to the next level in which we become more involved
personally with the people. This summer the Elders and the Deacons
are researching the needs and social service opportunities in the
Lakes community. They are not sure where God is leading just yet. But
my hope is that as they are talking to community leaders and will
identify specific needs. As they listen to social service providers
their heart will be so filled with compassion for the suffering of
others that it will inspire them to design one or more outreach
ministries in which all of us can participate. My prayer is that once
they have settled one of these ministries that you will join them in
adding one more drop of water to that vast ocean of need.