I knew a man named George who served in the army during World War 2.
After VE Day, George was part of the occupying force in Germany. Every day, he encountered families and many orphans who had no food, no place to bathe, and no habitable place to live. It broke his heart and he never forgot it.
This experience became the subject of a promise George made to God. Wherever he found hungry people, George vowed, he would do what he could to feed them.
He lived that promise. For the rest of his life, George would find out about people who needed help and somehow get groceries to them. Fellow members of the Lutheran congregation of which he was a part got wind of what he was doing and asked how they could help. Eventually, George’s efforts became part of the congregation’s ministries and budgets. Well into his eighties, George was still taking food to people in need. And, whenever his personal resources or those of his church were skimpy, he would call area pastors and ask if they or their churches could help someone whose needs they couldn’t address.
When he died, people were asked to forget about sending flowers and instead, provide money for his church’s ministry to the poor. Thousands of dollars were raised.
George’s life is a story of Christian discipleship.
The word disciple—mathetes in the Greek language in which the New Testament was written—means student.
This doesn’t mean that the follower of Jesus is someone who compiles a lot of religious information, as if Judgment Day were going to be like a final exam deciding whether we get a “passing grade.” To be a student (or disciple) of Jesus means that, by the way we live, we’re learning each day to be more like Jesus.
And being like Jesus is the ultimate goal of every believer. This is mentioned often in the New Testament.
- 1 John, for example, says that when Jesus returns to the earth, “we will be like Him.”
- 2 Corinthians says that as we follow Jesus, we “are being transformed into” His image.
- Romans says that followers of Jesus are being “conformed to the image of His Son.”
All of this is the work of God’s Holy Spirit, of course. We can’t make ourselves more like Jesus. But you and I can make the decision, each and every day, through a life style of "daily repentance and renewal" about whether we will be open to the work of the Holy Spirit to make us more like Christ.
This is why in one of the greatest passages in the New Testament, the apostle Paul says, “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” In other words, confident in God’s love and grace for you, take the attitude of a servant. Let the Spirit work through your open heart and will to make you more like Jesus. Being like Jesus must mean, as it did in George’s case, being compassionately moved by the same things that compassionately move Jesus.
Our English word, compassion, is a compound meaning to suffer with. In the New Testament's original Greek, a common word for compassion reflects ancient people's belief that our emotions weren't centered in the heart, but in the gut. Compassion is that stirring of the gut that happens when our sympathies are aroused.
- It's what makes you want to pray or send a check to Lutheran World Relief when you see pictures of starving children in Somalia.
- It's what makes you want to intervene and pray when you're at the store and see children being neglected either by parents who fail to discipline them or by treating them unkindly.
- It's what makes you so concerned about the eternal destiny of a classmate or coworker that you want to share Jesus with them.
We give water away during our Kindness Outreaches out of compassion. Those who receive these acts of kindness may not need the water, but they do need the One Who sends us.
Compassion looks at the needs of others and is stirred to sympathetic action.
Compassion is the openness of heart toward others that comes to those whose wills and lives are open to the God we know in Jesus Christ.
In that connection, please pull out the Celebrate inserts and look at today’s Gospel lesson. It begins with Jesus learning that John the Baptist, has been executed. Jesus goes by boat to a spot where nobody lived, no doubt to pray and to consider how John’s execution foretold His own. He needed to process His feelings. But crowds sought Jesus out. We’re told in verse 14: “When He went ashore, He saw a great crowd; and He had compassion for them…”
This isn’t the first place we’re told of Jesus’ compassion for crowds. Another is at Matthew 9:36. Please turn to it in the pew Bibles, page 556. It says: “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered like sheep having no shepherd.”
What aroused Jesus’ compassion for the crowds in these two passages represent the full breadth of God’s concern for all of us. In the Matthew 9 instance, Jesus has compassion for the crowds because of their spiritual condition. They’re disconnected from God, unaware of their need to turn from sin and to believe in Jesus to gain eternal life with God. All they know is that they have a hunger to be with Jesus.
In Matthew 14, in our gospel lesson, Jesus looks at another crowd and sees all that was wrong in their physical condition, their need for healing. Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, shows us that God cares for our whole beings.
As disciples of Jesus, people intent on learning to live like Jesus, our call is to have the same compassion for people that Jesus has. Bob Pierce, the missionary who founded both Samaritan’s Purse and World Vision, often prayed, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.”
And it’s exactly here that, until this past week, I had always faulted the disciples as they’re portrayed in today’s gospel lesson. Look at verse 15. The disciples tell Jesus that they’re in a remote place and that he should send the crowds away so that they can get food.
I had always thought that the disciples were being selfish here, that they wanted Jesus to themselves, and that they didn’t care about the crowd. Some of that may be true. But one New Testament scholar has convincingly written that like the Savior they followed, the disciples felt the crowd’s need for food.
But they didn’t have food to give to the crowd, or very little of it. So, rather than having this whole throng in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat, the disciples thought that the compassionate thing was to send them away to find food where it could be found, in the nearby towns. Their suggestion wasn’t a failure of compassion, but a failure of faith.
In verse 16, we come to the centrally important part of this entire incident. Jesus tells the disciples that the crowds needn’t go away. “You give them something to eat.” “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish,” they say.
Now, we’ve all heard or read about the feeding of the 5000 many times. But have you ever considered this: What if the disciples hadn’t told Jesus about the five loaves and the two fish?
What if they had pretended, as maybe all of us have when approached by someone asking for money, that they didn’t have anything "on them"?
The disciples felt compassion for the hungry crowd, but this was all they had…a few scraps of bread and two measly fish. What was so little in the face of so great a need?
We know what happened. Jesus took the bread and fish and fed the whole crowd, one composed, Matthew says, of five thousand men plus women and children. A conservative estimate of the entire crowd would be about 15,000 people.
But the feeding of all those people may really be the second miracle in this incident.
The first miracle may be that the disciples were willing to disclose to Jesus (and then give to Jesus) all that they had. The grace of God in Jesus had broken down any selfishness they might have felt and filled them with compassion for others!
How much of ourselves are we willing to give to Jesus?
On the cross, Jesus spent His whole life to buy your freedom from sin, death, and eternal separation from God. Jesus died and rose so that all who surrender to Him can have life forever with God.
The more we yield to Jesus—the more of ourselves we give to Him—the more He will do in our lives and the more He can do through us.
That’s what the first disciples learned the day Jesus fed the 5000. It’s the lesson that my friend George’s life teaches.
It’s a lesson we all can learn as we give ourselves to Jesus every day.
Recently, Ann and I heard from a dear friend. She was excited about exciting new developments in her life, a shot of unexpected joy, possibilities, and purpose. But then, she told us, it shouldn’t really be that surprising. “Not long ago,” she explained, “I did something I’d never done. In the past, I bargained with God. I’d tell God: ‘If you do this, I’ll do this.’ But not this time. I told God, ‘I’m wide open. Whatever you want!’” In the book of Ephesians, we’re called to give glory to the God Who “is able to accomplish abundantly more than all we can ask or imagine.” Our friend is learning that truth.
We all know that bad things happen to faithful people and that we live in a fallen, imperfect world. The mystery of prayers not answered as we expect them to be will be with us for as long as this present world exists. But what Jesus showed when He miraculously fed a huge crowd with the food offered by the disciples is that if we will offer our whole selves to Him, we can become conduits for the blessings of God on a world of great spiritual and physical need.
And as we give ourselves to Jesus, God’s Spirit will move us closer to the goal of being like the One Who died and rose for us. That’s God’s aim for our lives and for the life of Saint Matthew. May it be our aim for our lives and for Saint Matthew too. Amen