Genesis 32:22-31; Matthew 14:13-21
Ordinary 18A; Proper 13
Jesus tries to get away, at least for a short time.
He gets in a boat and goes to a deserted place. Jesus attempts to withdraw and then withdraw some more. He had just learned of the violent death of his cousin, John the Baptist. No wonder he wanted to escape. John knew Jesus like no other and now, because of his closeness to the Son of Man, John has been murdered. Oh, and right before Jesus heard of John’s death, Jesus had been run out of his hometown. In the brief time of his earthly ministry, this had not been a season of affirmation and encouragement.
What does St. Ignatius call this? Desolation? Who knows, of course, what Jesus was feeling when he got in the boat and sought to be alone. One can imagine sorrow and grief must have been part of the mix. Maybe even despair lurked as he thought about the people he’d grown up with ridiculing him and his cousin dead on account of remaining loyal. But he can’t get away. He won’t be allowed to sit with his loss. The crowds have heard, not of John’s death or of Jesus’ hometown shunning, but of the healings, the miracles, the power of this man from Nazareth. They follow him on foot. The refuse to leave him alone. So, he comes ashore.
This is the first indicator in this story of Jesus’ divinity in stark contrast to our usual human response: Rather than resent their intrusion or grow frustrated with their unwillingness to give him even a brief respite, he has compassion for them. Even in his own depleted state, he sees their need, their desperation, their loss and grief, and he has compassion. Perhaps in his own pain he acutely feels the pain of all of those surrounding him. Maybe alleviating them of their burdens enables Jesus to remember the purpose of his own. Sometimes even we leverage our hurts for the good of others, our desolation the impetus for providing consolation. That may well be the work of the Spirit.
But if we are mapping this familiar story with moments that mark Jesus’ character and his role and his divine purpose, this is the first one to note: Jesus turns towards the overwhelming needs around him and responds with compassion. It’s lesson one for those of us maturing in Christ. When we are faced with the mind-boggling hurts of humanity, our deepest griefs, heaviest burdens and greatest fears should not move us to self-protection, but instead open our hearts to the pain of creation. Don’t look away or run away, go ashore and into the chaos, armed with vulnerability and compassion.
The sun begins to set, the needs have not all been met and the disciples are no doubt tired. They offer the most practical and seemingly thoughtful proposition: “Jesus, these folks surely are hungry. Let’s bring this gathering to a close and send them on their way to get food.” How many church meetings have you attended where someone proffered a reasonable solution to a present problem? It is amazing how the farthest, oldest areas of the campus are the “best” suited for soup kitchens and housing the homeless. Or how the child with ADHD or autism “isn’t comfortable” being in the youth choir. Practical isn’t always bad, but practical can mask distancing ourselves from others while contending we are deeply invested.
Once again Jesus’ ways differ from our own. When our urge is to send people away, Jesus commands we gather them in. (There might be some contemporary examples one could use on this point.) The disciples practically and thoughtfully say: “Send them away to get what they need.” Jesus says: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Lesson number two for we Jesus people: When we, knowing people have a pressing and real need, have the urge to send them elsewhere to get it met, we should instead call them closer and meet it. Consider what this might mean in our congregations, cities or country. Just think about all the times we have capitulated to our urge to send people away. Now, consider that Jesus tells us to instead bring them closer.
“But, Jesus,” we say, “we don’t have the capacity to feed all these people! Resources are limited! We are only 12 and there are thousands of them!” And then, as if to prove their point, they huddle together and, in Matthew’s version, show Jesus all they’ve got combined: five loaves, two fish. “See, Jesus. We told you so.”
“Bring them here to me.”
Commence miracle. Blessed, broken, distributed. Enough. No, more than enough. Baskets left over.
Lesson three: When we hand over to Jesus the resources that appear meager, Jesus will take, bless, break and use them in ways we cannot imagine. This may be the hardest lesson for us. Hardest mostly because we don’t want to let go of “our” loaves and fish because we are hungry, too, and clearly there is not enough. And if we give it up, what will we eat? And we don’t know if they will be careful with these limited loaves. And charity begins at home. And God helps those who help themselves. And… and… and… . Didn’t Jesus say those things?
“Bring them here to me.” That’s the heart of lesson three. That’s the hardest lesson of all.
We can leverage our pain to extend compassion and empathy. We can reach out to others even when we are sorely in need ourselves. We can sometimes move beyond practical and step out in faith, particularly for the short term, but handing over all we’ve got for the sake of the kingdom, for the sake of needs that will not stop, that’s tough. But that’s what Jesus tells us to do.
My son recently had the privilege of spending a few weeks traveling in Europe. The trip expanded his perspective and broadened his horizons. I suspect it will be one of those pivotal life experiences for him, for many reasons. One of which is this: He saw first-hand the impact of the current refugee crisis. Driving through one country he said there were large encampments of refugees on the roadsides. But what really struck him were the families he saw in one of the cities he visited. He said, “There were entire families, from the grandmother to toddlers, living on a mattress on the side of the street.”
Last week eight people died in the back of a tractor-trailer truck in Texas, two more succumbed to the ordeal in the hospital — all as a result of human trafficking. Dozens of people were locked in the back of a sweltering truck with no food, no water. Two 15-year-olds were among the group. The driver says he had no idea they were there.
We are moved with compassion. We genuinely want to help. Lesson one and lesson two, complete. But then we step back and realize that it isn’t practical to think that we can do much. “Look, Jesus, all we have are a few loaves, a few fish, what are they among thousands and thousands of people?”
Jesus says, “Bring me what you have.” Can we complete lesson three and hand over to him our loaves, our fish, whatever we have that might bring relief, from our voice to our vote to our advocacy to our dollars to our prayers?
This very day let’s squelch our urge to send people away and instead call them closer. This very day let’s gather whatever we happen to have and say, “Jesus, take it.” Commence miracle.
- The crowds pursue Jesus on foot. They are dogged in their search for him. What have you pursued with such diligence and persistence? Have you ever sought Jesus like the crowds?
- When have you sent people away? Why? When have you instead gathered people in? What happened?
- Can you think of a time when a practical solution was offered to a pressing problem? Was it helpful? When is being practical faithful? When is it not? How can you discern the difference?
- Take a look at St. Ignatius’ definition of “consolation” and “desolation.” Have you experienced these?
- Have you ever had a time when you or your congregation offered what you had to Jesus and saw a miracle?
- Try to be aware this week of when you have an urge to send people away — and instead do the opposite. Make note of what happens as a result.
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Click here to join our email list!