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Tenth Sunday after Pentecost — August 6, 2023

Dana Moulds reflects on "willingness" and Jesus' feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew.


Dana Moulds reads her Looking into the Lectionary reflection.

Matthew 14:13-21
Year A

“Thank you for your willingness to provide spiritual and emotional support to our behavioral health patients.”

This is the first sentence in my clinical pastoral education (CPE) spiritual care workbook, and it’s been sitting with me as I complete my placement at a behavioral health center in Davidson, North Carolina. In particular, I’ve been pondering “willingness”— a term Merriam-Webster defines as “inclined or favorably disposed in mind, ready, willing and eager to help, prompt to act or respond, accepted by choice or without reluctance.”

I see patients wrestling with willingness when they show up for care, many fighting shame because of the stigma and bias associated with mental illness. I see caregivers seeking willingness. Are we willing to be the support others are searching for? Are we ready to address our own truths? And I see a lesson for willingness in today’s Scripture.

I imagine Jesus being distressed after receiving the news that King Herod beheaded his beloved cousin, John the Baptist. In our text, Jesus responds to the news by “withdraw[ing] in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (v. 13). And upon his arrival at the shore, he sees a crowd of those in need. In response, Jesus has “compassion for them and cure[s] their sick” (v. 14). Despite his own sorrow, Jesus is willing to serve the crowd.

Jesus’ readiness to care for others is contrasted with the disciples’ actions in this passage. We see that their focus is on Jesus, not the people. And with good intentions, I imagine. They know Jesus is hurting and yet they watch him focus on others. Perhaps they are concerned about Jesus’ health and capacity. Maybe that’s why they say, “The hour is late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (v. 15).

But, what about the people? What happens when we are more concerned with pious platitudes than caring for our neighbors?

During one of my CPE classes, we spoke about how “intention does not determine impact.” Our intentions and the perception of others are not always the same. The disciples’ intentions of protecting and looking out for Jesus may be sincere. But how would their intentions cause harm to those whom Jesus serves? The crowd is just as tired as Jesus. Sending them out at this late hour to find food adds another layer of burden for the people to navigate.

Here, Jesus doesn’t take matters into his own hands to remedy the situation. He invites the disciples to join him in the miracle to come. Jesus recognizes the moment and says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (v. 16). Jesus models what his disciples will need to do once his time has come and he is no longer with them. He is the living embodiment of “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).

This passage offers readers an opportunity to stretch our faith, trusting that God can multiply what little we present. The disciples reply, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” (v. 17), and Jesus says, “Bring them here to me” (v. 18). That’s it, friends! Bring to Jesus what we have, and Jesus will do the rest. We just have to be ready, to be open, and to be vulnerable, like the crowd, in order for Jesus to take what we have and multiply it.

We tend to put restrictions, rules and regulations on what “you give them something to eat” (v. 16) looks like. We become more concerned with the how of the miracle, rather than the who. But Jesus shows us he is the how and the who, if we surrender what little we have in his hands.

The crowd that sought out Jesus is still present today. Our neighbors are crying out for compassion and the world needs healing. Just as the disciples needed to experience the power of Jesus in their lives, so too, do we. Every day we are presented with opportunities to act compassionately on behalf of our neighbor, joining with Jesus in his miracle-working. We just need to be willing to engage.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Do you ever feel inadequate — that you don’t have enough to help someone? How do you engage these feelings?
  2. Have you witnessed someone helping others in a way that shifted your perspective? Did your new perspective call you to action? How?
  3. How are you called to show up compassionately in service to the other? What does it mean to willingly love your neighbor?

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