–By Elizabeth Ahlman
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, He called His disciples to Him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And His disciples answered Him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And He directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, He broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, He said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And He sent them away. And immediately He got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha (Mark 8:1-10 ESV).
As the crowd of 4000 gathers around Him, Jesus has “compassion” on them because they had nothing to eat. The Greek word here translated as “compassion” is used a few times throughout the New Testament to describe Christ’s compassion. It is more than just a sad feeling, but an actual physical reaction. The word has to do with a sense that the scene actually makes His internal organs twist with love and pain on behalf of these people who suffer so from hunger, yet seek after Him.
The disciples, on the other hand, have no such strong physical, painful reaction to the plight of the crowd. Their question is a practical one: “How can we feed the people in this desolate place?” It’s a logical question. In a desolate place, there is no market, no crops, no easily accessible food source. All they have is what they brought with them: 7 loaves and a few small fish.
When we look into the world, at the desolation all around us, we too ask the logical question: how can we feed the people in this desolate place? How can we stem the tide of persecution in Iraq? How can we stop the spread of Ebola in Liberia? How can we effectively feed the millions on this globe who are starving in this desolate place? How can we help our neighbor who suffers from cancer? We have only our few resources. Just a few extra dollars. A few cans of food we can donate. A few words of encouragement. A prayer or two. Just 7 loaves for thousands upon thousands. Just a few small fish in a desolate place. The task seems big and impossible.
But the gut-wrenching compassion of Jesus says, “it is enough.” Seven loaves. A few small fish. A prayer or two. Words of encouragement. Donations big and small. A helping hand. A few extra dollars, a few cans of food. The compassion of Jesus provides, and He brings us into that provision, moving us to action like the disciples and multiplying the effects.
Jesus doesn’t leave us only with our physical needs, however. He also provides for our spiritual ones. The language of the feeding of the 4000 (and of the 5000) is eucharistic. “And He took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, He broke them and gave them to His disciples.” Sound familiar?:
And as they were eating, He took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:22-25 ESV).
Even as He works to provide for our physical needs, and the needs of others through us, Jesus has gut-wrenching compassion upon us all as He breaks His very own body for our sustenance. Filled and sustained as we are by His body and blood, we go into the desolate places with the work of our hands, showing mercy as we have been shown mercy. Pastors come alongside this work and bring Word and Sacrament, bring the Mercy of God Himself to a desolate world in need. And it is enough. It will be enough. Because His gut-wrenching compassion has no end.
Let us Pray: Lord Jesus Christ, just as You had compassion on the crowd, grant us also hearts of compassion to love and serve all people, trusting in Your provision and compassion for us and them; point us always to Your Holy Word and Sacraments and send pastors to provide it for all people; we pray this in Your Name, for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.