Sermon on Matthew 14:14-22
“I have compassion on the crowd” (Matt 15:32; Mark 8:2; cf. Matt 14:14). I once heard a preacher who would begin his sermons this way. Looking out at the congregation he would say, “I have compassion on the crowd.” These are the words of Jesus when he sees the assembled thousands in their hunger and in their illness. He sees the five thousand men, the probably twenty thousand people, the great throng, and he has compassion on them. He heals their sick and satisfies their hunger. It strikes me as bold of that preacher to identify himself so closely with Jesus in this way – using his words from this context. On the other hand, we are to be like Jesus in this way.
The word compassion comes from Latin and it means to suffer with. To feel the others’ pain. It’s a good translation of the Greek here, but it’s an abstraction of something more physical, fleshly, and poetic. The meaning of the Greek word here seems alien to us. I even find it difficult to say: σπλαγχνίζομαι (splagchnizomai) which we translate as “compassion”, more literally means to be moved as to the bowels. Where we would sometimes refer to the heart, the ancients refer to the bowels, which they regard as the seat of the more intense emotions. In other words, to feel it in your gut.
Like when sometimes we wince ourselves when we see our child fall and scrape his knees. We know what that feels like. So when we see someone else – especially someone we love – experience that pain, the memory of it is sharp – we can almost feel it ourselves.
And there is no more beautiful image of compassion than that of a nurturing mother toward her newborn baby, crying again in the night. She can almost feel his hunger and is driven by it from her own sleep and her own comfort again and again to comfort the helpless baby.
When we love someone, their pain hurts us too. This is the opposite of sadism or schadenfreude, which is taking pleasure at the pain or misfortune of others.
We sometimes mistake the pleasure that someone gives us for love, but true love is not just a gushy feeling. Love must include compassion. This means that there isn’t going to be any such thing painless love in this life – not until that blessed day when we will see our loved ones in a heavenly Jerusalem, when the Lord “will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, and neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” (Rev 21:4). Then our love will be painless. But now it is not.
Jesus himself, who has loving compassion on us, encounters death. He mourns. He cries. He feels pain. Today, Jesus’ love for the crowd is not painless. One verse prior to today’s gospel reading, he had been attempting to withdraw from the crowds to a lonely place apart, to be alone to mourn, because he had just heard news that his cousin and forerunner and baptist John was beheaded by Herod. Jesus, like any of us would, wanted to go and mourn his departed friend for a while in solitude. Jesus often went off to be alone, to rest, and to pray.
But finding a place to be alone in Galilee was no easy task. Josephus, the Jewish historian, claims that Galilee was densely populated at this time – with more than 200 towns, each with no less than 15,000 inhabitants. So that’s more than three million people in a small region. So it’s not too surprising that Jesus has a hard time finding a solitary place, and that the crowds from the towns quickly hear where he is and follow after him. Crowds tended to follow after Jesus, because great power went out from him and all were healed by that power. They would press in on him and try to touch him, because his touch and his presence was healing to all. This must have been exhausting for him, especially when he was overcome with his own grief. So Jesus seeks solitude and rest. He does teach us by example to care for ourselves as well as for others. He gets into a boat to escape the crowds… and then on the other shore there is another crowd of thousands waiting for him. How exasperating that must have felt. Some of us may have shouted, “Just leave me alone!”
But in addition to teaching us to care for ourselves, Jesus also teaches us to deny ourselves. And today, despite his exhaustion and despite his grief and despite his desire to be alone, he looks out at the great throng and sees their suffering, and he has compassion on them, and he heals their sick.
It must not have been easy for Jesus to add the pain of the multitude to his own pain. But that is what he does. He denies himself and takes up his cross and invites us to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him.
Sometimes he calls us to set aside ourselves, our heartaches, our exhaustion, our obsessions, and to focus on the needs of others for a while. This is sacrificial love offered in imitation of Christ. He shows the crowd compassion, and then he invites us, his disciples, also to show them compassion.
The disciples were also aware of the people’s need. They too are compassionate. They see that it’s getting late and that the people will soon be hungry. They bring this concern for the people to Jesus, along with a suggestion that the crowds should go off and fend for themselves. This is familiar: when we see a need, our first response is often that someone else should do something about it.
Feeling the others’ pain, sensing their need is the beginning, but not the end, of compassion. Jesus, by his own compassion, invites us to compassion. He says to the disciples, “They need not go away, you feed them.”
Jesus’ response here might remind some of us of what happens when we have a great idea for some service or activity that the parish ought to be providing. We take this idea to the priest, only to hear him say, “Thank you for volunteering to lead the effort!” The needs that we see are often the needs that Jesus is calling us to provide for.
But the disciples have only two fish and five loaves. It’s a meager offering, but they offer what they have.
The truth is, we really can’t do it alone. What we have to offer really isn’t enough. We really do need Jesus’ help. If I have compassion on the crowd, it is only inasmuch as I am in Christ and he is in me. The disciples offer what they have, but they need the power of Christ to take their poor offering and make it sufficient for the needs of the crowd.
Jesus takes the spark of compassion in the disciples and he multiplies it, when he says to them, you feed them. Jesus is a multiplier. He multiplies the five loaves and two fish and he multiplies our compassion. He shows us that love can grow. It isn’t ever necessary to run out of love. Love isn’t like money. Love is not finite. Rather, paradoxically, you have what you give away.
So, whatever small and seemingly inadequate gifts we have to offer, these we offer together with our prayers to Christ for multiplication and he will make them grow to abundance. Not only will it be enough, there will be twelve baskets left over.