There’s a joke about a little boy, upon receiving word from his folks that the stay-cations the family will go on will involve some of the “things we did when we were kids.” The little boy is Ecstatic! “Yes! Finally! I get to ride a Dinosaur!” Never mind the difficulties and dangers of such a venture…
We do tend to have a homogenized, simplistic view of the past. Especially Scripture. The feeding of the 5,000, for instance. Wasn’t that just a sort of parade followed by a picnic? Weren’t the people just off on a lark, with no cares of their own, to hear a good preacher, and maybe get Aunt Minnie’s stomach troubles taken care of at the same time? What fun! Right?
The feeding of the 5,000 (not counting women and children, according to Matthew) is the ONLY MIRACLE IN ALL FOUR GOSPELS. The only one. Not the healing of the lepers, nor the healing of the blind folks, nor the walking on water, nor the calming of the storm, nor the healing of the woman in the crowd, nor the raising of the daughter of the synagogue leader, nor the raising of the widow’s son, nor the raising of Lazarus: none. Only this one. Which may mean that it was such a drastic game changer, a new level of ministry, a sign of God’s presence so powerful, as to affect the teachings of the folks who followed Jesus, even after His death and resurrection. Why would it be that powerful?
The “Feeding of the 5,000,” in the three synoptic (similar) Gospels, follows the story of the death of John the Baptist. In Matthew’s version, Jesus gets into a boat Alone, to ? Pray to God? to ? Hear what’s next? to ? Mourn? When I first started thinking about this Scripture this time, the message seemed to be that Jesus, who perhaps even Needed to be by himself, saw the people and had “Compassion” on them, and so, did Not deal with His own needs, but put those aside and “healed” the people. Amazing strength and self-giving. Amazing love. Amazing compassion.
But what if what Jesus did was the answer to His prayer. What if God was telling Him, “You’ll know what the next step is; You’ll know what to do,” and then Jesus saw the crowd and Knew.
The Greek word for “Compassion” has to do with bowels; it has to do with Gut. Have you ever lost a friend, a pet, a member of your family, and you cried from your Gut? That deep, soul deep mourning that is un-resistable, crying with a deeper voice than you’ve ever heard yourself make? That kind of Gut level connection to sorrow. Or have you ever laughed so hard, for so long, that you are laughing at the laughing and don’t really remember what began that laughter, and it’s so Gut level that the next day, your stomach hurts? That kind of Gut level, visceral, body-felt and -expressed emotion of sorrow or joy that joins you with another? The one lost, those grieving with you; the one laughed with…
That was what Jesus felt for the 5,000; the 15,000. A Gut-level understanding of their joys and sorrows; their fears and anxieties; their loves and hopes and dreams… Compassion. Gut level.
A writer/historian named Josephus lived during that time. He wrote that Herod did not kill John the Baptist because of a dance by his stepdaughter and his guests’ arousals and his oath, “I will give you whatever you desire, to half my kingdom.” (to which he could have replied, “No, darling, killing John the Baptist is worth more than half my kingdom; think of something else.” Well, he could have…)…
No, according to Josephus, “…Now when others came in crowds about him [John], for they were greatly delighted in hearing his words, Herod was afraid that this so great power of persuading men might tend to some sedition or other, for they seemed to be disposed to do everything he should advise them to, so he supposed it better to prevent any attempt for a mutation [mutiny] from him, by cutting him off, that after any such mutation should be brought about, and the public should suffer, to repent of such negligence. Accordingly, he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death.”
See, what may have been happening, and remember that I’ve been telling you that the Jews in that time were like the Blacks of our time: unimportant, disposable, less than, living with disease, poverty, lack of education; lack of connection to the goods of life. So imagine John the Baptist spending his life telling these downtrodden, disrespected, used and abused people that they, too, were made in God’s image; that their lives mattered, that they had the right, as all people are supposed to have, to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Imagine these people having hope about a world in which they were treated as equal to all others, as made in the image of and beloved by God, Godself.
And imagine that they had heard about his death, that people in power once again just wiped out the folks they misunderstood. And imagine that the people have the same questions as Jesus: “What’s next? What are we supposed to do, now? This is awful; I am so angry; I am so sad.” And John’s disciples, coming back from burying John’s body, tell Jesus and the 12, and/or the 70, and Jesus leaves in a boat, by himself, and His disciples say, “Let’s go to (Mark has Bethsaida, and John has Capernaum), to this place; bet we know where He’s going…” and they go and the people follow. Maybe it was not a picnic, maybe their adrenalin was too high to think of eating. Maybe they didn’t bring sandwiches, maybe they brought pruning hooks to turn into spears (Joel 3:10); maybe they brought pieces of plows to turn into swords (Joel 3:10); maybe the women brought brooms and mops and rolling pins. Maybe they were hoping someone would turn them into an army.
The Greek word of “healing” is the same, in its root, as the word for “therapy.” So when Jesus saw them, the 15,000 men, women and children who were like sheep with out a shepherd (Mt. 9.36 ), he went to them instead of turning his boat around and skeddadling. He had that Gut level understanding of what they were going through, their fears, their mourning, their uncertainty, then He healed them, body and soul. Physically and psychically. Then He fed them. He does that for us, too, and for ours…
Think about your family. The people you love. Now think of their families; their friends, and those friends’ families. I would guess that the 40 or so of us who gather on this manifestation of the Holy Spirit, actually represent about 15,000 people… 5,000 men, not including the women and children. And imagine that we have all come to the hill above the seashore to see what we are supposed to do next.
Because these times are definitely uncertain. There is world wide sickness and death. There are wars and rumors of war. There are famines and droughts and floods and earthquakes and the skies are full of Signs and Wonders (Gen. 1:14). Some of us want revolution and war. Some of us are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Almost all of us don’t know what’s next. We mourn, asking, what do we do now?
The beauty of our God is this: S/He understands; S/He has Gut level Compassion; S/He knows us and what we’re going through; S/He is the best therapist in the Universe; S/He restores our souls. (Ps. 23)
Our God wants us to be healthy and happy and helpful to one another. Our God loves us so completely that, even when we are confused or mourning or angry or uncertain, S/He comes to us with Compassion, Heals us Body and Soul. Feeds us. And sends us home, whole and holy.
Let us do as Jesus did that game-changing day so long ago. Let us have Gut level Compassion for one another, offer our shoulders and our ears, our healing love and prayers, and then let us feed one another on Christian love and service, until we are so full, there are enough baskets of left overs left over, to feed all the hungry people of the world. Good News: God loves you and all others, No Matter What.