On Being Compassionate

church of multiplication
Mosaic from the Church of Multiplication in Israel

To read this sermon from The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr. click on “Continue reading” below.

Sermon based on Matthew 14:13-21

There is no denying the fact that talking about compassion is a lot easier than showing compassion at times in our lives. We are quick to praise compassion as a virtue, but in practice, showing compassion at times can be difficult. The word compassion comes from two Latin words that together means “to suffer with.” To be compassionate is to share in the suffering of another person. We are called to participate in other people’s pain. Truth be told, this is something that is not praised or glorified in our day-to-day lives as a culture and society. If we have a choice, we often prefer to keep our distances from pain and avoid confronting suffering. We do not like to deal with depressing things. It’s true that in times of crisis and suffering on a global or wider scale we show compassion. As a church we show compassion when we mourn the loss of friends and loved ones, as we will do in the coming days here at Christ Moravian Church. However in our day-to-day lives we live in a society and culture that fosters us to be more self-centered.

With this reality we come to our gospel reading this morning from Matthew that shows us just how far our compassion for others should reach. We see that following a day of ministry to many people who had come to him, that Jesus and his disciples had a desire to find a quiet place. They wanted to go somewhere to recover from an exhausting few days. However the crowds remained, having a desire to continue to hear Jesus teach and minister to their needs. Over five thousand people gathered and Jesus came to the realization that these people must be fed. Sometimes we associate the crowd gathered at simply 5,000 but Scripture makes reference to the fact the 5,000 mentioned were only men. Our passage from Matthew says:

Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

 With this information before us, just how many people might have been gathered that day to hear Jesus? Drawing on the work of sociologists, Megan McKenna in her book, Not Counting Women and Children shared that the ratio of women and children to adult men in these times would be 5 to 1 or 6 to 1 so the crowd of 5,000 potentially could have been over 25,000 people. Others have said that the crowd gathered perhaps was more in the range of 10,000 to 15,000 people including the women and children.   Needless to say feeding such a large quantity of people would be no easy task.

Jesus asked his disciples to carry through with that task of helping to feed the crowd. They suggested to Jesus that the people leave and go to the nearby towns to buy bread and return, or better yet return to their homes. Jesus inquired how much food they had to which they responded they only had five loaves of bread and two baskets of fish. This obviously was not enough to feed the people. After Jesus instructs them to bring those items to him, he blessed the food, gave the food back to the disciples and they distributed to those gathered and Scripture tells us that all ate and were filled. The feeding of over five thousand is one of the more spectacular miracles in the ministry of Jesus. For Jesus’ disciples this was an occasion when they overemphasized their problem and underemphasized their resources, because they underestimated their Master. Likewise we often do the same of overemphasizing problems, underemphasizing our abilities and resources and underestimating the power of God to assist us. I believe such acts of compassion like the feeding of the 5,000 can happen all around us if we view things as Jesus viewed them here in Matthew.

In order for this to happen we need to change our perception. This perception is where we see obstacles Jesus will see opportunity. Like the disciples who suggested people go to town to buy food, we often prefer to avoid acts of compassion because they are inconvenient and can disrupt our lives from time to time. Jesus was getting ready to move on in his ministry to another region but was confronted with this mass of people. Large crowds gathered around Jesus, and many people with disabilities were brought to him for healing. Some among this mass of people probably had not brought enough food with them for this journey. Others still might not have the economic means to even purchase food for their families. Jesus was certainly ready to dismiss them and encourage them to return home but he feared for their well being because of their hunger. Jesus felt their need and chose not to send them away hungry. Jesus was moved with compassion. Jesus did not try to evaluate whether they were truly needy or worthy of his help. Jesus did not excuse himself because he was too tired or too busy with his ministry to get involved. Jesus sensed the suffering of the people; he had compassion and did something to help the hungry. The disciples saw obstacles but Jesus saw an opportunity.

As we think of obstacles and opportunity there was once a person living in India who saw a scorpion floundering around some water. The person decided to save the scorpion by stretching out their finger, but the scorpion stung the person. The person continued to attempt to get the scorpion out of the water, but the scorpion stung again. Another person watching those events transpire told them to stop trying to save the scorpion and avoid being stung again. But the person replied with these words, “While it is the nature of the scorpion to sting. It is my nature to love. Why should I give up my nature to love just because it is the nature of the scorpion to sting?” As this illustration shares, we should never give up on loving others despite those times we might be stung in return.

In trying to be more compassionate we are also called upon to see things with grace filled eyes. As Christians we are called to follow Christ in the way of compassion. Because of this calling, we are often moved with compassion to help others. I read recently a story about the Christian sociologist and author Tony Campolo. He once told about a trip he made to Haiti. While there he went to a nice restaurant and the waiter seated him beside a large window. The waiter returned with his order and just as he was about to enjoy his meal, he looked towards the window on his left. Pressed against the window were eight faces of Haitian children staring at his dinner plate. He immediately lost his appetite and laid down his fork. When the waiter saw what happened he quickly moved in and lowered the blinds and said to Campolo, “Please enjoy your meal. Don’t let them bother you.”

Like Campolo shared as followers of Christ and as people of compassion we cannot help but to be bothered. There is more suffering in the world than we can possibly address. This makes compassion frustrating. We may feel that our efforts to alleviate hunger, homelessness, poverty and disease count for nothing. This however is not true. Our acts of compassion are signs that God uses us to show the world that living a life filled with grace is not in vain. We may not be able to feed the population of the world but every time a hungry mouth is fed that is a sign of God’s Kingdom on earth. We may not be able to house all the homeless but every time we work to provide shelter for one more family, that is a sign of God’s Kingdom on earth. We may not be able to heal every disease but every time we embrace and comfort a person who is ill and suffering, we show a sign God’s Kingdom on earth. The magnitude of the problems around us should never paralyze us. God uses not just food to feed multitudes, but even the smallest acts of kindness to help promote the work of compassion on earth.

For us today, we will never know for sure what happened that day when more than 5,000 hungry people were fed. There are some who believe that Jesus literally broke the bread and fish and they multiplied in a mystical manner so that a large quantity of food was produced. Others believe that as Jesus and the disciples shared the little they had, it encouraged others in the multitude to share what they had until a loving community was formed where each gave what they could and received what they needed. That certainly is a miraculous act as well I believe. Although we cannot know precisely what happened, we need to remember that this story took on profound importance for the early church. This encounter reminds the individual Christian that we must never be so wrapped up in our own problems or concerns that we withdraw from the world and refuse to provide the help and support when others are in need. Left alone we can easily think like the disciples, to send them away because they are not our concern. However this is not an attitude our God desires us to have in our lives because God calls us to be generous and share. The story is also a clear call for the Church to be a compassionate Church, which hears the cries of people and responds to their needs. We must respond in compassion. The story reminds us that all people deserve our compassion and concern.

Finally, the story reminds us of just what God can do when we give God what we have. Five loaves and two fish are not very much, as the world measures value. But when Jesus said those amazing words: “Bring them to me” suddenly what seemed like very little became the instrument for a remarkable accomplishment.

Together may our love and compassion be bread for this world.

The Rev. Dr. David A. Marcus, Jr.

August 6, 2017