Matthew 14:13-21

COMPASSION AND POWER

Matt. 14:13-21

When Jesus heard the news (of the death of John), he withdrew from there in a boat, into a deserted place alone. When the crowds heard of it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he had disembarked, he saw a great crowd, and he was moved with compassion for them to the depths of his being, and healed their sick. When it had become late, his disciples came to him: “The place is deserted,” they said, “and the hour for the evening meal has already passed. Send the crowds away, in order that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves food.” But Jesus said to them, “Give them food to eat yourselves.” They said to him, “We have nothing except five loaves and two fishes.” He said, “Bring them here to me.” So he ordered the crowds to sit down on the green grass. He took the five loaves and the two fishes, and looked up to heaven, and said a blessing, and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds; and they all ate and were satisfied.
They took up what was left over, twelve baskets full of the fragments. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, apart from women and children.

Galilee must have been a place where it was very difficult to be alone. Galilee was a small country, only 50 miles from north to south and 25 miles from east to west, and Josephus tells us that in his time within that small area there were 204 towns and villages, none with a population of less than 15,000 people. In such a thickly populated area it was not easy to get away from people for any length of time. But it was quiet on the other side of the lake, and at its widest the lake was only 8 miles wide. Jesus’ friends were fisherfolk; and it was not difficult to embark on one of their boats and seek retirement on the east side of the lake. That is what Jesus did when he heard of the death of John.

There were three perfectly simple and natural reasons why Jesus should seek to be alone. He was human and he needed rest. He never recklessly ran into danger, and it was well to withdraw, lest too early he should share the fate of John. And, most of all, with the Cross coming nearer and nearer, Jesus knew that he must meet with God before he met with men. He was seeking rest for his body and strength for his soul in the lonely places.

But he was not to get it. It would be easy to see the boat set sail and to deduce where it was going; and the crowds flocked round the top of the lake and were waiting for him at the other side when he arrived. So Jesus healed them and, when the evening came, he fed them before they took the long road home. Few of Jesus’ miracles are so revealing as this.

(i) It tells us of the compassion of Jesus. When he saw the crowds he was moved with compassion to the depths of his being. That is a very wonderful thing. Jesus had come to find peace and quiet and loneliness; instead he found a vast crowd eagerly demanding what he could give. He might so easily have resented them. What right had they to invade his privacy with their continual demands? Was he to have no rest and quiet, no time to himself at all?

But Jesus was not like that. So far from finding them a nuisance, he was moved with compassion for them. Premanand, the great Christian who was once a wealthy high-caste Indian, says in his autobiography: “As in the days of old, so now our message to the non-Christian world has to be the same, that God cares.” If that be so, we must never be too busy for people, and we must never even seem to find them a trouble and a nuisance. Premanand also says: “My own experience has been that when I or any other missionary or Indian priest showed signs of restlessness or impatience towards any educated and thoughtful Christian or non-Christian visitors, and gave them to understand that we were hard-pressed for time, or that it was our lunch–or tea–time and that we could not wait, then at once such enquirers were lost, and never returned again.” We must never deal with people with one eye on the clock, and as if we were anxious to be rid of them as soon as we decently can.

Premanand goes on to relate an incident which, it is not too much to say, may have changed the whole course of the spread of Christianity in Bengal. “There is an account somewhere of how the first Metropolitan Bishop of India failed to meet the late Pandit Iswar Chandar Vidyasagar of Bengal through official formality. The Pandit had been sent as spokesman of the Hindu community in Calcutta, to establish friendly relations with the Bishop and with the Church. Vidyasagar, who was the founder of a Hindu College in Calcutta and a social reformer, author and educationalist of repute, returned disappointed without an interview, and formed a strong party of educated and wealthy citizens of Calcutta to oppose the Church and the Bishop, and to guard against the spread of Christianity. … The formality observed by one known to be an official of the Christian Church turned a friend into a foe.” What an opportunity for Christ was lost because someone’s privacy could not be invaded except through official channels.
Jesus never found any man a nuisance, even when his whole being was crying out for rest and quiet–and neither must his followers.

(ii) In this story we see Jesus witnessing that all gifts are from God. He took the food and he said a blessing. The Jewish grace before meals was very simple: “Blessed art thou, Jehovah our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.” That would be the grace which Jesus said, for that was the grace which every Jewish family used. Here we see Jesus showing that it is God’s gifts which he brings to men. The grace of gratitude is rare enough towards men; it is rarer still towards God.

THE PLACE OF THE DISCIPLE IN THE WORK OF CHRIST

Matt. 14:13-21 (continued)

(iii) This miracle informs us very clearly of the place of the disciple in the work of Christ. The story tells that Jesus gave to the disciples and the disciples gave to the crowd. Jesus worked through the hands of his disciples that day, and he still does.

Again and again we come face to face with this truth which is at the heart of the Church. It is true that the disciple is helpless without his Lord, but it is also true that the Lord is helpless without his disciple. If Jesus wants something done, if he wants a child taught or a person helped, he has to get a man to do it. He needs people through whom he can act, and through whom he can speak.

Very early in the days of his enquiring, Premanand came into contact with Bishop Whitley at Ranchi. He writes: “The Bishop read the Bible with me daily, and sometimes I read Bengali with him, and we talked together in Bengali. The longer I lived with the Bishop the closer I came to him, and found that his life revealed Christ to me, and his deeds and words made it easier for me to understand the mind and teaching of Christ about which I read daily in the Bible. I had a new vision of Christ, when I actually saw Christ’s life of love, sacrifice and self-denial in the everyday life of the Bishop. He became actually the epistle of Christ to me.”

Jesus Christ needs disciples through whom he can work and through whom his truth and his love can enter into the lives of others. He needs men to whom he can give, in order that they may give to others. Without such men he cannot get things done and it is our task to be such men for him.

It would be easy to be daunted and discouraged by a task of such magnitude. But there is another thing in this story that may lift up our hearts. When Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowd, they told him that all they had was five loaves and two fishes; and yet with what they brought to him, Jesus wrought his miracle. Jesus sets every one of us the tremendous task of communicating himself to men; but he does not demand from us splendours and magnificences that we do not possess. He says to us, “Come to me as you are, however ill-equipped; bring to me what you have, however little, and I will use it greatly in my service.” Little is always much in the hands of Christ.

(iv) At the end of the miracle there is that strange little touch that the fragments were gathered up. Even when a miracle could feed men sumptuously there was no waste. There is something to note here. God gives to men with munificence, but a wasteful extravagance is never right. God’s generous giving and our wise using must go hand in hand.

THE MAKING OF A MIRACLE

Matt. 14:13-21 (continued)

There are some people who read the miracles of Jesus, and feel no need to understand. Let them remain for ever undisturbed in the sweet simplicity of their faith. There are others who read and their minds question and they feel they must understand. Let them take no shame of it, for God comes far more than half way to meet the questing mind. But in whatever way we approach the miracles of Jesus, one thing is certain. We must never be content to regard them as something which happened; we must always regard them as something which happens. They are not isolated events in history; they are demonstrations of the always and forever operative power of Jesus Christ. There are three ways in which we can look at this miracle.

(i) We may look at it as a simple multiplication of loaves and fishes. That would be very difficult to understand; and would be something which happened once and never repeated itself. If we regard it that way, let us be content; but let us not be critical and condemnatory of anyone who feels that he must find another way.

(ii) Many people see in this miracle a sacrament. They have felt that those who were present received only the smallest morsel of food, and yet with that were strengthened for their journey and were content. They have felt that this was not a meal where people glutted their physical appetite; but a meal where they ate the spiritual food of Christ. If that be so, this is a miracle which is re-enacted every time we sit at the table of our Lord; for there comes to us the spiritual food which sends us out to walk with firmer feet and greater strength the way of life which leads to God.

(iii) There are those who see in this miracle something which in a sense is perfectly natural, and yet which in another sense is a real miracle, and which in any sense is very precious. Picture the scene. There is the crowd; it is late; and they are hungry. But was it really likely that the vast majority of that crowd would set out around the lake without any food at all? Would they not take something with them, however little? Now it was evening and they were hungry. But they were also selfish. And no one would produce what he had, lest he have to share it and leave himself without enough. Then Jesus took the lead. Such as he and his disciples had, he began to share with a blessing and an invitation and a smile. And thereupon all began to share, and before they knew what was happening, there was enough and more than enough for all.

If this is what happened, it was not the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fishes; it was the miracle of the changing of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ. It was the miracle of the birth of love in grudging hearts. It was the miracle of changed men and women with something of Christ in them to banish their selfishness. If that be so, then in the realest sense Christ fed them with himself and sent his Spirit to dwell within their hearts.

It does not matter how we understand this miracle. One thing is sure–when Christ is there, the weary find rest and the hungry soul is fed.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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