COMPASSION AND CHALLENGE
In those days, when there was again a great crowd, and when they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have stayed with me now for three days, and they have nothing to eat. If I send them away to their homes still fasting, they will faint on the road; and some of them have come from a long distance.” His disciples answered him, “Where could anyone get bread to satisfy them in a desert place like this?” He asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven.” He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves and gave thanks for them and broke them, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. So they set them before the crowd, and they had a few small fishes. So he blessed them and told them to set them before them too. So they ate until they were completely satisfied. They gathered up what remained over of the broken pieces–seven baskets. There were about four thousand people there. So he sent them away, and immediately he embarked on the boat with his disciples and came to the district of Dalmanutha.
There are two things closely intertwined in this incident.
(i) There is the compassion of Jesus. Over and over again we see Jesus moved with compassion for men. The most amazing thing about him is his sheer considerateness. Now considerateness is a virtue which never forgets the details of life. Jesus looked at the crowd; they had been with him for three days; and he remembered that they had a long walk home. He whose task it was to bring the splendour and the majesty of the truth and love of God to men might have had a mind above thinking of what was going to happen to his congregation on their walk home. But Jesus was not like that. Confront Jesus with a lost soul or a tired body and his first instinct was to help.
It is all too true that the first instinct of too many people is not to help. I met a man once at a conference and was discussing with him the dangers of a certain stretch of road on the way to the town where we were. “Yes,” he said. “It’s a right bad bit of road. I saw a crash on it as I drove here today.” “Did you stop and help?” I asked. “Not me,” he said, “I wasn’t going to be held up by getting mixed up in a thing like that.” It is human to want to avoid the trouble of giving help; it is divine to be moved with such compassion and pity that we are compelled to help.
(ii) There is the challenge of Jesus. When Jesus had pity on the crowd and wished to give them something to eat, the disciples immediately pointed out the practical difficulty that they were in a desert place and that there was nowhere within miles where any food could be got. At once Jesus flashed the question back at them, “What have you got wherewith you may help?” Compassion became a challenge. In effect Jesus was saying, “Don’t try to push the responsibility for helping on to someone else. Don’t say that you would help if you had only something to give. Don’t say that in these circumstances to help is impossible. Take what you have and give it and see what happens.”
One of the most joyous of all Jewish feasts is the Feast of Purim. It falls on the 14th March and commemorates the deliverance of which the Book of Esther tells. Above all it is a time of giving gifts; and one of its regulations is that, no matter how poor a man is, he must seek out someone poorer than himself and give him a gift. Jesus has no time for the spirit which waits until all the circumstances are perfect before it thinks of helping. Jesus says, “If you see someone in trouble, help him with what you have. You never know what you may do.” There are two interesting things in the background of this story.
The first is this. This incident happened on the far side of the Sea of Galilee in the district called the Decapolis. Why did this tremendous 4,000 crowd assemble? There is no doubt that the healing of the deaf man with the impediment in his speech would help to arouse interest and to collect the crowd.
But one commentator has made a most interesting suggestion. In Mk. 5:1-20, we have already read how Jesus cured the Gerasene demoniac. That incident also happened in the Decapolis. Its result was that they urged Jesus to go away. But the cured demoniac wished to follow Jesus, and Jesus sent him back to his own people to tell them what great things the Lord had done for him. Is it just possible that part of this great crowd was due to the missionary activity of the healed demoniac? Have we got here a glimpse of what the witness of one man can do for Christ? Were there people in the crowd that day who came to Christ and found their souls because a man had told them what Christ had done for him? John Bunyan tells how he owed his conversion to the fact that he heard three or four old women talking, as they sat in the sun, “about a new birth, the work of God in their hearts.” They were talking of what God had done for them. It may well be that there were many that day in that crowd in Decapolis who were there because they had heard a man telling what Jesus Christ had done for him.
The second thing is this. It is odd that the word for basket is different in this story from the word used in the similar story in Mk. 6. In Mk. 6:44, the word for basket is kophinos (GSN2894), which describes the basket in which the Jew carried his food, a basket narrow at the top and wider at the foot, and rather like a water pot. The word used here is sphuris (GSN4711), which describes a basket like a hamper, a frail is the technical term; it was in that kind of basket that Paul was let down over the wall of Damascus (Ac.9:25); and it describes the basket which the Gentiles used. This incident happened in the Decapolis, which was on the far side of the lake and had a large Gentile population. Is it possible that we are to see in the feeding of the multitude in Mk. 6 the coming of the bread of God to the Jews, and in this incident the coming of the bread of God to the Gentiles? When we put these two stories together, is there somewhere at the back of them the suggestion and the forecast and the symbol that Jesus came to satisfy the hunger of Jew and Gentile alike, that in him, in truth, was the God who opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing?
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