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Jesus' Compassion & Challenge

Have you ever been to a 3-D movie? We went to see one in Disneyland a number of years ago. It looked like objects were flying right at us. They even had a special effect that made it feel like something was crawling up our legs.

Of course the key to experiencing a 3-D movie properly is that you have to wear the right glasses. If you don’t wear those funky paper glasses they give you before the movie, the ones with one red eye-glass and one blue eye-glass, everything looks wrong and you can’t even figure out what’s going on in the movie.

The same holds true when we approach the Bible. If we want to see correctly what it is saying, we have to be wearing the right spectacles. For example, in order to understand Mark 8:1-10 which we are going to read this morning, we have to put on our first century Palestinian spectacles.

In order for you to see the difference, between wearing the proper spectacles and not wearing them, let me first read to you from Mark 8. Then we’ll put on our spectacles and look at it again….

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, 2 “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” 4 His disciples replied, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” 5 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7 They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8 They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.[a]

The first thing we see when we put on our first century glasses is something about the compassion of Jesus. And that becomes more clear when we see when and where these events took place; the “where” and the “when” reveal to whom Jesus was ministering. Some scholars think that the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are two different accounts of the same event. I don’t think so. The details in each story are too different.

First of all, the time of year is different. Mark tells us that the five thousand sat down on the green grass. So it was spring time. In this account Jesus has the people sit on the ground. In other words, it is high summer; the grass has withered away in the heat leaving only the bare, hard earth. Perhaps as much as six months have passed. It would have taken Jesus that long to travel from the western side of the Sea of Galilee in Mark 7:24, up to the region of Tyre where he meets the Syrophoenician woman and spends some time, then up to Sidon in Mark 7:31, then down again to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and the Decapolis.

But secondly, and most importantly, the setting and the people served are different in these two accounts. Five thousand Jews were fed by Jesus near Bethsaida, according to Luke 9. Bethsaida was a Semitic town. However, in Mark we read that after sojourning in the region of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus went down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. As we saw last week, Decapolis is a Greek word meaning “ten cities”. This was a largely Gentile area, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee.

Throughout Mark 7 and 8 we see Mark emphasizing Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles. At the beginning of Mark 7 we see Jesus overruling the Jewish handwashing rituals and the dietary laws, declaring all foods clean. In the middle of Mark 7 we see Jesus reaching out to a Gentile woman and healing her daughter and then he heals a Gentile man who is deaf and mute. And now here we see Jesus feeding four thousand, mostly Gentile, people in a non-Semitic region.

There are other details in Mark’s text which indicate that Jesus is ministering to Gentiles. In the feeding of the five thousand, the baskets used to pick up the leftover pieces are called kophinoi. According to William Barclay, “The kophinos was a narrow-necked, flask-shaped basket which Jews often carried with them, for a Jew often carried his own food, lest he should be compelled to eat food which had been touched by Gentile hands and was therefore unclean.” However, in the feeding of the four thousand, the baskets used are called spuridas. Barclay says, “The sphuris was much more like a hamper; it could be big enough to carry a man; it was a kind of basket that a Gentile would use.” In fact, this was the kind of basket the disciples used when they lowered Saul through an opening in the wall of the city of Damascus, according to the book of Acts.

Barclay concludes, “The wonder of this story is that in … this feeding of the hungry, we see the mercy and the compassion of Jesus going out to the Gentiles. Here is a kind of symbol and foretaste that the bread of God was not to be confined to the Jews; that the Gentiles were also to have their share of him who is the living bread.”

Remember in our reading from Mark a couple of Sundays ago, where the Syrophoenician woman said to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”? Here we see just that, the little puppies, the Gentiles, thousands of them, feasting at the Master’s table. Jesus’ blessings are for everyone, for Jew and Gentile alike.

And what drew these Gentile hordes to hear Jesus and be fed by him? I wonder if it was the testimony of people like the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5, the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7, and the deaf and mute man in that same chapter. We should never underestimate what our sharing of our own experience of Jesus can accomplish in the lives of others.

Now let’s talk about two things in this passage we don’t need first century spectacles to understand.

First of all, Michael Green has written, “Why were the disciples so perplexed about what Jesus would do, when faced with this hungry throng in the wilderness? They had, after all, seen him feed five thousand people from a few bread rolls. Their obtuseness accords well enough with what we know of them at this time. But is it not very natural? Is it not like us? We see some marvelous display of the Lord’s power, and yet we are full of doubts when we are thrown into another situation of need that casts us back on him. We simply do not expect him to act the second time! They were like that, it seems. And it may be that they did indeed remember the feeding of the five thousand, but they also remembered occasions when they were in real need and those needs remained unmet. And so their faith burned low, and expectancy shrunk. Is it not so with us? Lack of trust often springs from forgetfulness of past blessing.”

Secondly, in this passage we see Jesus meeting various kinds of human need.

We see Jesus concerned for the tired. Jesus says, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days.” The word for compassion used here means that Jesus was moved in his bowels. We think of the heart as the seat of compassion. Thus we use hearts to decorate our Valentine’s cards. The Jews thought of the bowels as the seat of compassion. It wouldn’t work too well on a Valentine’s card, but that’s how the Jews thought. Jesus was moved at gut-level by the tiredness of the people who had come out to hear and see him teach and preach and heal. As William Barclay has said, “Jesus is infinitely concerned for the world’s wayfarers, for the world’s toilers, for those whose eyes are weary and whose hands are tired.”

We also see Jesus feeding the hungry. Again, Barclay writes so helpfully, “We see him [Jesus] giving all he has to relieve physical hunger and physical need. Jesus is infinitely concerned for men’s bodies, just as he is for their souls.”

Many people ask: if there is a loving God who created the world then why is there so much pain and suffering? In some ways this is a difficult if not impossible question to answer theoretically. But practically speaking, God himself has answered this question through his Son Jesus Christ. In Jesus we see just how much God does care about the pain of the world and of the individuals in the world. He cares infinitely.

Alfred Edersheim has pointed out in regard to this passage that at each of three successive stages of his ministry Jesus ends each stage by setting a meal before people. First, the feeding of the five thousand comes at the culmination of his ministry in Galilee. Second, there is the feeding of the four thousand. This comes at the end of Jesus’ brief ministry to the Gentiles, first in the region of Tyre and Sidon and now in the Decapolis. Thirdly and finally, there is the Passover Supper which Jesus shares with his disciples on the eve of his own death.

Jesus always leaves us with strengthening food for the journey. Jesus is always gathering people to himself to feed us with the living bread. He is always giving of himself completely before he moves on. Mark’s church, to whom he is writing, probably could not have heard the stories of the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand without thinking of how Jesus feeds us through the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus still comes to us offering us the bread which will satisfy the eternal hunger of the human soul. He gives us food and strength for the journey. He meets every kind of human need.

Thus, we see the compassion of Jesus throughout this story. But we also receive a challenge from Jesus here.

The challenge is represented in Jesus’ question to the disciples: “How many loaves do you have?” In other words: what resources do you have that can be used to meet the needs of the world? In both stories, the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus involves the disciples in the feeding. Just so, I believe Jesus wants to use us to meet the needs of our broken, hurting, hungry world today.

Of course our resources will seem small to us compared to the need of the world. However, as Tom Wright says, that is Jesus’ problem, not ours. “Our task…is not to bemoan how few loaves and fishes we have for the crowd, but to offer them to Jesus, to do whatever he wants with them; and then to be ready to distribute them, to our own surprise, at his command.” As we saw with the feeding of the five thousand, so also we see here: little becomes much when we place it in the Master’s hands.

This text raises a number of questions for me, like: how can we bring the work of Jesus into 3-D in our world today? Where in the world are the promises of God urgently needed to be heard today? Where are the tired needing a lift from Jesus today? Where are those who are hungry needing Jesus to feed them today?

The story is told of an Italian village with a beautiful statue of Jesus in their town square. The statue showed Jesus standing with hands lovingly outstretched to every passerby. Sadly, the statue was damaged during the Second World War; Jesus lost his hands. After the war, the leaders of the Italian village where this statue stood considered what needed to be done to fix it. In the end they decided to leave the statue as it was and they put a sign beneath it, putting these words on the lips of Jesus: “I have no hands but yours.”

These words echo those of St. Theresa of Avila,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours;

No hands but yours;

No feet but yours:

Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion looks out into the world;

Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;

Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.


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