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“Jesus, the Crowds, and Compassion, Part 2”

Mark 8:1-8, Matthew 14:13-14
Bob DeGray
July 17, 2016

Key Sentence

Jesus shows the power of his love by meeting material needs.


I. Compassion feeds (Mark 8:1-8)
II. Compassion heals (Matthew 14:13-14)


When we talk about compassionate outreach, or helping people, one of first things we think of is meeting material needs. In Scripture we often see God meeting physical needs miraculously, as in 1 Kings 17. “My husband had passed, and my son and I were left in one of the driest and darkest seasons of our entire lives. The earth was hard and cracked, and I was hungry and thirsty again. I was at the city gate, gathering sticks when I heard a man’s voice ask me for a drink of water. As I looked up I could see by this man’s dress that he was an Israelite prophet. Now I thought it was strange that he would ask me for a drink of water. Couldn’t he tell by my dress that I was a widow. And widows aren’t usually the first ones you ask for help.

“I agreed to get him his water, and as I was on my way he called to me again and asked me to please bring him a piece of bread. Now why was this man deliberately overlooking my circumstances. “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” I said to him, “I don’t have any bread. Only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug.” “Don’t be afraid,” he said to me. “First go, and make a small cake of bread from what you have and bring it back to me. For the jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not be dried up until the Lord sends rain on the land.” Something about his words made me believe him. And so I did what he told me to do, and he was right. There was enough food every day for me, my son and the prophet Elijah.”

God’s power is miraculous. God’s love is expressed in compassion, and Jesus is the high point of both power and love. So it’s not surprising that in the Gospels Jesus shows the power of his love by miraculously meeting material needs. Last week we looked at two places where Jesus shows compassion to a crowd because they are like sheep without a shepherd. Once he taught them. The second time he shared the Gospel of the Kingdom and called us to pray that God would send workers out into the harvest field with that Gospel.

But Jesus’ compassion was not limited to the hearts and minds of his hearers. He also saw and cared about physical needs. In our two texts today, Mark 8:1-8 and Matthew 14:13-14, he has compassion on the crowd and feeds them, he has compassion on the crowd and heals their sick. Jesus shows the power of his love by meeting material needs. And as his people, we get to participate in this kind of compassionate outreach as well. Whether as witnesses of his miracles, or human agents of his provision and healing, we get to express his love by meeting material needs. We begin with Mark 8:1-8, which is the feeding, not of the 5000 but of the 4000.

Mark 8:1-8 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2“I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6He directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.

This account comes near the end of a long section in which Jesus has been working on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Near the end of chapter 7 he returns to the seashore from the regions of Tyre and Sidon. He’s in the Decapolis, ten towns of mixed Jewish and Gentile population, and as he ministers, this population follows him. They end up, days later, in a remote place where food was not easily accessible. So Jesus calls his disciples over and says to them “I have compassion on the crowd.” This is the only place in the gospels where Jesus says “I feel compassion,” first person singular. There are many references to His compassion, third person. The two we looked at last week and our other text today are all said of him. People observed that he felt compassion because he did compassionate things. But here he says it directly.

And this makes compassion an attribute of God. In Luke 1:78 when Zacharias gives his blessing, he speaks of the tender mercies of our God and he uses the Greek word we studied last week, splanchnizomai, God feels compassion. Aren’t we glad for that? “This sets God apart from every other false deity on the planet,” John McArthur says. “Satan, having no compassion, doesn’t invent deities that are compassionate.” But the Bible reveals the compassion of the one true God. Exodus 34 reveals that the Lord is gracious and compassionate, and many Psalms echo this. Lamentations 3 tells us his compassions are new every morning because of his great faithfulness. Paul tells us He is the God of all comforts, and Jesus tells us that the Holy Spirit Himself is the Comforter.

So Jesus feels this compassion and specifically, compassion for the physical needs of the crowd that had gathered. They had been with him three days. He must have been teaching a lot of that time, and sharing the Gospel of the kingdom, as we saw him doing last week. But his concern is with the physical needs, the material poverty that people were feeling at that moment, and its impact.

If you’ve been following the discussion of ‘helping without hurting’ in our Sunday School, you’ll remember a diagram that shows people falling into a crisis that threatens basic needs, receiving relief from that crisis, rehabilitation to stability and then development to move beyond their initial state. Here Jesus is looking to avert a crisis by providing relief. He says “they have been with me three days. They’re hungry. If I send them away to their homes some will faint or collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long way.” He’s looking to provide immediate material relief, food for their hunger.

And we need to be willing to do the same. As we consider these other aspects of compassionate outreach, restoration, development, teaching, and sharing the Good News to alleviate spiritual poverty, we can’t forget to meet the basic needs of people in crisis. The world refugee situation, which we’ll examine from Deuteronomy next week, has as a key component immediate relief for people with no food, water, shelter or resources, and often no safety.

But with so many refugees today in so many desperate places, as with such a crowd back then in such a desolate place, the temptation is to ask “what can we do?” Verse 4: “And his disciples asked him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” The funny thing is that only two chapters before Jesus had fed the 5000. How could the disciples forget that miracle? Some commentators are convinced the Gospel writers accidently included the same story twice. But the details are very different. What is more likely, given what we know of the disciples and what I know of my own heart’s weakness, is that these men did not yet have enough faith to expect a repeat. In fact, they may have already heard Jesus refuse to give the first crowd a repeat.

Or it’s possible they may be turning the problem back over to Jesus. They look at their resources, seven loaves of bread, and they look at the need, 4000 to feed, and they say, in essence, “We can’t do this but you can.” Jesus’ power is not limited by our lack of faith. His compassion is not limited by human resources. He knows something can be done. So he has the disciples seat the crowd on the ground, he gives thanks for the provision and he distributes it. Hidden in the Greek behind the simple words ‘sit down’ is an interesting nuance. He really instructs them to recline, which was what one did at a festive meal, like the Jewish feasts. It is celebratory, relaxed–a meal among friends. Jesus is hosting a banquet for hungry people in the wilderness. Jesus is inviting this whole partly-Gentile crowd to share table fellowship. It’s interesting too that he gives thanks again when the fish are passed. It was not Jewish custom to give thanks twice at a meal, except at the Passover meal where the blessing is said five or six times. Jesus was making this a feast, and bringing the Jewish habit of blessing into the lives of the Gentiles he was providing for.

So they recline and the disciples start passing out these seven loaves, and they never stop. By the power of God, Jesus is creating bread out of nothing. I have no idea what this looked like, but I like the depiction in the Gospel of John movie, which I used with the Nichole Nordeman song. “You lifted bread to the blue sky. They said they watched it just multiply. But in the back of a long line. Oh, I want to believe there’s enough left for me. Cause by now it really shoulda been long gone, and somehow it keeps going on and on. And on and on and on, ‘cause You take all kinds of nothing, and turn it round into something. I see impossible, but You see a basket full of . . .”

So they set out the loaves, he takes these few fish and he gives thanks for them, and those too are set out. Verse 8: “They ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” The abundance of the meal is signaled not only by the fact that everyone was satisfied, but by the seven baskets full of leftovers. But isn’t that less than the feeding of the 5000, which had twelve baskets left over? Actually, it’s more. The word for basket in Mark 6:43 refers to something like the size of a lunch box but the word in Mark 8:8 refers to a basket large enough to lift a person over a wall. The leftovers could have fed hundreds more. Such is the power of God’s compassion.

Jesus is our example in compassionate outreach. He had compassion and he provided for those who were hungry. He met needs. The question this raises is “what are we supposed to do?” That question brings us face to face with a classic problem for Christians. Are we to do exactly what he did, the same miracles and even greater miracles to provide for those in need? I want to address that in a moment, but for now let’s look at the other text. This will be the fourth time in two weeks of messages that Jesus sees a crowd and has compassion. It’s very brief. Matthew 14:13-14 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

This is the beginning of Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5000, but it doesn’t link Jesus’ compassion to that miracle. Instead this crowd comes to him from all the towns, moving along the lake while he moves along it in a boat, and again when he lands he sees this great crowd. And he has compassion on them. Matthew doesn’t say he teaches, though he probably did and certainly did in the text we saw last week. Matthew doesn’t say he proclaims the Gospel, though he probably did and certainly did in the other text we studied last week. Matthew doesn’t say he had compassion for their hunger, though in the text we just looked at, that’s the direct connection to material need. But here he displays a fourth kind of compassion. He heals their sick.

We often feel compassion for those who are chronically ill, diagnosed with disease, or injured. Jesus felt this same compassion and responded to it over and over in the Gospels by healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, even raising the dead. Again, this is what God had been doing throughout the Old Testament: “Sometime later my son got sick and died. I remember being so angry. “Is this why you came,” I said to Elijah, “to remind me of my sin?” “Give me your son,” Elijah said. And he carried the boy off to his room and he prayed. At that moment, fear and guilt and condemnation flooded my soul until all hope had left me. And once again when it seemed all was gone, was precisely when I received my miracle. For Elijah had given me back my son, alive.” We don’t know how this crowd responded to the healing of Jesus but we see in many other Gospel accounts that the same rebirth of hope from nothing.

So Jesus has compassion on the spiritual, emotional and mental needs of people. He also has compassion on their physical and material needs, especially for those in poverty and want. What are we to learn from this? On one level it’s quite clear, isn’t it? We are to imitate the compassion of Jesus. We are to invest ourselves in compassionate outreach. We are to include but not limit ourselves to material poverty. We are to recognize the compassion Jesus has shown to our brokenness, our sheep-without-a-shepherdness. We are to teach and share good news to fellow lost sheep of every tribe, tongue, race, community and nation. But maybe with a special emphasis on those in poverty and want. Because that is a fitting imitation of the ministry of Jesus and the heart of God.

As we apply this I want to focus on the question of how we imitate Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Jesus often did miracles, whether it was feeding the hungry, calming the sea, raising the dead, healing the sick, casting out demons, giving sight to the blind, or turning water into wine. These were acts of compassion, but as miracles they were also a witness to his power, authority and sovereignty. So the question is should we imitate Jesus by the doing of miracles? Greater works than he did? Or should we use other means, less blatantly supernatural means to show compassion. As I thought and prayed about that, the answer seemed clearly to be one of those both-and situations.

From earliest times Christians have prayed for miracles and used resources. One of my favorite examples is what Paul did in the book of Acts when there was a famine in Judea. He collected funds from a bunch of the Gentile churches and brought those funds to the poor in Jerusalem. The question is why didn’t he, or one of the other apostles still in Jerusalem, or some ordinary believer, simply get hold of a few loaves and fish and re-create or even better Jesus’ miracle? Why not miraculously relieve this famine and poverty? Why use the same kind of means we would use for crisis relief.

Well, why not? Certainly Paul and these others would have prayed for relief from the famine, for a miracle or miracles that would glorify God, but they also felt it important that believers invest in compassionate outreach. In fact, when Paul received such a gift, support for his ministry from the church at Phillipi, he said “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.” He’s saying it’s good for us to sacrifice ourselves to help others.

At no other time in the history of Christianity did love so characterize the church as in the first centuries. And society noticed. Tertullian reported that the Romans would exclaim, “See how they love one another!” Justin Martyr sketched Christian love this way: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together, and pray for our enemies.” Clement, describing one who has come to know God, wrote, “He impoverishes himself out of love, so that he is certain he may never overlook a brother in need. . . . He likewise considers the pain of another as his own.” That’s compassion.

Healing is an interesting case, because clearly God still does miracles of healing, and by those miracles he still witnesses to his power, authority and sovereignty. This was true in the early church, and it became the custom as the Catholic church was shaping itself, to reserve a special title, ‘saint’ for people who specially served God. This is not particularly biblical – the New Testament calls us all saints – but it’s interesting that one of the qualifying standards for sainthood, even now in the Catholic Church, is verified miracles, often miracles of healing. Mother Theresa of Calcutta is well on the path to being declared a saint and that has included the recognition of two very carefully researched miracles of healing. But she also did an extraordinary amount of ordinary compassionate outreach in caring for the poor, needy and sick.

This is how it was in the early church. They prayed for, expected and received miracles. They also did an extraordinary amount of ordinary compassionate outreach. Eric Metaxas, writing in a Breakpoint commentary gives several examples. “Between 250 and 270 A.D. a terrible plague, believed to be measles or smallpox, devastated the Roman Empire. At the height of the plague 5,000 people were dying daily in Rome alone. The plague coincided with the first empire-wide persecution of Christians under Decius. Not surprisingly, Decius and other enemies of the Church blamed Christians for the plague. That claim was, however, undermined by two inconvenient facts: Christians died from the plague like everybody else and, unlike everybody else, they cared for the victims of the plague, including their pagan neighbors.

The Christians had done the same thing during the Alexandrian Plague a century earlier. As Rodney Stark wrote in “The Rise of Christianity,” Christians stayed in the afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including physicians, fled. They cared for the sick at the risk of contracting the plague themselves. Meanwhile, pagans were throwing infected members of their families into the streets even before they died, in order to protect themselves from the disease.

So our imitation of Jesus needs to depend on God for miraculous answers to our prayers, but also to depend on him for extraordinary application of ordinary compassion – providing food, water, shelter, safety and medical care, as so many Christian doctors did during the worst moments of the Ebola crisis a few years ago. And this extraordinary ordinary compassion is, I believe, no less a witness than the miraculous. I believe that in our meek serving we witness to God’s power authority and sovereignty in our lives.

I want to close with a fun story. It’s fiction, from a book called ‘The Philippian Fragment,’ by Calvin Miller. It’s a series of letters from the new pastor of the church of Philippi, sometime around 150 A.D. and the idea is to humorously show how some of the issues we encounter in the modern church might have been present in the early church as well. This particular letter is called “A New Friend with the Gift of Healing.” Writing as Eusebius of Philippi, Miller says “Shortly after my arrival in the city I made another new friend, Helen of Hierapolis. She is a dynamic love of people, and is so bound up in her love for Christ, that she walks in an aura of esteem. 2. I am not usually so taken with traveling healers. 3. You will remember my disaffection for Hiram the Healer of the Hellespont who claimed instant health for all who would in faith touch his sequined toga. 4. He lost much of his following in West Asia because he couldn’t get relief from a toothache.

5. But Helen is different. She came to Philippi with a conviction that God loves the suffering and she determined to participate with God in this love. 6. I met her near the synagogue when she was talking to a group of blind beggars, I was surprised when she didn’t even try to heal them, but bought each of them a new cane and reminded them that the curbs on Caesar’s Boulevard were especially high. . . . 8. “Someday,” she told them, “light will be universal, and every eye will behold eternal love.” 9. They didn’t feel as though she had cheated them. 11. I am the richer to know her.

12. Sister Helen opened a great crusade in Philippi on Thursday, and is the sensation of the leper colony. 13. She rarely does anything one could call a miracle. 14. Last week she laid hands on a little crippled boy and was not able to heal him, but she gave him a new pair of crutches and took him for a walk in the park.

15. Yesterday with my own eyes I saw her pass an amputee selling styluses. She touched his legs and cried, “Grow back! Grow back! . . . In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, grow back!” 16. Well, Clement, I so wanted to see the legs grow back, but they did not. Poor Helen. What’s a faith healer to do with an amputee that refuses to grow legs on command? 17. She sat down with the little man, crossed her legs on the cold pavement, and began selling styluses herself. 18. Soon she was talking to him, and before very long they were both laughing together. For an hour they laughed together, and by nightfall they were having an uproariously good time. 19. When it was time to go, Helen’s legs were so stiff from disuse, they refused to move. 20. Her legless, stylus-selling friend cried in jest, “Grow strong! . . . Grow strong! . . . Grow strong!” Helen only smiled and staggered upward on her unsteady legs. 21. She looked down at her lowly friend and said, “I offer you healing, you will see. It is only one world away. Someday . . . ,” she stopped and smiled, “you will enter a new life and you will hear our Savior say to your legless stumps, ‘Grow long! . . . Grow long!’ Then you will know that glory which Sister Helen only dreamed for you.” 24. “You are right, Sister Helen. But more than right, you are an evidence that our Father yet heals the spirit of amputees—even when they will not grow legs. And, once the spirit is healed, the legs can be done without.”

25. Helen turned and walked on down the street. She was near the amphitheater where she holds her great crusade when she saw a young girl without any arms. 26. “Grow long! . . . Grow long! . . . In the glorious name of Jesus Christ, grow long!” she cried. 27. The girl looked puzzled and looked at her shoulders where her arms refused to be. They did not seem to her to be growing. 28. “I was afraid of that,” said Helen. “Oh, well, I can miss my meeting one night, I guess. Young lady, how long has it been since anyone combed your hair?” 29. And she sat down beside her new friend and took out her comb. For the first time in my life I wanted to be a faith healer, Clement.”

Jesus shows the power of his love by compassionate outreach, miraculous and ordinary. May it be so with us.