Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.Matthew 14:13-14, NRSV
It’s hard to read this week’s gospel lesson without referring to the preceding verses that set the scene. John, who prepared the way for Jesus, had been murdered as part of a palace plot, beheaded as the prize requested by a young girl at her mother’s instigation. King Herod let it happen because he felt ashamed and embarrassed by his life and the truth John told him about it. This summer I’ve heard many stories about violent losses, not just on the news but from friends I wish I could comfort. Sometimes we can only sit with the trauma of the incomprehensible and allow ourselves to grieve.
Jesus heard this terrible news about a barbaric death, and he needed to get away. Mark’s gospel established the idea of Jesus taking time apart to pray and renew himself, only to be followed by the searching disciples or roused by them from a much-needed nap. Here he tries but is followed not only by his friends but also by crowds of people. I imagine him feeling depleted and shocked, bound to be considering his own mortality.
Consider the context of the times, in which an oppressive regime wielded control over their lives and threatened their community values. I wonder how many people who followed Jesus that day felt the same way: empty, grieving, even a little desperate, willing to trust a teacher who had come out of nowhere to attract so much attention.
And I wonder about Jesus, emptied out by shock and sadness, yet moved by compassion to help those who needed what he could give. I think of him, moving through grief to heal others.* I think of him, touching people who needed filling, not just with fish and bread, but with hope. Writing about this passage years ago, I said, “It is the hope we receive when we share the broken bread and the outpoured cup. That tank is never on empty.”
For those of us still worshiping online, or in person but at a distance complicated by safety protocols, finding that hope can be complicated. We are without the common elements and practices that restored us so regularly we may not have realized their sustaining power. We may well identify with the disciples, reporting to Jesus that the crowd is hungry.
Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.”Matthew 14:16-17
We have nothing here, they said. How relatable! Pastors and church leaders, businesses and schools systems and families, people with jobs and those without have been looking around for months now to figure out how to manage in untenable circumstances. We have experienced the literal emptiness of grocery store shelves and the existential emptiness of lost plans and experiences.
We feel empty now, but we know what happened next. Jesus made more than enough out of what seemed like nothing. He did not call down bread from heaven like manna in the wilderness. He made more out of what was already available.
If I were preaching this week, I would acknowledge some of the ways we are running on empty. I encourage you – as I am encouraging myself – to name the grief we all feel as part of the story, just as it was part of Jesus’ story. Then turn toward identifying what might fill both us and others. What bread and fish do we have to share? What resources are available in our community of faith that God might multiply?
Jesus had compassion for the people. May we be moved to acts of compassion in his name.
*The Greek in verse 14 indicates a visceral response to the needs of others.
I will be taking time for professional development and vacation in August.
My weekly Reflectionary email (subscribe here) will move to Tuesdays when it returns on September 8, and these blog posts will push later in the week.