"Compassion Never Goes on Vacation” (Matthew 14:13-21)

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (August 2, 2020)


For many of us, summertime equates with vacation time.  We look forward all year to taking a week, two weeks, or more to get away from the daily grind to get some rest and relaxation. We see it as a time to leave the world behind with all its problems and cares and just take a break. Unfortunately, such vacations many times translate into the leaving behind of our responsibilities as well.  They become opportunities to forget others and simply indulge ourselves.


Jesus’ concept of time away, or vacation, is something entirely different.  Just as the Sabbath Day itself was designed to give God’s people an occasion to obtain rest in Him, Jesus looked upon times of respite, or holidays, as times free from the daily chores of work to allow Himself to be refreshed” in God.  Throughout His ministry, we see Jesus retreating away to solitary places in order to commune with God in meditation on God’s Word and prayer.  Often His getaways would occur at momentous occasions in His ministry when perhaps crucial events were going to happen or He was going forward with His Messianic mission to save sinners.  They were not simply occasions to avoid responsibility and work but times for strengthening to meet the responsibilities that lay before Him.


Just such an occasion for a brief sabbatical is presented in our text from Matthew. Jesus hopped aboard a ship in the hopes of sailing away to a secluded place on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. According to Matthew, what precipitated this desire in Jesus to “get away” was the awful news that John the Baptizer had been beheaded by the ruthless King Herod as a conciliatory gesture to his wife’s daughter.  The news of such treachery and murder alone was enough to cause anyone to want to get away from all the harsh wickedness of this sinful world in which we live. 


Who of us does not crave to take more than a deep breath and pause from all that’s going on in our lives and our country right now!  The stress of the pandemic, the divisive political rhetoric, let alone all the horrible news of more rioting, looting and murdering going on in our country has become just too much!  But Jesus’ need to get away was much more than an attempt to get some space between Himself and the evil before Him.  The death of John was a sign that His ministry was to go forward with even more earnestness.  John had himself recognized this.  He had said to his followers, “He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).


Jesus’ get away plans, however, were to be somewhat spoiled.  The hurting masses of people had witnessed his departure and had decided to follow Him. By foot they made their way around the Sea of Galilee to, in effect, cut short Jesus’ vacation.  And even though perhaps many of them had no idea the true identity of Jesus as God’s Son, His promised Messiah, still more than anything else they felt drawn to His presence where they could hear His Good News about the Kingdom of God and be healed by Him.


Now, I suppose, Jesus could have ignored them.  He could have used the same rationalization we often use; if one is to be of any help to others he first must take care of himself.  Yes, He could have, but then, He would not have been our Savior.  You see, even though Jesus is fully human and was subject to all the temptations we are, He was and is not like us in a very important way. Yes, He was and is God.  But there is more.  Jesus’ life, thoughts, and desires were driven not by self-centeredness but by that virtue so totally rare in our world today; compassion.   Jesus’ compassion for these hurting people would not allow Him to ignore them or put Himself and His own needs first.  The same compassion that would later move Him to gladly bear the pain of the cross for you and me moved Jesus to forsake the solitude and comfort of His sabbatical and to touch the people’s wounds in body and spirit and heal them.  He spent the whole day teaching them and healing them.  Jesus’ compassion was and is not capable of going on vacation! 

How do we understand this compassion? The word Matthew employs for compassion, literally means that His visceral organs ached.  Such compassion is not a mere pity or sympathy, which seeks to keep oneself at an arms length from another’s tragedy.  Instead, it is a willingness to share the pain and misery of the afflicted, taking it upon oneself, in order to help them become free from it.

How often do you and I exhibit that kind of compassion?  Anyone can send a greeting card and let Hallmark do the caring for us.  Now, don’t get me wrong, sending a card can be a loving way to provide a measure of relief for someone who is sick, or hurting, or just simply needs a lift in their spirit.  However, the reliance on sending cards can also be a way to avoid really having to get compassionately involved in someone’s dilemma.  The card can soothe our conscience that we have helped that person, but without any real sacrifice on our part.  It can simply be a way to keep ourselves at an arm’s length away from really weeping with those who weep and bearing someone else’s burden. Real compassion, however, is visceral.  It is a real gut ache to help someone. True compassion is connecting in a real tangible way by suffering with the sufferer


Some of you have heard me talk about this before but some twenty years ago my granddaughter literally had to fight for her life.  Besides being born with several holes in the chambers of her heart, her two valves were not functioning properly.  After the initial scheduled open heart surgery to repair the worst of her leaky valves, she went into congestive heart failure.  That was the first of several times in the next few month she would be at death’s door.  Over the course of the next two and half months, we  spent each day in constant prayer vigil at her bedside as she was subjected to three more open heart surgeries at Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Needless to say, we were almost on a first name basis with her team of physicians, surgeons, chaplains and nurses.  We grew to admire them not only for their great skills, but most importantly, their Christ-like compassion.


One of the ICU nurses that so compassionately attended to our granddaughter’s every need, shared with us the amazing story of how the very first successful open heart surgery was performed.  It happened to have been performed in her native country of New Zealand.  She said that the heart patient was teenaged boy. The boy’s life was in danger because the valves in his heart, like our granddaughter’s, were leaking and allowing the oxygenated blood to mix with the poor blood.  Without surgery the boy would die.  His doctors felt they had the knowhow to repair the valves but had to stop the heart to do it.  This presented them with a real dilemma.   Without some way to keep the boy’s blood circulating during what could be a lengthy operation, the boy would die.  No one had yet invented the heart and lung machine used today.


What to do?  The answer was found in the compassion of the boy’s father. At high risk to his own life, the father in effect became his son’s heart during the operation.  Through elaborate set of tubes the father’s heart was surgically connected to boy’s blood stream so that it could do the pumping for both of them.  The surgery was a complete success and both the boy and his father lived!  Now, that is compassion!


Jesus desires that His disciples get involved in sharing His compassion with others.  That, too, involves, connecting hearts!  Jesus purposely kept ministering to the needs of the people well into evening.   This caused His twelve apostles to become somewhat nervous.  The hour was late and they did not want the people to faint away from the lack of food.  After all, the location was quite isolated and barren.  There were no food markets nearby... no concession stands or even fruit orchards from which the people could get something to eat.  So they spoke to Jesus and suggested that He release the people so that they could return home and perhaps buy some food for themselves in the villages along the way.


Now, what can we make of their plan? It certainly seems like a practical solution, doesn’t it?  At least, if their plan was followed and someone still fainted away under the hot conditions, the disciples’ consciences could be clear.  They were thinking about the people’s welfare were they not?  And yet, something was still amiss in their plan. The driving desire in their heart was still not a compassion for the people as much as it was relieving themselves of a huge burden.  But even more importantly, their plan not only didn’t involve any Christ-like compassion, it didn’t involve Christ period!  Could not He who is God in human flesh, be of help in this situation?  By providing their very practical, but faithless solution, they were in essence subtly reprimanding Jesus for His seeming unconcern and ambivalence toward the people’s need to eat and drink.





Jesus immediately turned the tables on them.  He replied, “They do not need to go away.  You give them something to eat.”  I can only imagine how panicked and bewildered the Twelve became at such a remark.  “Has Jesus gone completely nuts!  What does he mean, ‘You give them something to eat!’  We hardly have the resources to feed ourselves.  How in the world can we ever feed all these thousands of people?”


In order to make Jesus understand just how impossible His request was, the disciples quickly inventoried the resources available.  Five loaves of barley bread and two fish was all that they could come up with.  Surely they were thinking, “And what’s that to feed all these thousands of people.  It wouldn’t even be enough to give everyone a small morsel.” 


But Jesus wasn’t out of His mind as they imagined.  Neither was He simply being naive about the seriousness of the situation.  As we learn from the apostle John’s account, Jesus was “testing” His disciples:  testing them to see His true compassion, as well as, testing them to put their faith in Him as not merely one who has a solution, but that He in His compassion is the solution. 

Jesus commanded that the loaves of bread and fish be brought to Him.  He then had all the people sit down on the grass.  “Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves.  Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.” Not only did everyone of the 5,000 plus crowd have his fill, but Matthew records that the disciples picked up 12 basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.


What a fantastic miracle of Jesus’ compassion.  What an object lesson of Who Jesus is!  Some restaurant’s today might offer you the bottomless cup of coffee or a buffet line from which you can eat all you want.  But it all comes at a price.  In Jesus, however, the bread just kept coming and coming, all for free!  No illusionist, even of the stature of Harry Houdini or David Copperfield, could pull this feat off!  There is only one person who can create out of nothing; Holy God Himself. 


Jesus could not have made His divinity any more clear.  The same one Who created the heavens and the earth... the plants of the field, the animals, the birds of the air and the fish of the sea... stood in their midst in human flesh.  In the person of Jesus Christ God is incarnate.  Jesus is Emmanuel; God with us.  The Creator Himself in the womb of Mary had become creature, a human, that He might compassionately bring His divine power to bear to meet the needs of mere mortals, like the people of Galilee, like the 12 apostles, and like you and me!


Don’t you just love the amazing arithmetic of God’s compassion!  Do the math. Add five and two and you get 12!  When Jesus adds He multiplies.  He took two fish added them together with five loaves of bread then subtracted enough to fill the stomachs of 5,000 men plus their wives and children and He left a remainder of 12 full baskets!  Even after meeting the needs of the people, Jesus provided more than He started with.  That’s the math of miracles.  But even more importantly, it’s the math of God’s compassion.  In His mercy and grace He always reaches down and visits us with more than we can ever use. 


Look around you and do the math of God’s compassion.  Not one of us lacks for bread.  In fact, if the truth were to be known, we probably waste more food than we actually need to live on.  None of us lacks for clothing.  We have closets and dressers full of them!  The multiplication of God’s compassion to us in Jesus Christ has more than provided all that we need to support this body and life. 


God’s math is even more mind-boggling when it comes to our eternal salvation.  Take away into death one Jesus and the whole world of sinners is extended eternal life!  Likewise, in His compassion Jesus did not simply atone for our really big sins, but for all our sins, even those sins of the failure to have compassion on others.  Jesus multiplies exponentially!  In His compassion He not only brings to you and me forgiveness, but He humbled Himself to exalt us from the status of fallen sons of Adam to exalted sons of God.  By the same token, just as Jesus gave the people in the wilderness of the Sea of Galilee of His abundance to completely fill them, so out of His own poverty He gives to us the Life giving Bread in Himself, that if anyone eats of it he shall live forever! 

One cannot also escape in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 the explicit foreshadowing of Jesus’ compassionate and miraculous feeding us in His Holy Supper.  Matthew notes: “He took bread...He gave thanks... He broke it... and He gave it to His disciples.”  Many scholars believe Matthew intentionally described Jesus’ actions in this manner to point his readers to Jesus’ same actions in the Holy Supper. Every time you and I receive the bread and wine of this Holy Sacrament, the multiplying compassion of Jesus is being made to abound in our lives through His body given for us and His blood shed for us.


Part of the math of Jesus’ compassion is also that it knows no limits in time.  His compassion is 24-7!  “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you,” He promises.  His compassion toward our needs, whether that be physical or spiritual,  never goes on vacation.  Neither does it know any limits of any kind. 

St. Paul teaches us in our Epistle lesson that “...nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord...”


Jesus desires you and me not only to understand the arithmetic of His compassion that we might feel secure and at peace, but also that we might adopt His system of mathematics in our relationships with all others around us.  Jesus didn’t say to the people, “Ya’ll come and get this food I give you.”  Instead, He purposely impressed His twelve disciples into the service of distributing the food to the crowd.  After all, He had called them to be His witnesses, to be His ambassadors, to proclaim His Word to the world; in short, to bring His compassion to bear in the lives of people who otherwise would perish in the barren wilderness of our earthly existence.  And lest they ever forget He could supply everything they were to distribute to the world, He supplied a full basket of His bread for each of the Twelve to take home. 


Jesus has factored us into His equation of compassion also!  The world is a vast wilderness with starving and hurting people.  Jesus’ compassion does not go on vacation simply because He has ascended into heaven or we want a “break” from our service to others.  The Lord says to you and me, who are already products of His compassion, “You give them something to eat.”  Accordingly, when we distribute Him, The Bread of Life, through His Word and Sacrament, Jesus’ compassion will be multiplied through out all the world through us. 


The world is full of hurting and hungry souls.   They are crowded around our boats, our homes and our lives.  We have already tasted the Bread of Christ’s compassion that we might live forever.  How can we go on vacation from having compassion on those hungry for that same bread?