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“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” When Jesus spoke those words, he was talking to his disciples. But I can’t help but think this has something to do with us too. I can’t help but think that we’re implicated in all of this. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Christians, after all, are the people who have compassion on the needy. Christians are the people who care when everyone else turns their back.
This is what Jesus himself says in the parable of the sheep and the goats. When the Son of Man comes at the end of the age, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?” And the King will answer them, “truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Or this is why when people are down and out, they turn to the church. I can’t tell you how many times someone walks up to the church at the end of their rope and asks for help. Time and time again people walk into ORLC, maybe they just lost their job, maybe they’re homeless, maybe they’re stranded with no way home, and they’re confused about what to do next. But most of all, they’re hungry and thirsty. And almost without fail, they say something like, “I didn’t know where to turn, but I was sure I would find help at a church.”
And there’s something right about that. In the third century, there was a deacon of the early church named Lawrence. He was in charge of the treasury and had the job of distributing these riches to the poor and needy. This was at a time of intense persecution. The emperor of Rome, Valerian, issued an edict that all bishops, priests, and deacons should immediately be put to death. Valerian soon captured the bishop of Rome and beheaded him. Then he captured Lawrence. And since Lawrence was in charge of the treasury, he demanded that Lawrence turn over the treasures of the church to the Emperor. Lawrence convinced the Emperor to give him three days to gather the riches of the church. Three days later, Lawrence returned with a large group of the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering. And he said, “Here are the treasures of the church.” …“The church is truly rich, far richer than your emperor.”
When Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat,” we can’t help but hear our calling as Christians. In a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone is looking out for themselves, we’re the ones who see things differently. We’re the ones who see the needy and have compassion.
But we’re also implicated here because, like the disciples, we often want to send the needy away. I mean, compassion has its limits, doesn’t it? You can only do so much. You only have so much to go around.
That’s exactly what the disciples were thinking. There are thousands of people here. We’re in a deserted place. It’s getting late. And all we have is five loaves of bread and two fish. So they told Jesus, “send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” We can only do so much. Let them fend for themselves. Compassion has its limits, doesn’t it?
I don’t know about you, but whenever I come across someone in need, the first thing I think about is how much I can spare. I don’t know if I have the time to take for them. I’m a busy person and there’s a lot I need to get done today. Or, I only have so much money. If I gave my money away to anyone who was in need, I wouldn’t have anything at all. And I have a family to care for, after all. Or, I only have so much patience. I’m exhausted and sometimes I just need some time to myself to recharge. Compassion has its limits, doesn’t it?
And honestly, this is built into our DNA as Americans. Americans are people who pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and don’t depend on anyone else. I saw a sticker on a truck the other day that said, “Not sponsored by mom and dad.” We’re people who pride ourselves on the fact that we’re self-sufficient. We depend on no one but ourselves. And so, we’re quick to worry that if I don’t look out for myself, then no one else will. And so, if you need help, well, I’m sorry, but it’s not my problem. Compassion has its limits, doesn’t it?
Well, as a matter of fact, it doesn’t. Not if you have Jesus.
The disciples may have only had five loaves of bread and two fish. But they also had Jesus! They had Jesus, who went around swallowing up every need and every lack. When they brought to him those who were blind, Jesus gave them sight. When they brought to him those who were paralyzed, Jesus made them walk. When they brought to him those who were diseased with leprosy, Jesus touched them and made them clean. When they brought to him the demon possessed, Jesus cast them out. When they brought to him the dead, Jesus raised them. They may have only had five loaves of bread and two fish, but they also had Jesus! And Jesus is the one God sent in all God’s power and authority to swallow up every need and every lack with the limitless compassion of the Creator himself.
And so, when the disciples’ compassion had run out and they could only see the little they had—five loaves of bread and two fish—Jesus simply said, “bring them here to me.” And he ordered the crowds to sit down, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, said a blessing, and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate not just a little to get them by until the next day. They all ate and were satisfied. And when it was all over, they took up twelve baskets full of the leftovers.
The disciples may have only had five loaves of bread and two fish, but they had Jesus. So they had more than enough to meet the needs of the crowd.
They had Jesus, the Son of the living God; the One who in the beginning said, “Let there be light,” and suddenly there wasn’t just a sun but two billion galaxies each holding millions of stars a piece. They had Jesus, who is an inexhaustible fountain. The more and more he gives out, the more and more he has to give. They had Jesus, the one who in his compassion for us, swallowed up our lack, taking on our death as his very own, so that in exchange, you can have his resurrection—you can have true life, life with the limits of death behind it once and for all.
And that’s why, in a dog-eat-dog world, where everyone is looking out for themselves, we’re the ones who see things differently. We’re the ones who see the needy and have compassion, not because we have to, but because we can; because our lives are tied up with Jesus, the Son of the living God; because no matter what we may lack, we can give ourselves to the needs of others knowing that our life is finally in the hands of Jesus, the one whose compassion for us has no limits.
“They don’t have to go away; you give them something to eat.” These are wonderful words form Jesus—words of promise and hope. They’re not spoken out of fear that we only have so much and if we don’t look out for ourselves then no one else will. They’re spoken out of confidence that no matter what we lack, Jesus will provide. “They don’t have to go away; you give them something to eat” is a wonderful reminder that having compassion on the needy isn’t what we have to do in order to be Christians. Having compassion is what we get to do, because our lives are firmly in the hands of the one who is the resurrection and the life, the one whose abundant mercy and compassion will never fail us—Jesus Christ, our Lord.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
13 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. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.