When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
“We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
“Bring them here to me,” he said. And he directed the people to 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. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I’ve recently come to see this passage in a new light. It is easy to get caught up in the grandiose miracle of multiplying bread and to look over the more subtle, but equally important aspects of this passage. It is those less obvious miracles I’d like to focus on today.
The passage starts out, “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” What had happened? Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist had just been executed by Herod the Tetrarch.
We’re not really sure what sort of relationship Jesus and John had, but we do know that Jesus said that John “was the greatest man ever born of a woman” and that John was really the only person to understand who Jesus really was. Both had miraculous births and John was the one who prepared the people of Israel to receive the ministry of Jesus. I think it is safe to assume that Jesus and John were fond of one another.
So Jesus, hearing of John’s death, withdraws to a solitary place to grieve. Like anyone who has ever lost a loved one, sometimes you just need time to be by yourself to pray, cry and process. He goes privately to a place no one ever comes to for a time of quiet and reflection.
But the crowds find out about it and as soon as Jesus lands a mob of human need envelops him. These people don’t care that Jesus is grieving – they are too caught up with their own needs. They don’t honor Jesus’s wish for privacy, instead thousands of people travel out of their way to swarm him and seek his blessing.
What must that have been like for Jesus to look over the bow of the ship and see through the mist a vast multitude with their emotional and spiritual vacuums pointed straight at him? What must it have been like to feel the crushing weight of human need and self-centeredness? Jesus would have been justified if he had lashed out at the crowd, telling them to go away so he could process the loss of his friend. But he doesn’t. Instead, his heart was moved with compassion because (as Mark’s version puts it) “they were like sheep without a shepherd” – pathetic, lost, hurting, confused, and scared.
I’m amazed at the miracle of compassion Jesus displays here. He has compassion on the crowd and heals their sick. He teaches them and after a long day of ministry he feeds them, rather than sending them away. When Jesus’s “tank” was on empty he still found grace to minister, to heal and to love.
It sort of reminds me of the story of the widow’s jars of oil and flour in the Old Testament – the ones that felt empty but always had enough to make bread for that day. I wonder if Jesus was thinking of that story when he taught his disciples to pray “and give us today our daily bread”? Was he teaching us to pray and position our hearts in such a way that even when we feel totally depleted we would still be moved with love to serve? It seems reasonable. With God, empty is always enough for a miracle.
Jesus does eventually dismiss the crowds and do business with his grief, so it isn’t that Jesus taught us to never deal with our junk. I just think the main thrust of this parable for us as followers of Jesus is to understand there is always enough in us to minister one more time – no matter how tired, how sad, or how spent because we don’t minister to others out of our own strength anyway. It is just that we are more aware of that fact when we are on rock bottom.
I needed that reminder this week. I needed to see in Jesus that, even on empty, you can still treat needy people kindly and compassionately. Something about seeing Jesus deal with people so tenderly helps me to do the same. Perhaps it is because I am reminded of how needy I am and am humbled by how he interacts with me
I feel a little silly adding this, but something in my brain kept nagging me to.
I’d like to clarify that ministering on empty should not be one’s regular mode of operation. I believe the Christian life should have lengthy periods of joy, fulfillment, overabundance of energy and overflowing life because that is what I believe Jesus meant when he said that he came “that we might have life and have it to the full.”
I’d also like to clarify that I think people need to take time for self-care. Some try to bury their feelings and dysfunctions by ministering to others and always being focused on other people – that is unhealthy and doesn’t help anyone because it leaves your junk undealt with and turns the other person into and idol. Some people do indeed need to stop “pouring out” and get their own stuff taken care of.
So this meditation is for those who do take time for reflection and processing, keep a short list with God and still find themselves in a dry season. It is for those of us who can go on, but would just rather not.
Hopefully those disclaimers are more helpful than not.
Thanks for reading friends.