Theme: The Compassionate Christ
In this week’s lessons we see how Jesus was teaching his disciples to minister to the needs of others, and that our own service needs to follow in this way.
Scripture: Matthew 14:13-21
Now the story tells us a number of interesting things, and let me just start with them so we don’t miss any of what is important. First of all, it tells us about the compassion of Jesus Christ. You can hardly read the story and miss that. Jesus looked at the masses, and verse 14 says that “he had compassion on them, and he healed their sick.” Now, we might read that and pass over it by remarking that it’s just an example of the gentle, responsive, compassionate nature of the Lord—which of course it was.
But there’s a great deal more to it than this. If you would get out a concordance and look up the word compassion, you’ll find that it doesn’t occur a whole lot in Matthew’s Gospel. However, when it does occur it is characteristically of Jesus’ response, not to individuals—though in Luke’s Gospel, for example, the word is used that way—but to the great masses as we see in Matthew’s Gospel. The first time this word is used is in chapter nine, which deals with workers for the harvest. There you find Jesus having compassion on the crowds because, as it says, “they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd.” This first use of the word compassion sets the tone for Matthew’s use of this word throughout the Gospel. The second occurrence is here in chapter 14, for our story of the five thousand. And then we have it again in chapter 15 where Jesus feeds the four thousand.
Jesus’ compassion in Matthew is particularly directed to the masses, who are said to be those who are harassed and helpless, and without a shepherd. This describes the majority of people most of the time. Of course, there are people who are not harassed, but, in fact, they are the ones that are doing the harassing. The world always has plenty of them. And there are people who, if we look at them from a human point of view, are not helpless. They are the people who take advantage of everyone else. But if you look at the masses in Jesus’ time or our time, in this country or in other countries around the world, that is an apt description of people. Instead of saying they are harassed, we use the word oppression. People who are helpless and unable to change their situation are harassed by those who have the money, or the power, or the legal connections, or those who own the land, or those who are famous, or whatever it may be. Jesus looks at the masses in their plight and has compassion on them.
Now that, by itself, might have caused Jesus to be thought of as merely a human liberator. Jesus might have said, “Well, here are people who need to shake off their chains. They need to be emancipated. What we need to do is drive out the Romans and get rid of those corrupt Jewish officials who are in Jerusalem.” You see, Jesus didn’t do that because he saw something else. Not only were they harassed and helpless, but they were also as sheep without a shepherd. They did not merely need a liberator; they needed that one who was the Shepherd about which even their Old Testament Scriptures spoke so clearly. He of course was the shepherd they needed.
Now let’s start at that point. If this story teaches us nothing else it teaches us that Jesus cares about you, whoever you may be. It may be, of course, that you have lived a privileged life. Things have gone alright with you so for, for the most part. You’ve come from a family that has some means. You’ve done well that way. And you’ve been able to get an education and you’ve done well that way, too. And now you have a job or at least you have the prospects of a job and you say, “Well, this description of the masses really doesn’t describe me. I’m not among the harassed and the helpless. That may be true of you, but I think that for most of us it is probably not true and we would have to say we find ourselves in that great company that was addressed by Jesus on this occasion.
In the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” there is the line, “Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?” Maybe that is not true of you. Your friends have not despised or forsaken you. But there are people who have had that experience. I have had people come to me and say, “I am alone in the world. Nobody cares for me at all.” In a situation like that you’re tempted to give false counsel. You’re tempted to say, “No, come on. You’re just despondent. Of course somebody cares for you. Don’t be gloomy. Why, every cloud has a silver lining. Why don’t you begin to think positively about things instead of in such a negative way?” But, you see, how can you say that? I don’t know their situation. Maybe it is absolutely true in their case that nobody cares for them at all, and it’s absolutely true that they have been despised and forsaken by their friends. Is that true of you? If that is true of you, then you can read this story and say with joy that you do indeed have a friend in Jesus, the compassionate Shepherd whose heart emerges so beautifully in the story.
How is the word “compassion” used in Matthew’s Gospel?
When we are told that the crowd to whom Jesus came was harassed, what does that mean? What were some in the crowds wanting Jesus to do for them, and how did that differ from what Jesus was offering to do?
Application: Reflect on the ways Jesus shows himself to be your compassionate Shepherd, and praise him for his mercy and faithfulness.