The only miracle that occurs in all four gospels, is the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, and feeding of the multitudes. Evidently, this miracle made a tremendous impression on the disciples. For those who are unfamiliar with the gospels, Jesus actually fed the multitudes on two different occasions. On one he fed five thousand (Mark 6); and on another four thousand (Mark 8). Now I have to confess: I’ve always been partial to the story about the feeding of the five thousand. I don't think I've ever preached a sermon on the feeding of the four thousand! I always assumed, like most, that the feeding of the five thousand was the bigger miracle story... that is, until I did a closer reading. Because on the third day, when Jesus fed the four thousand, he showed us the width of his compassion…
(i) It’s a compassion that follows us home. Jesus told his disciples that he had compassion on the crowd “because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way….” (2-3). As Barclay points out, the same Jesus who came to proclaim the Kingdom of God and the greatest moral and spiritual truths ever spoken; the same Jesus whose words and deeds changed the course of history… also cared about what happened when his congregation was walking home…and everywhere else our feet take us. Jesus’ compassion follows us home.
I was very moved by by a Sunday morning presentation at our church from Child S.H.A.R.E. as it calls Christians to seriously consider how Christ’s compassion extends beyond the four walls of the church and all the way home. Specifically, Child S.H.A.R.E. offers resources and support to Christians who open their homes as foster and adoptive parents. Back when my wife Lisa was a case manager for Olive Crest, I was attending a picnic with her for foster parents. The children seemed well cared for, and their foster parents full of energy and love; and one by one Lisa told me their amazing stories.
"That little girl," she said directing my attention to one child, "was born prematurely to her homeless mom on the street. When the paramedics found her, she weighed 3lbs. Her mother literally gave birth to her baby in her pants. She was unable to care for her baby, but her foster parents were... and eventually adopted this fragile little child!" Lisa pointed to another foster mom who was a single seminary student at Fuller Theological Seminary when she adopted a tiny 5lb. baby, and later another child from the same troubled family. She later married a Presbyterian minister who became their adopted father... an incredible story of hope! "And those two children over there," Lisa said to me, directing my attention to a table where I saw them laughing and playing, "they were found abandoned on an LA freeway as toddlers. The only thing more incredible than that…is the incredible love of their foster parents who eventually adopted these two girls into their family." There’s no doubt in my mind that the One who cared that we were well fed in the desert, is concerned that our homes do not become a desert, lacking food and water and, just as important, compassion and love.
(ii) It’s a compassion that is willing to confront. In the story of the feeding of the five thousand the disciples tell Jesus to send them away, but Jesus challenges them, “YOU give them something to eat.” (6:37). In the feeding of the four thousand, Jesus challenges the disciples again when they ask how they are going to feed all these people in the desert: “How many loaves do YOU have?” (5) Jesus asks.
I was with my family yesterday in Fresno for the Mennonite World Relief Sale. All proceeds go to relieve physical & spiritual need. The sale is known for its elaborate quilts, which one man bid for, and won for hundreds of dollars. But then he did something that made the whole auction hall turn their heads with awe. He said three words: “Sell it again!” That moment jolted me and brought tears to Lisa’s eyes; because I knew in that moment that I was in the presence of one who had passion for more than quilts… he had a passion for the kingdom! Menno Simons, the founder of the Mennonite Church, was born in 1496 and these are his words: “For true evangelical faith...cannot lie dormant; but manifests itself in all righteousness and works of love; it...clothes the naked; feeds the hungry; consoles the afflicted; shelters the miserable; aids and consoles all the oppressed; returns good for evil; serves those that injure it; prays for those that persecute it." Jesus will not allow us to pass the buck, and let someone else take the responsibility for one who is in spiritual and physical need. Oh no! As his disciples he looks us in the eye and says, “YOU do something about it.”
(iii) It’s a compassion without borders. When we compare the feeding of the five thousand, in Mark 6 and the feeding of the four thousand in Mark 8, there are several obvious similarities…but there is also one subtle difference. In the first miracle Jesus is among his own people in Galilee on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. But in the second miracle he is in the Decapolis (see 7:31), the region on the south eastern side of the lake with a large Gentile population. Now earlier, in Mark 5, Jesus had healed a demon possessed man in this same area…and we’re told that after he was healed “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed” (Mark 5: 20). Could this be why such a large crowd had gathered to hear Jesus for as many as three days, and had “come from a great distance” (3)? I think they had heard about Jesus and wanted to see and hear him for themselves.
There is an interesting detail that does not come out in the English translation that makes for a powerful footnote to this theory. Whenever the miracle of the five thousand is described and we read that “twelve baskets of bread crumbs were collected”; the Greek word used for basket is kóphinos. A kóphinos was wide at the bottom and narrow on top, and could carry about two gallons or 2/3 of a bushel. It was the typical container used by 1st cent. Jews for carrying food. Now stay with me… Whenever the miracle of the four thousand is described, the Greek word for basket is spurís. A spurís was much larger and wider at the top, large enough to hold a man, 6 ¼ bushels. Which means the miracle I’d thought was the lesser, actually produced more leftovers! Because 7 spurídas hold more than 12 kóphinoi. It was the kind of basket that the Apostle Paul was let down in by rope when he escaped his enemies in Damascus (Acts 9:25); and it was the typical basket used by Gentiles to carry their food and belongings. All this is to say that when Jesus fed the five thousand on the west side of the lake he was in Jewish territory, but when he was in the Decapolis, feeding the four thousand on the east side of the lake, he was in Gentile territory. His compassion reached from one side to the other. So the spurís (big enough to hold a man, or a child) will forever remind me of the third side of Jesus’ compassion… it’s wideness, extended to all who will turn and receive like children, the grace that is offered to them in Christ.
Jesus’ compassion is a compassion that follows us home where his presence is needed, it’s a compassion that’s willing to confront us until we share it, and it’s a compassion without borders...like a basket wide enough to hold people from every nation…including you….and everyone whom he calls.
Gracious Father, thank you for revealing through your Son, the width of your compassion! Forgive us when we've denied your care for us, when we've worried and grown anxious about tomorrow; fearfully grasping what we do have, and refusing to receive from or share with others. Forgive us for our malnourished faith. Please fill us with your Holy Spirit and strengthen us with the truth of your Word, that we may live in the light of your generous provision and share, with open hands and open hearts, the abundance of your gifts with those in need. It is our desire today to feed others for you first fed us; to clothe others for you first clothed us, and to love others, for you first loved us -- through Y'shua, the Bread of Life. Amen.