Turning the boat around

I am sure we are all familiar with today’s reading which describes Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. It is an event that is covered by all four gospels (also in Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-14)

The events preceding this are both tragic and earth-shattering:

  1. Firstly, the beheading of John the Baptist.
  2. Secondly, it seems clear that Jesus’ activities and ministry were beginning to come under the scrutiny of Herod the tetrarch.

In light of this, it is no surprise that when Jesus “heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” (Matthew 14:13a) Jesus will quite likely have been distressed and grieving hearing of John’s brutal death, and also at this point in his ministry wanted to keep a low profile. I am sure you have known times when you have been upset and needed a time-out too?  There are times when we need to ‘switch off’, when we need to rest and recuperate.  An analogy I would use is that of how we need to recharge batteries, whether on our phone or tablet.  Withdrawing to a solitary place allows us to recharge our mental, physical, spiritual and emotional batteries.  Imagine though that you begin to withdraw to that solitary place, desperate for that time out, only to be confronted with a clamour of demands from a large crowd, people who were sick in body, sick in mind and sick in spirit.  What would you want to do?  How would you react? Would you turn the boat around and simply sail away?

So here’s a thought…imagine that you have had a long and busy day.  You are tired and depleted.  As you walk down the street you encounter a homeless person who is unwashed, unkempt, and in clear need.  How would you respond?  Would you do like many people and cross over the road to avoid them (figuratively turning the boat around), would you ignore them, or would you take a deep breath and come alongside them in love?  I’ve seen some people do the former, and some people who have done the latter.  I have too.  Of the few times when I’ve walked past and ignored them, I’ve felt convicted…convicted by my lack of grace, lack of charity and lack of compassion.  It is in such times when I’ve had to pause for thought and ask myself where is my boat headed and why?  So yes, I’ve turned my ‘boat’ around – but towards them, and endeavoured to response with compassion.

What I generally do now is begin by asking them to tell me their story.  I listen and as we’re talking bring them before God in prayer.  If I am invited to, I share the hope that I profess.  I may not give them money, but I will gladly get them some decent food and a drink.  I also signpost them to places of support.  These might be local hostels and support agencies, places where they can get a decent hot meal for free and places where they can get sound advice to help with their circumstances.

Jesus’ response to the clamouring of the large crowds was not one of frustration, it was instead one of love.  He had compassion on the crowds and healed their sick.  The literal translation of ‘had compassion’ is Jesus had his ‘inner being stirred’, that deep heart moving that results in an abundant outpouring of love.  This wasn’t the first time that Jesus was moved in this way (see Matthew 9:36); it wasn’t the last time either (see Matthew 20:34, Matthew 15:32).  It is comforting to know that when we ourselves are in need, Jesus will have compassion on us too drawing alongside us and offering support and guidance.

It wasn’t just Jesus who was tired and depleted.  His disciples were too.  In light of this, seeing that the day was drawing to an end, and realising that they were in a solitary and remote place – so far from any town or village – the disciples suggested that the crowds should be sent away to get themselves some food. I love Jesus’ response…“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” (Matthew 14:16)  I don’t know about you, but when confronted with a large crowd comprising 5,000 men (which doesn’t include the women and children who would have been there too!), my response to Jesus might have been “Are you serious?  What with!”.  You pick that up in what the disciples said: “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.” (Matthew 14:17)

Note that their immediate reaction was not to look to Jesus.  When we are presented with a need, do we seek to look to Jesus first?  That’s a challenge for all of us isn’t it, because we sometimes tend to look to God as a last resort, when all else has failed, instead of seeking his will, exercising faith and involving him from the outset.  The disciples looked at responding to this clear need only with what they had, the five loaves of bread and two fish.  Jesus can provide for our needs, and reminds us of the obligation we have to others in meeting theirs, recognising there is a huge difference between needs and wants!  This was a lesson that the disciples needed to hear and learn repeatedly.  Jesus’ decision to directly involve them was an opportunity for them to realise that truth, to make that connection, and to look to Jesus and trust in him. There is another powerful lesson for us to learn in this too; Jesus can take the relative meagreness of all that we might be able to offer and turn it into abundance.  Please take comfort and hope from this.  If you feel inadequate and believe you have little if anything to give, remember this…the impact that we might have on one another goes far beyond what we often realise, and your prayers are NEVER wasted.  In the hands of Jesus, such riches can come from our poverty.  Jesus took “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.”  (Matthew 14:19-20)

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