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Jesus Had Compassion On Them (Matthew 14: 13-21)

by T.V. Philip

T. V. Philip, born in India and a lay member of the Mar Thoma Church, has worked and taught in India, Europe, USA and Australia. He is a church historian, and a former Professor at the United Theological College, Bangalore, India. The following appeared in The Kingdom of God is Like This, by T.V. Philip, jointly published by the Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Cross Junction, M.C. Road, Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerela, India. The material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Matthew 14: 13-21

And when he went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and he healed their sick. And when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a lonely place and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves. Jesus said, They need not go away; you give them something to eat".

When we read the synoptic gospels, we are struck by the fact that Jesus was always followed by large crowds of people. He attracted crowds in his public ministry. Listen to what Mark says:

Jesus and his disciples went away to Lake Galilee and a large crowd followed him. They had come from Galilee, from Judea, from Jerusalem, from the territory of Idumea, from the territory on the east side of Jordan, and from the cities of Tyre and Sidon. All these people came to Jesus because they had heard of the things he was doing. The crowd was so large that Jesus told his disciples to get a boat ready for him, so that the people would not crush him. He had healed many sick people, and all those who were ill kept pushing their way to him in order to touch him. And whenever those who had evil spirits in them saw him, they would fall down before him and scream, "You are the Son of God." (Mark 3:7-11)

Wherever Jesus went he was in the midst of people. "When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door..." (Mark 2:1)

Jesus among the multitude, Jesus among the crowd, Jesus with the people, this is one of the themes of the Gospel story. We often think of Jesus as a solitary preacher, a religious recluse or a hermit. He was not an arm-chair rabbi or a theological professor. He was a man of the people.

• He went to the people and the people followed him.

• He was seen at home, in the synagogue, at the temple festivals, at the weddings and funerals and near sick beds.

• He was seen watching the farmer sow seed, observing how the seed grew, how the birds of the air made their nests and how children played in the market place.

• He was seen eating with the publicans, sinners and prostitutes:

His was a people’s movement. Who were the people who followed Jesus?

The people who gathered around Jesus were ordinary people, people with needs, desires, hopes and longings. They followed Jesus with different motives and they behaved differently at different times. They were all sorts of people with different needs.

Some of them were people who had lost their land.

• Some were feeling the burden of heavy taxation.

• There were people who experienced the cruelty of Roman rule.

• There were some who were alienated from the temple religion.

• There were the sick, the hungry and the thirsty, and there were others who were homeless, destitute, and marginalised.

Among them were people who wanted to hear about the coming rule of God and the establishment of the kingdom of God.

Jesus rebuked very harshly the religious leaders of his time. He criticized the political leaders. He found fault with his disciples. But he was never angry or annoyed with the people. He did not tell them they were poor because they were lazy and did not make use of the opportunities offered to them. He did not tell them that their suffering was because of their sin. He did not tell them that public money should not be spent on them. Once, when they saw a man who was blind from the time of his birth, his disciples asked him, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was blind from birth". Jesus answered, "It is not that this man or his parents sinned; he was born blind that God’s power might be displayed in curing him". (John 9:1-2).

Jesus knew very well that the people who followed him were not saints, holy men and women; and they did not follow him purely for spiritual reasons. He also knew that very often they were in that situation because the good things in life were taken away from them by those who are powerful in society who amassed for themselves economic, political and cultural supremacy at the expense of others.

When Jesus saw the crowd, his heart was moved with compassion, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. In the biblical usage, the word ‘compassion’ is a very strong word. In its original Greek it means a movement of the heart from oneself to the other. Our heart takes upon itself the suffering of the other. It is now more ours than the other person’s. We stand in the place of the other, carrying the other’s burden.

Jesus had compassion on the crowd. Salvador of Marcilles, a fourth century church father, said that when we say that Jesus had compassion on the people it means that all the individual suffering of many people is gathered in Christ and Christ bears all the suffering at the same time. The pressure of the suffering of the people is Christ’s passion. Christ is the sum total of all the poor in this world.

When he saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. They were hungry and thirsty. This is the immediate context of the feeding of the five thousand. It is not a demonstration of Christ’s miraculous power. He was not a magician or wonder worker. The feeding of the people was the natural outcome of his compassion. It was the result of the manifestation of the kingdom of God and its righteousness. The disciples tried to evade their responsibility, but Jesus told them, "They need not go away, you give them something to eat." John Chrysostom once said that God said to human beings, I have created heaven and earth, now I give you the power to make earth heaven. That is what happens when we feed the hungry.


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