Mark 6:30-44 30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
Think about an important event in your life. Your wedding day, your graduation. The day your children were baptized or confirmed. Did you celebrate that occasion with food and drink? The most important events in one’s life are typically celebrated with food. Birthdays have cake; newlyweds join their guests at the reception for food and the ritually prescribed cutting of the cake. Even on occasions of sadness, such as illness or funerals, food is shared as a means of expressing love. Food and feasting are appropriate when celebrating the many milestones of human life.
We are introduced to an unexpected feast in today’s Gospel. With simple bread and fish, Jesus feeds five thousand men in the desert. In its outward appearance, this banquet fare cannot compare to King Herod’s birthday feast in last week’s text (Mk 6:14–29). You may recall that John the Baptist lost his life because of that celebration.
By contrast, the Lord’s desert feast does not result in anyone’s death. It’s a true celebration rather than that empty caricature of one hosted by Herod. The desert feast was truly a foretaste of the feast to come in God’s kingdom. Even the twelve apostles didn’t quite understand everything that took place on that grand occasion.
They had just returned from the Galilean towns and countryside after preaching the kingdom of God and casting out demons. The Lord desires to get them away for a little R&R. “Come away by yourself,” said Jesus, “to a desolate place and rest a while” (v 31). So they get into a boat to sail to a quiet, restful place on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
But the crowds somehow figure out where Jesus and his disciples are heading and run there on foot ahead of them (v 33). Before the boat even gets to shore, the crowd is there waiting for Jesus.
“When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (v 34). Compassion. Today’s Gospel is a sparkling example of divine compassion in action. Amidst increasing opposition to his ministry and against the backdrop of John’s death, Jesus feels compassion for the crowd. That in itself is a glorious message of God’s grace and love found in the Lord. Jesus is never too busy, never too distracted by other things, to take care of us. The Lord feels compassion for us down to the depths of his soul.
But this is no passive “I feel your pain.” The one who will die for these sheep already now takes steps to relieve their distress. Compassion is sympathy moved to action in order to relieve the person from their distress or suffering.
And what compassion does Jesus give? Shepherding, for one. Herod certainly wasn’t shepherding God’s people. We saw what he did to God’s prophet, having him beheaded in order to preserve his pathetic reputation. The scribes, Pharisees, lawyers, and Sadducees weren’t shepherding God’s people. Those so-called “shepherds of Israel” left the flock to the predators of sin and despair and false hope. They provided no teaching in holy truths to secure their hearts and minds, no participation in the divine things to strengthen their most holy faith. The crowd was a flock of wandering sheep, easy prey for the devil, the world, and even their own sinful flesh. Like us today, they lived in a world ruled by the evil one. Like the world today they were slaves to their sinful nature and to death that sin deserves. And once we too were slaves to sin and destined to die eternal death. No wonder Jesus felt compassion to the depths of his soul.
Jesus “began to teach them many things” (v 34). Through the sound of Jesus’ human words and ordinary vocabulary, God was speaking. Just as he speaks through his called and sent pastors today. He speaks peace and deliverance into people’s lives. Only through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ do we have access to God. We fall into the trap of thinking of Jesus as being somewhere out there ruling the cosmos with uncontested might. And that’s true enough. But to find God in his grace and mercy, you must go through Christ’s humanity given to us through his appointed, tangible means: Word, Baptism, Absolution, and Supper. God in Christ is present with us through common, ordinary things, covering us with his compassion, delivering us from this present evil age into which we were born.
The disciples think the Lord’s compassionate teaching is all well and good, but there’s a problem. It’s getting late; people are hungry. Vv 35–36: “His disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’?” Very practical. Their humanistic pragmatism basically says, “Scatter the flock and let them fend for themselves!”
You’ve got to love it. Jesus and his twelve disciples are light-years apart from one another. The disciples instruct Jesus to send the crowds away so that the crowds can take care of “themselves”(v 36). That was the word they used, “themselves.” Not us, Jesus. It’s not our concern. Let them do it.
But, Jesus issues a different command: “You take care of it!” The disciples bluntly say, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (v 37). That’s about what a day laborer would earn in six or seven months.
Jesus responds calmly, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see” (v 38). Don’t just throw up your hands and quit when an obstacle or problem gets in the way. Go find a way around the problem. Fix it. Do what you can to remove the barrier. Going back to the idea of feasts for special occasions, I remember our wedding banquet in Guatemala. We invited perhaps about 100 people. The entire town showed up. My bride couldn’t even walk down the aisle because it was full of people. The chancel was full of people standing, and half the crowd had to look in and watch from outside the church. At the party the Champaign ran out before everyone could be served. Then the Coca-Cola company with whom we contracted to supply the beverages, didn’t even show up. But did that stop the party? No. My brother-in-law rounded up some guys and they went out and bought every bottle of Pepsi in town.
So the disciples, after some search, scraped up five loaves and two fish. The desert cupboard isn’t bursting full with abundance! But for God all things are possible. With those simple gifts, Jesus’ compassion finds its way to the crowd yet again. All five thousand men are fed to the full. The loaves and fish never ran out. The room in people’s stomachs filled up way before Jesus stopped giving. It was a desert feast.
The most basic of all human necessities is food. And Jesus, the eternal Son of God, takes the time and effort to satisfy that most basic need. Jesus, the divine Son of God in human flesh, will die on the cross to relieve sin’s impact on everyday human existence—disease, hunger, thirst, nakedness—as well as sin’s eternal effects.
With this miracle Jesus is toppling the reign of Satan over this world. Not only his hold on our souls but his hold on the physical aspects of life. We Christians are all too content thinking Jesus takes care only of our spiritual problems. He forgives sins; he comforts our afflicted conscience. But Jesus is concerned for the whole person, soul as well as body. Today’s Gospel reminds us that the Lord’s compassion extends over our physical and spiritual needs. We should not separate the two. Jesus is the compassionate Lord over body and soul who came to deliver us from Satan’s dominion. See how Jesus takes care of both soul and body in feeding the five thousand: After arranging them on “green grass” (v 39) in orderly groups of hundreds and fifties—you might say he arranged his congregation decently and in order (v 40; cf. 1 Cor 14:40)—Jesus takes the bread and fish, looks up to heaven, says a blessing, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Sound a bit familiar? It should. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.’ In the same way also he took the cup after supper, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying: ‘Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’?” When Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and gives bread and fish to the crowds, he’s foreshadowing what is to occur in the giving of the Lord’s Supper.
Receiving the body and blood of Jesus isn’t merely a nice remembrance meal. It’s the compassion of Christ’s cross being felt on your tongue, in your mouth, straight to your soul. It’s a divine feast of Jesus’ precious body and blood given for your body and soul in the present, the future, and into eternity. The Small Catechism reminds us of the Supper’s bodily and spiritual blessing: “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
Jesus promises to sustain our bodies this side of eternity with earthly gifts through godly vocations such as father, mother, workers, and government. But Jesus also promises to raise our bodies in the resurrection on the Last Day so we can live with him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness in both body and soul. The Supper is a pledge and promise of earthly strength and divine forgiveness here and now, as well as assurance of a glorious, bodily resurrection on the Last Day.
The feast we receive regularly and often in our desert wanderings is a foretaste of the eternal feast in Christ’s kingdom. Isaiah describes heaven as a feast of the richest foods and best wines (Isaiah 25). John describes a marriage feast at the wedding of Christ and his Bride, the Church (Revelation 19). The Lord Jesus supports us in both body and soul now. He will certainly do so on the Last Day. Glory be to Jesus!
What we do each week in church is really a momentary participation in the full and complete feast on the Last Day. Mark 6 becomes the pattern for life in Christ’s Church as the pastor gathers Christ’s sheep around his Table to receive his love and compassion through simple words and bread and wine: Word and Sacrament ministry.
And don’t worry about there being enough compassion, grace, love. After the crowd ate its fill, the disciples picked up twelve full baskets of broken pieces. There’s always enough and more to spare. It’s a feast after all!
Our needs—ordinary, common, and mundane though they be—are provided for by Christ through the most unlikely of means. Five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men. What’s most amazing is not the miracle but the compassion that fuels the miracle. “Just bring what’s here, and I’ll use it,” says our Lord.
It’s tempting to think we’re too small to make a difference here in our community, much less the world. But
Jesus’ Compassion Overrules Our
Logical-Sounding Reasons as to Why We’re
Too Small, Too Insignificant, to Matter to God.
Jesus smiles and says, “Bring what you have here to me.” He’ll take us, bless us, break us for his purpose, and then give us to the world for the benefit and salvation of many in both body and soul. What matters most is Jesus’ compassion. Come, then, dear people of God. Come to Jesus’ feast and receive his compassion in body and soul. With him there’s always enough to go around—enough compassion, enough forgiveness, enough of Jesus for every hungry mouth and heart. It’s a feast after all! Amen.