Preached (via YouTube) on 2 August, 2020, the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto.


Readings for this Sunday:  Gen 32.22-31; Ps 145.8-9,14-21; Rom 9.1-5; Mt 14.13-21




At this point in Matthew’s gospel, things don’t appear to be going all that well for Jesus.  After travelling widely and healing many, Jesus at the end of Chapter 13 has returned to his home town, where he has encountered a wall of resistance.   Many in Nazareth can only see him as the kid they knew growing up, the son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter.  They aren’t impressed by his teaching, and so we are told that “he did do many deeds of power, because of the … unbelief” of his hometown (M 13.56).   Then news comes that Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptizer, has been executed by Herod (Mt 14.1-12).   The death of John is the “this” referred to in Mt 14.13, after which Jesus gets on a boat and goes to “a deserted place” (Mt 14.13).


It’s tempting to speculate on what Jesus’ emotional state was at this point in the narrative.  If any of us had just been rejected by the people we grew up with, and seen that they had no faith in us, and then learned that our friend and kin had been cruelly murdered by a tyrant, I think we’d be crushed.  Matthew however isn’t interested in Jesus’ psychological state.  He doesn’t even give us a motive as to why Jesus leaves Nazareth and goes to a “deserted place” (Mt 14.13).


Does Jesus go there to escape Herod, to lay low for a while?   Again, Matthew doesn’t tell us.   It just be a simple sequence:  “after this, he went there”.  If Jesus was trying to hide out, it doesn’t work, because crowds of people follow him there.  Unlike the folks in Nazareth, these folks believe in Jesus, and so we may be seeing Matthew returning to an ongoing theme in this gospel, the contrast between those who believe Jesus and those who doubt him (eg, see Mt 25.32-33, the sheep and goats).  


Matthew only gives us one insight into Jesus’ emotional state, and it’s huge.  He tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (M 14.14).   Now sometimes we read the gospels and think that there has to be a correlation between faith and miracles, that only the people that believe in Jesus get the healings.  That is true sometimes (see Mt 9.22, “your faith has made you well”), but overall in Matthew, as in the other gospels, Jesus acts out of pity and compassion for others (eg, Mt 9.36, “When he saw the crowds, had had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd”). 


That the Son of God could come to earth and act out of love and compassion must surely be one of our key insights into understanding the incarnation.   Matthew never feels the need to explain how Jesus heals, through what process he accomplishes these wonders.  For Matthew it’s enough that Jesus can do these things because he is who he says he is, the Son of God the Father.   Anyone reading along will, Matthew assumes, have figured this out by now if they are paying attention.   What Matthew does explain is the why.   Jesus “saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them, and cured their sick” (Mt 14.14).  In this simple line, Matthew brings us to the very heart of God.


What makes this story so powerful in our own time, I think, is that the vast compassion of Jesus seems to contrast so strongly with our world. which at times can seem like a vast desert of compassion.    Like Herod, who “feared the crowds” (Mt 14.5), the most powerful ruler in our own world lives behind walls of concrete and walls of riot police, and seems incapable of finding compassion for millions of sick and 150,000 dead and their loved ones.  In a world where many go sick and hungry, and where hatred and bigotry seem to have found a new free speech, it can seem that we live in a vast desert of compassion, but this would be wrong, and just a mirage in the desert.  


In fact we see compassion everywhere, in the many community based mutual aid initiatives that have sprung up since the pandemic, to make sure that isolated neighbours have enough to eat, or that health care workers have childcare.   We see compassion in those who go out into streets full of tear gas because they believe that the lives of others matter.  


But there is so much work to do, and so much compassion needed, and only so much that we can do.   That was the mindset of the disciples in the gospel story.   They looked around and saw only a little food, a mass of people, night falling and towns far away.  Their perception of scarcity prevented the disciples couldn’t see the vast ocean of compassion in the heart of Jesus.


Sometimes, in our own lives and in the life of the church, it’s easy for us, like the disciples, to see only scarcity.  We only have so many resources, the need is vast, the hour is late, we are few, and getting old.   In the last few days, speaking with clergy and diocesan staff and volunteers who struggle to keep church going, month after month, Zoom call after Zoom call, through this pandemic, I’m struck by their weariness and I feel for them.  We struggle to keep doing this, but mostly what we do is sufficient for the hour at hand.  Let’s remember that Jesus fed a crowd one meal, on one day.   It was sufficient for the hour at hand.  As Jesus told the disciples on another occasion, “tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Mt 6.34).



Our miracles of loaves and fishes may be small ones.  We may only end up with a handful of donated cloth masks, or another hot meal left on the steps of a group home at an appropriate distance, and the next day will come and  the crowds will be there again, needing their own miracles.   But what gives us hope, I feel, is that at the centre of our struggle is the beating heart of Jesus, who sees the world through the eyes of compassion and with a fierce heart for God’s justice.   When we centre ourselves and our actions in the compassion of the church, we will find that we can do wonders with whatever we may have.

0 Responses

  1. So great – thank you Padre. I see and know the desert and I feel the compassionate heart of Jesus. The love keeps us going. Love to and the good people at St. Margaret's. Elizabeth McCaffrey