February 19, 2017
Eager for Jesus
Last week we heard Jesus giving some harsh words to the Pharisees, because their hearts were not in what they did. They relied on manmade religious rules and regulations rather than the living word of God. Today our story takes place in a wilderness region populated by non-Jews, but what we find here is that their eagerness for hearing Jesus’ words was stronger than their need for food. Jesus has compassion on them and feeds them. This is the second instance in Mark’s gospel where Jesus miraculously multiplies loaves for a large crowd.
To look back to verses before today’s passage, Mark writes that Jesus and his disciples traveled north to the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon, in Phoenicia. Jesus healed a little girl, the daughter of a Greek woman in Phoenicia. Jesus exclaimed that this woman had extraordinary faith. Then they traveled south-east around the Sea of Galilee to a region called the Decapolis or Ten Cities. This was an area populated mainly with non-Jewish people. The closing verses of chapter 7 tell us that Jesus healed a man who was deaf and mute.
Mark begins this chapter saying, “In those days…” so we know Jesus is still in the same area of the Decapolis. A large crowd has gathered, and again, this is a key phrase. The last time Mark mentioned a crowd, there were five thousand men whom Jesus fed with five loaves and two fish. That was back in chapter 6. The difference, however, is that when Jesus fed the multitude earlier, he was in the midst of Jewish Galilee. The people he fed at that time were from God’s chosen people, who lived in the area around the Sea of Galilee.
That’s not the case in this episode, because Jesus is now in Gentile territory, under the control of Syria. These people listened to Jesus for three days. They slept two nights on hard ground in the open air, and though they probably brought food with them when they came, by now it was all gone. They came a long way to hear Jesus, and as Mark states, they were in a remote place with no nearby villages to find food. Jesus tells his disciples, “I have compassion for these people.” We know Jesus was compassionate, because in multiple places the gospel writers showed how this quality was evident in Jesus. But this is the only instance in the gospels that Jesus actually spoke of his compassion. And they were not Jewish.
Jews did not go into Gentile lands. They would not enter the house nor eat with a non-Jewish person. They wouldn’t touch a non-Jew. But Jesus had compassion on them, and stated it. What’s the message here? Jesus cares about all people, has compassion for all people, feeds all people, will save all people. God’s compassion is not limited to a particular group or ethnicity. God does not despise any group, and neither should we.
If we look at the structure of these two instances where Jesus feeds the crowds, we will notice similarities between the two. Mark intentionally structured his telling of this second miracle to echo back to what Jesus did before. The people had nothing to eat. Jesus had compassion on them. Jesus was concerned that they could faint on the way home. He asked the disciples a question to get them thinking about how to solve the problem. Jesus sat the crowd down, requiring from them a measure of trust. The loaves were blessed and distributed, and there was plenty left over.
As I read about this passage, I was impressed to discover how this miracle may parallel our coming to faith. We have a need for what Christ offers. We are hungry for wholeness and hungry to be freed from the power of sin in our lives. As written in Romans, “We have all fallen short of the glory of God.” In the midst of our need comes Jesus, who has compassion on us and loves us. Another quote: “God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.”
Jesus could not in all good conscience send the crowds home hungry when he was able to feed them. Jesus gave them food, as Jesus gives us the gift of eternal life. This is his gift from the heart, by grace. The disciples could not figure out how to solve the problem, and in the same way, humanity by its nature cannot get past the problem of sin in our lives. The solution has to come from beyond ourselves, from the work of Christ who took our sins upon himself.
In both miracles of multiplying loaves, Jesus asked the people to sit down. If you thought you had to get on the road to find bread for yourself, stop. Sit down. This is going to be a meal, not simply a quick drive through snack on your way someplace else. No eating in front of the kitchen sink here. This is going to be a life-changing event, so get prepared.
Jesus asked them to trust in him. Before Jesus can do anything for us, we too need to stop and listen to Jesus. We need to be interrupted from paths we were taking, from solutions we thought were working, in order to put our faith in Jesus. To trust in Jesus is in a real sense, like choosing to die to the persons we were before we embraced faith. As believers the sign of our trust in Jesus is to be baptized. Paul likened this to a kind of death experience as one was dunked underwater in baptism, to rise to become a new person in Christ.
Jesus blessed the bread and broke it. He gave it to the disciples for them to distribute to the people, both the fish and the bread. They ate it and were satisfied. A few loaves and fish were enough for Jesus to care for the crowd. We believe in one cross, one savior, one act of obedience and righteousness that cancels out all that was wrong in our lives. There is power in one act of Christ, enough to set humanity free from the power of sin.
In both instances of the multiplying of the loaves, there was more left over than there was in the beginning. Hear these words of Paul in Romans 8 when he exclaims, “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus fed thousands then; he feeds millions now, and still the supply does not run dry.
They were eager for Jesus, these non-Jews in the wilderness of the Decapolis. I want to pay attention to their passion for Jesus that was stronger than their need for the basic necessities of food and shelter. Being with Jesus was more important than being comfortable. This story has a message for us too.
What makes you eager for what God has for you? When we realize we are empty, or hungry, or without the essentials we need for abundant life, we are going to go looking for it. At first, these people probably had plenty of food, but there were other things they were lacking that made them eager for Jesus. They who were rejected by other Jews found acceptance and compassion and love from Jesus. Their lives were broken, but Jesus offered them healing – like the man in chapter 7 who was given the gift of hearing and speech. They were amazed, because Jesus was the answer to all that was lacking in their lives.
Being amazed is only the first step, however. We can be amazed but go away empty, and act as though nothing is changed. But Jesus doesn’t want us to stand on the sidelines, awestruck at a celebrity. These people spent three days listening to Jesus, being fed spiritually before they were fed physically. Jesus is here to engage us, so we may come to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Jesus wants to give us a faith and purpose beyond our need for the basic necessities of life, a purpose that lasts beyond this earthly life of ours.
Jesus fed the crowds then sent them away. Jesus feeds us and sends us out to make a difference in the lives of others. Matthew 10 records Jesus saying, “If anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you he will not lost his reward.” Simple actions, given in faith, make a difference. Do what you do in faith. It’s not the size of the action that matters, but the size of the heart.
Jesus feeds the multitudes because he is the bread of life. From John’s gospel Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” The people ask, “What must we do to do the work of God?” And Jesus replied, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” Be eager for Jesus, in faith and service, because Jesus is eager for you.