In Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s famous musical Jesus Christ Superstar, there is a scene where sick people come to Jesus asking to be healed. As he tries to touch them all, the crowd gets bigger and more urgent, and Jesus’ attempts become more frantic and desperate, until finally, bursting away from them he cries out “heal yourselves!”
Who hasn’t felt like this at times? Who, especially if we take the brokenness and need of the world seriously, hasn’t felt overwhelmed and unable to give enough or be enough for what is needed. To portray Jesus in this way is to reflect our own sense of inadequacy and our inability to believe that Jesus could really have been as self-giving as the Gospels claim. Yet, in the Lectionary reading for this week (Matthew 14:13-21) this is exactly the claim that is made. But, it goes even further. Jesus not only manages to find what seems like super-human compassion within himself, he has the audacity to expect his disciples to share it and participate in it. This is where reading the Bible really sucks. It doesn’t let us off the hook. Let me explain.
Jesus is trying to get away into a lonely place to be by himself to process the news that his cousin and predecessor, John, has been executed by Herod. And for no good reason. Herod is hosting a birthday banquet – as Stanley Hauwerwas points out, feeding those who have no lack of food – and decides to reward his step-daughter for her dancing by showing off to his guests. She can have anything she wants. So, at the urging of her mother, she asks for John’s head on a platter. Herod’s arrogance now comes back to haunt him – he has to go through with the execution because he made the promise boastfully and publicly. There is not the slightest hint of compassion in anyone in this story.
But, then we get back to Jesus. The crowds, who have seen him go, race around the lake and are waiting for him when he arrives. They need him and their need, rather than lead him to frustration or resentment, draws compassion out of him. As Tom Wright indicates, this is the first miracle – and this is where Jesus Christ Superstar got it wrong. This ability to lay aside his own needs and offer compassion to others is what Jesus apart. It is also what ultimately gets him killed, because it is a challenge to the heartlessness of the powerful who ignore the needy in their midst and make no effort, in spite of their great resources, to alleviate suffering.
After some time of ministry, the disciples, who are perhaps beginning to learn a little of Jesus concern for others, ask him to send the crowds away because it is late and the people have no food. The scene is set now, in Matthew’s narrative, for a contrast with Herod – and all structures of power that feel nothing for human struggle – and a comparison with Moses. As always, Matthew is seeking to reveal Jesus as a new Moses, come to bring a new (or fulfilled law) to God’s people, to reconstitute or recreate God’s people under the law written on the heart – the law of compassion, justice and peace. But, there are some striking contrasts with the great leader as well.
While Herod feeds the well-fed, Jesus provides food for the hungry. But unlike the time of Moses, where God feeds the people with no help from human beings (apart from Moses ensuring they actually show up to gather it), Jesus does not do the work – or take the glory – himself. When the disciples note the hunger of the people, Jesus responds, “You feed them”. They have seen the need, they have witnessed Jesus’ compassion. Now, they are to step up and participate in his ministry. But, they are amazed and concerned. They have no resources to provide for such a huge crowd. So, as usual, Jesus simply asks them what resources they do have – and it doesn’t amount to much. Some bread and fish. But, this is what Jesus uses. He blesses it and breaks it (a foreshadow of the sacrament, surely) and then he gives it back to the disciples for them to distribute. In a crowd of this size, with no big screens to show them the actions at the front, it is likely that many people knew nothing more than that the disciples were feeding them. Perhaps, only later did they hear that they had been participants in a miracle.
Or perhaps, as many scholars have suggested over the years, the generosity of the disciples simply opened the hearts of others and they produced the food that they had brought with them and began to share it. This, for me, is no less a miracle than if the food was multiplied, and, in the light of the contrast with supernatural manna, and the call of Jesus for the disciples to feed the people (in other words, for people to participate in God’s work of feeding and not expect God to step in and fix it all for us), it seems to me almost a better way to approach the miracle. Not only does Jesus find the compassion in himself to meet the needs of the people in spite of his own grief and anxiety. He changes the hearts of those who follow him so that they too, are willing to sacrifice and share in order to meet one anothers’ needs. Finally, in spite of what seemed like meagre resources, there is an abundance left over – twelve baskets, which could, perhaps represent the new twelve tribes of the new nation that Jesus was birthing.
All of which leaves us in a rather uncomfortable place as we read this account. In the first place, it challenges our own heartlessness and our own failure to give of ourselves to others even when it hurts. It is a vision of compassion that we are called to embrace and seek to embody. But it is also a challenge to us to turn away from the Herodian quest for power and plenty, and to renounce any callous disregard for the suffering of others. Finally, it is a challenge to offer what meagre resources we may have – time, expertise, finances, friendship, creativity, compassion – for Jesus to break them (ouch!) and give them back to us for us to redistribute to those who need it.
Whoever said that following Jesus was easy really hadn’t read the Gospels! And, while Webber and Rice may have shown a limited faith in Jesus’ capacity for compassion, they certainly revealed the struggle of the human heart to overcome our compassion fatigue and the ease with which we get overwhelmed by the need in the light of our small resources. So, let’s allow them to help us to understand our struggle. But, let’s not use our human weakness as an excuse to avoid taking our part in the feeding of the world, and in standing up against the powers that leave people hungry in the first place.
I am reminded of the words of the Brazilian archbishop, Dom Helder Comara: “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist.”