Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. (Matthew 14:13-14)
It’s hard to pick up the immediate context of these events from Matthew, but Mark and Luke clear up the timeline for us. After teaching and training the 12 disciples, Jesus had sent them out to preach repentance, cast out demons, and heal the sick. It was their first time doing ministry on their own, and they had just returned and told Jesus all that they had done and taught (Mark 6:30; Luke 9:10). In the midst of this, Jesus received the news of John the Baptist’s death at the hands of Herod. Remember, John was both Jesus’ relative and his forerunner in ministry. The news of his death probably grieved Jesus greatly, and it may have reminded Jesus of his own impending execution.
As a teacher, Jesus must have wanted to talk more with the disciples about their ministry experience, to debrief them and instruct them further. As a human being, he must have wanted to grieve the death of John in private. Yet so many people were coming to Jesus and the disciples that they didn’t even have time to eat! (Mark 6:31)
Put yourself in Jesus’ shoes for a moment: VBS (which you were the director of) has just ended, your kids have just returned home from a missions trip and want to show you all their pictures and tell you all about it, and you just got a phone call that a dear friend or relative has been murdered. Yet you don’t have time to process any of this because work keeps calling about things that need your attention, and you find that you are so busy and so overwhelmed that you aren’t even remembering to eat.
Any person who is remotely self-aware and cognizant of the need to take care of oneself and one’s family would plan a weekend away to reconnect with God and with family, hear about the kid’s trip, and properly process the loss of his loved one. And this is precisely what Jesus does. He gets on a boat with the disciples and goes to a desolate place, so that they can rest and he can grieve (Matthew 14:13; Mark 6:31-32).
The only problem is that the crowds follow him! “Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.” (Mark 6:33) Jesus leaves to escape the crowds, and when he gets to his retreat location, the crowds are there waiting for him! Again, imagine yourself in this situation. You get to the hotel where you are spending the weekend with your family, only to find your boss and coworkers are there with a conference room set up, waiting for you to start a meeting.
And this is where Jesus just astounds me. If this were me, and I was exhausted and overwhelmed by ministry pressures, work responsibilities and the death of a loved one, and I went away to rest and reconnect with God and my family, only to find the very people I was escaping from were waiting for me at the hotel, I wouldn’t react the way Jesus does. I’d probably be online looking into restraining orders as fast as I could get my computer turned on.
But that’s not what Jesus does. Instead, Matthew says that “he had compassion on them.” This isn’t simply sympathy. Wiersbe points out that it literally means, “to have one’s inner being (viscera) stirred.” In the midst of all the emotions Jesus must have been feeling, his inner being is stirred by the needs of the crowd (“because they were like sheep without a shepherd” [Mark 6:34]), and he begins teaching them and healing the sick among them. We know from the rest of the story that this lasts until late in the evening. Jesus and the disciples never did get around to resting that day.
A couple of applications jump out at me:
1. If Jesus was moved to compassion by the need of the crowd, I should be too… even when it’s not convenient.
Mark’s gospel says that Jesus was moved to compassion because the people were “like sheep without a shepherd.” They were lost, wandering through life with no guidance, no direction, and no hope of salvation. Their needs in that moment outweighed Jesus’ needs. When Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins” was published, David Platt, head pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, released a short video, which I encourage you to watch. In it, he talks about 2 dangers: intellectual universalism (the belief that everyone will go to heaven, a la Rob Bell) and functional universalism (living your life as though everyone will go to heaven), and says that even those of us who reject the latter are tempted to fall into the former. When we look upon the crowds of people that come across our paths everyday, how do we see them? Do we see them as Jesus did, as sheep without a shepherd, lost without direction or hope of salvation? Or do we see them as things getting in the way of our needs, our plans, and our comfort? If we truly see them as Jesus did, their need should cause our inner being to be stirred to the point of doing something to meet their need.
2. Our respite can be postponed, but it should not be cancelled.
It doesn’t show up here in the short 2 verses that we read today, but Jesus does eventually get his alone time. He postponed his planned respite, but he did not just continue to plod through ministry without taking time to nurture his own physical and spiritual health. As I said, the need of the crowd at this moment outweighed Jesus’ need so Jesus ministered to them, but as we see later in the chapter, “after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray” (Matt. 14:23). Having compassion does not mean trying to meet every need every time at the detriment to your own physical and spiritual health. I read an article this morning that said, “for some people, the most spiritual thing we can do is take a nap.” The point was that if we are overtired, cranky, miserable-looking people, we won’t be able to effectively minister to anyone. The key is to be able to prayerfully discern the needs of the moment and whether 1) we can meet them and 2) they are dire enough to postpone (but never cancel) the cultivation of our own health.
Heavenly Father, I thank you for being a God that has compassion on people in need. Help me to see people as you see them, as lost sheep without a shepherd, and to be moved by compassion by their need. Help me also to not neglect my spiritual health or that of my family, but use your Spirit to help me discern what needs I can and should meet and when I need to take time to refresh myself in You. Amen.