From today’s reading of Matthew 14, Mark 6, and Luke 9:1-17
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.
And when it grew late, 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.” 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?” 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.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 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. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
– Mark 6:34-44 (ESV)
This is our Lord, our great Shepherd.
If you’ve been a Christian for any time at all you have probably heard about how dumb sheep are, how lost they are on their own. It’s an apt comparison to the human condition, and that’s probably the reason God employs the sheep metaphor so much in scripture. I’m no expert on sheep, but I’m pretty sure that without a shepherd sheep are dead. They don’t survive very long on their own.
Humankind had been so lost for so long when Jesus arrived; Lost and alone and wandering, like sheep without a shepherd. God had compassion on us, and sent Jesus, who is the compassion of God. The relentless nature of this compassion can be seen in the surrounding context of the passage above. Jesus’ disciples are back from the mission he has sent them on, tired and needing rest, yet no rest is to be found. This comes hard on the heels of the execution of John the Baptist, which was most likely foremost on everyone’s mind, and an ominous portent for the future of this little band.
Jesus and the disciples are looking for somewhere to be alone, to no doubt decompress and debrief and take a small break, but the desolate place that they were heading to turns out to be overrun by people seeking Jesus.
Compassion is not just a feeling. It is costly. It changes plans. Jesus has compassion on the crowd and begins to teach them until it grows late. They are in the middle of nowhere and people are hungry. The pragmatists think it’s time to bring today’s ministry to an end and send the crowds away so they can buy their own food.
Jesus reply to them is basically “No, you feed my sheep”. And they do, bringing the little they have and placing it into the wonderful, compassionate, blessing, multiplying hands of the Lord. Everyone ate and was satisfied.
They didn’t have a lot, but they had Jesus, their Great Shepherd, who has compassion on his sheep and prepares for them a feast in the wilderness.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
Psalm 23 (ESV)