Matthew 14:13-21 (8th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 13)
“Go to the Source”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
August 3, 2014
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel lesson for the day recorded in Matthew 14:
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. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
How many of you have heard the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves?” It’s an often-quoted saying. How many of you think this saying is a quote from the Bible? It isn’t. The phrase, “God helps those who help themselves” first appeared in the book of an Englishman, Algernon Sidney, in 1698. Yet, our Western culture, especially our American version of it, pretty much lives as if this phrase were divine truth.
If “God helps those who help themselves,” then “It’s all up to me!” That is, after all, the American way. To live the American dream we are to be self-made men and women, pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Our culture tells us that we are supposed to be able to handle any problems that come along. We don’t admit the possibility that we might be weak. We never show the chinks in our own armor. “God helps those who help themselves.” So if I follow the culture around me, if I want God’s help, I have to put forth the effort to earn it. If God sees me working hard to better my life, He’ll chip in and help out. If God sees me weak and tired, He leaves me to get myself back up on my feet.
But what happens when I have worked tirelessly for so long—I’ve helped myself in every way possible by working long hours at my job, purchased the perfect home for my family, provided them with way more than the basic necessities of life—and then suddenly it’s all gone? The tornado blew through town and everything I had worked for is gone. Or, the management hands me a pink slip. I’m being let go without warning. Or, suddenly I’m facing a major medical issue with a family member and I can no longer afford the extras in life. What happens then? “God helps those who help themselves.” What if I can no longer help myself? What if I become one who is helpless?
And are there not many in our culture and town who very much would like to help themselves (and to have God help them as they do so) but are simply unable because of life’s situations? Divorces, job loss, pay cuts, medical problems, and a whole myriad of other situations befall people. Others are born and raised in life situations that leave them in need. They simply can’t help themselves. If “God helps those who help themselves” are there are those who cannot help themselves which means that even God quits on them? “Sam, Sam, he’s our man, if he can’t do it,” not even God’s going to pitch in?
Our culture and society tell us that we can do it all. We don’t need help because we are self-made, independent people. When you are working to help yourself, then God will kick in some extra, but don’t expect Him to do anything if you’re weak, or tired, or lazy and don’t help yourself. This cultural attitude and way of thinking is wrong. There are people in our society, in our very community, who simply cannot help themselves. They cannot better their life. They are in need of the simple things—food, clothes, shelter, gas, money. In our Gospel text today, Jesus clearly demonstrates to us that God helps those who cannot help themselves. Jesus reveals the grace of God by having compassion on needy people who can’t help themselves.
Yet, Jesus’ disciples showed our cultural attitude instead of compassion. They said to Jesus, “This is a deserted place and the hour is now past. Dismiss the crowds so that they might go away into the villages to buy food for themselves.” After all, “God helps those who help themselves.” The disciples assume that the crowds will simply go into the surrounding communities and buy their own food. Apparently, the disciples thought that Jesus either could not or did not want to do anything about the crowds’ need for food either. “Jesus, get rid of the crowds so they can take care of themselves.”
But Jesus had compassion on this mass of humanity. Jesus had departed by boat to go away to a deserted place to be alone after hearing of the death of His cousin, John the Baptist. But the crowds followed on the land and met Jesus when He got out of the boat. “He had compassion on them and He healed their sick.” God helped those who could not help themselves. Jesus healed the diseases and the infirmities and sicknesses. And at the end of what was, no doubt, a long day, as the sun was going down, the mass of people had another need. Food. And rather than going to Jesus with compassion for the helpless and the needy, the disciples wanted the crowd sent away. But Jesus refused.
There was no need to send this crowd away to buy their own food. Our Lord emphatically told the disciples, “They do not have a need to go away. You give them something to eat.” Now who are the helpless ones? Before the disciples was a crowd of 5000 men, besides women and children. “You give them something to eat,” Jesus commanded. “But all we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.” “God helps those who help themselves. What good can we do with such little food in the face of such a big crowd?” No disciples. God helps those who cannot help themselves because He is full of compassion. So Jesus said, “Bring the bread and fish to me.”
Cultural baggage can get in our way of having compassion on those in need. We get so focused on looking to ourselves to solve life’s problems that when the problems get bigger than we are, we fall flat. Instead of looking within ourselves to solve or fix or improve, we must learn from the disciples. They had the source of compassion right there in the person of Jesus, the very Son of God. They had the God-Man there who could help these hungry people. The disciples only needed to go to Him with compassion and pray, “Lord, help these folks today and feed them.”
A woodcutter bought a power-driven chainsaw because he was promised he would be able to cut more wood with the new chainsaw than with his old handsaw. After a week of using the chainsaw, the woodcutter took it back to the store and complained that he couldn’t cut more wood with the chainsaw than he could with his handsaw; as a matter of fact, he was cutting less wood with the chainsaw. The salesperson took the chainsaw, pulled the cord, and the gasoline engine started. The surprised woodcutter asked, “What’s that?” Though the power was available all the time, the woodcutter hadn’t used it.
We have the compassionate power of Jesus at our fingertips all the time. God in Christ came to reestablish His rule over His creation that was corrupted by sin and death. God the Son came in human flesh in order to save the entire mass of humanity from sin and its horrid effects, especially to save us all from everlasting death and condemnation. All people were under the curse of sin and were completely helpless and hopeless, separated from God and unable to help change our life’s course leading us straight to hell. Sin brought with it disease and pain, sorrow and toil, uncertainty and fear. It destroyed the perfect world God had made, resulting in the diseases, storms, and natural disasters we face. But God desired to restore everything that was broken by sin, everything that was twisted, amiss, and dying.
All these different manifestations of creation’s brokenness gave rise to Jesus’ compassion during His earthly ministry. He healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, cured the paralyzed and cleansed the lepers. He fed the hungry and preached the good news of the rule of God to those poor in spirit. But the greatest act of Jesus’ compassion was the giving up of His own life to bear the sins of the world and to endure death in our place on the cross. From God’s Word we read in Philippians 2, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11 ESV)
Jesus, because He had compassion on us helpless sinners, was crucified. He was wrapped in burial cloths, placed in a tomb, and a massive stone was rolled before its entrance. Jesus was dead. Yet on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead. The burial cloths were limp, the tomb was empty, and the stone was rolled away so that we can be certain that through His cross and resurrection, God has helped us by winning for us forgiveness and everlasting life instead of death. Because our Lord and Savior Jesus is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity you and I have the compassionate power of Jesus at our fingertips through the work of God the Holy Spirit.
As Jesus’ forgiven disciples who have received the Holy Spirit through Baptism, we go about our lives ministering in Jesus’ name and in His power as we share Jesus’ compassion with those who, like us, cannot help themselves. How do we go about doing this? First, by continuing the excellent work of the Food Shelf Ministry. Your support and donations are making a huge difference in the lives of those who need help. You are providing resources for families that enable more of their dollars to go toward paying for things like electricity and oil. Month after month our volunteers share the compassion of Christ and I can tell you that the clients see and feel that compassion. They know we don’t have to be there. But we are, and we tell them so, because Jesus loves them.
Second, this past week I have received a number of phone calls from folks in need of gas and groceries. Perhaps we as a congregation could create a “gift card ministry” that would provide for these needs. Maybe one of you would like to step up and volunteer to coordinate that in Jesus’ name so that we might show His compassion to even more people.
Finally, along with our doing should be our praying. We have the listening ear of our heavenly Father so that we can pray for those in need that the Lord’s compassion would be seen in their lives. We pray for opportunities where we can show Jesus’ compassionate love to others in ways in which we haven’t thought of yet. We pray for wisdom that we might appropriately share the compassion of Jesus in word and deed with our neighbors. For as we pray, we are going to the source of compassion. We are asking our Lord to do exactly what He loves to do—to show compassionate love to those who cannot help themselves, and to show that compassion through His disciples, you and me.
So let us take a moment now go to the Source and pray for compassion:
Almighty God, You stir to compassion the hearts of Your servants to uphold and sustain Your Church by devoted and charitable deeds. Give us the same will to love You, open our eyes to see You in the least ones, and strengthen our hands to serve You in others, for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.