“Hear my just cause; attend to my cry, O God.” These are the Psalmist’s words, words of faith that God is listening and will have compassion. Likewise, the crowd follows Jesus to the wilderness from the neighbouring towns, bringing with them their sick loved ones, having faith that Jesus will have compassion and heal them. I don’t know about you, but when I listen to the news and check-in with friends and loved ones on social media these days, I often cry to God for justice and healing. As more stories of violence, divisiveness and illness seem to pour in every day, having faith that anything will come of my pleas can be hard.
My good friend, John, gave me a card for my birthday this year that said, “Things are getting worse…send chocolate!” (Accompanied, of course by a bar of Fair Trade chocolate which is now long gone.) Funny, but also depressingly true right now. The chocolate, of course, only is a temporary distraction from everything else – a brief shot of dopamine in a cortisol filled society. As the crowd chased Jesus in his boat along the shore, desperate for Jesus to perform the miracle healings he had become known for, they, too, were seeking a temporary fix, to what was caused by a bigger underlying problem.
Hunger and malnutrition were known to have been big problems among the poor in Roman Palestine. Some of the health issues people were needing to be healed from may well have been related to poor nutrition. The Empire claimed much of the agricultural products of the area such as olive oil, meats and wine for export, to feed Roman troops and the urban elite. Jesus healed the sick and fed the crowd for that day, but the underlying problems around hunger and disease remained.
We face that challenge in our lives today, too. Children in Yemen go hungry because their food has been disrupted by or diverted to the war. This war has at its roots control of oil production and revenue, oil going largely to fill the demand that globally wealthy people like you and me have for transportation of ourselves and our consumer goods. An estimated 2 million children there are acutely malnourished, according to the United Nations. The medical system is overwhelmed by basic illnesses such as cholera and has no capacity for Covid-19 patients whatsoever. They are turned away, untreated.
Other countries, too, are suffering from famine caused by war, or climate change, or both. Countries like Zimbabwe struggle with the after-effects of colonization such as unsustainable agricultural practices by corporate farming, while the landless poor suffer and starve in the face of extended drought. Suffering continues in Haiti, too, as tropical storms worsen with Climate Change and Doctors Without Borders warn that their medical system is already too overburdened to deal with Covid-19. All these global problems can seem overwhelming.
We experience other hungers, too, spiritual and emotional ones. We long for unity, in an increasingly divisive culture. We long for racial harmony and justice for people of colour in this country. In this time of Covid-19, we long for connection to one another. We long for the freedom to once again gather together, especially as a church, and to embrace one another in good, life-giving hugs! Surely these are just causes! So, we plead, “Attend to our cries, O God.” We take our feelings of sorrow at what’s happening in the world, our feelings of being overwhelmed, our sense of inadequacy, and like the Psalmist, we bring those feelings to God. We bring them to God along with our commitment to follow in God’s Way.
Our reading today doesn’t tell us what Jesus was feeling when he climbed in the boat and headed off for some wild space after hearing the news of John the Baptist’s death at the order of King Herod. Perhaps he needed time to grieve. Perhaps he was worried about the safety of friends and family since King Herod knew of the connection between Jesus and John. Matthew doesn’t tell us how Jesus felt then. But we are told how he felt when he saw the crowd: “When Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
Jesus knew that there was more to these people’s problems that just the physical symptoms of disease and hunger. He knew there were systemic violence and oppression behind much of what was going on, and on other days, he spoke to that with his Sermon on the Mount and other teachings. But on this day, Jesus dealt with the physical issues immediately in front of him. He dealt with the cries of the people at the moment. He dealt with a small, but very real, part of the problem.
Do you remember last week’s reading from the previous chapter of Matthew? In it, Jesus told the Parable of the Mustard Seed and the Parable of the Yeast, saying that the Realm of God was like those tiny things that grow into larger, wonderful things – a seed that grows into a huge bush where birds can make their homes, and a tiny bit of yeast that when added to flour can raise many, many loaves of bread. Now, we get to see Jesus living that out!
Yes, the problem is bigger than what is on the hillside before him, but who knows what impact even one of those whom he healed might have on the rest of the world? Who knows what chain reaction might be started? With just five loaves and two fish, he fed the crowd. Did God magically multiply them into enough, or did Jesus start a chain reaction of sharing among the gathered people? Does it matter? Is it any less of a miracle either way? Something small, grew into something large and all got what they needed and more.
I want to stop for a moment here and deal with the fact that Jesus put his own need for solitude aside to do the healing and feeding of the crowd. I think most of us probably know someone who has done what Jesus did and selflessly gave of their time and energy to others in spite of their own needs. Many in the medical field put aside their own grief or fear over Covid-19 to care for other people on a regular basis, and I am sure you can each think of other examples in your own lives. It’s important to know, here though, that in the passage immediately after this, we will read that Jesus did take some alone time to care for himself. That is another example he set which we need to follow.
Coming back to this week’s passage, though, we see Jesus attending to the needs of the crowd with compassion. This is the core of the Christian life – do we act with compassion? Do we treat others with love and respect? Do we do what we can when we can to live out God’s love in the world? Downstairs in the Nelson Food Centre, they feed hungry people in the here and now. They also seek to help deal with the problems of why people can’t afford enough food in the first place. That was part of the expansion of their work and our partnership a couple of years ago. They can’t fix it all, but they do what they can.
The big systems in our world may be faulty or broken to a point beyond where we can see the way forward. This must not stop us from taking action. We must help others in whatever way we are able. We must examine our own part in the broken system, doing what we can to change the small things that we do have control over. We must vote and act politically on the side of compassion, rather than self-interest. We must listen for the call of God in our lives towards what is right and just, towards that which gives life.
Like the disciples, we must be willing to share our loaf of bread, even when we are afraid it means we will not have enough ourselves. Because God sees the big picture, God sees the abundance that we don’t. And God will hear our cries for justice and healing as we seek to live the Way of Love.
Pray with me – God of Compassion, hear our cries. Shelter us under your wings and give us the strength we need to do what we are able to further your work of healing love in the world. Amen