The Challenge of Jesus' Compassion
In the year 1870, John D. Rockefeller established Standard Oil Company, which at the time was the largest oil refinery in the world. Soon after the turn of the 20th Century, J.D. Rockefeller had become the first billionaire in the United States and enjoyed the titled as the richest man on the planet.
When Mr. Rockefeller was asked by a reporter, “How much money is enough?” He replied, “Just a little bit more.”
Fear is a powerful motivator and one of mankind’s chief fears is that of scarcity. Numerous studies over the past 50 years have established a correlation between well-being and financial security, especially when considering the first $50,000 of a person’s annual income.
Happiness research suggests the difference between making $25,000 and $50,000 per year produces a profound impact on a person’s happiness and sense of well-being, while increases in income beyond the $50,000 level show marginal increases in happiness due to the economic Law of Diminishing Return.
If even a billionaire feels he does not have quite enough money to adequately protect against the threat of scarcity, it is not difficult to understand the hesitancy of everyday working people to part with their hard-earned income for any reason, even life-giving reasons like caring for the felt needs of other people.
When faced with what appeared to be the impossible task of feeding a huge crowd of people with limited resources, the disciples of Jesus responded as many of us would likely have responded, namely, out of a sense of scarcity. What possible good could come from offering a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish in the face of such an overwhelming need? Would it not be wise to preserve the disciples' scant resources to at least meet their own needs?
When Jesus surveyed the large crowd, many of whom had been following him for three days, he felt a sense of compassion for them. He was moved “in the inner parts” and felt a deep sense of pity and care for them. Jesus empathic response to the tangible, physical needs of the people was one of the heart, not of the reason.
Conversely, the disciples surveyed the landscape and responded with a heady rationality. We can almost hear them saying, “Are you kidding? You’re going to feed all these people with seven loaves and a few fish?” In essence, Jesus responded, “No, you are.”
We can understand the disciples’ dilemma. From a practical and rational standpoint, providing everyone present in this remote place with enough food to be satisfied seems impossible. It should have been a recipe for failure. Unless, of course, divine intervention was taken into account. As the angel Gabriel said to Mary the mother of Jesus, “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
The feeding of the 4,000 is a mystery to us from a scientific and rationalistic standpoint. Not through any fault with either science or philosophy. These disciplines are simply not designed nor equipped to measure or validate a supernatural occurrence. Thus, scientific methodology and philosophical reasoning fall silent before the mysteries of God involving miracles of this nature.
What is clear from this biblical account is the desire of God to care for his people in tangible, practical ways and for humanity to care for one another. We are reminded that Jesus Christ came into the world to save people, real people who hunger and thirst and pass out from walking too far without food.
And then there is the challenge of Jesus. In his desire to offer a caring response to real human needs, Jesus looked to fellow humans as the basic source of provision. Surely, Jesus knew of the limited resources at the disciples’ disposal, yet he still called upon them to offer what they were able to give. For modern day Christians, we look to this story as a reminder of God’s ability to multiple our own offerings based not on our economic status, but on God’s sovereign ability to make something great out of even a meager offering.
The Jewish Feast of Purim provides a wonderful, powerful example of joyfully giving to others regardless of socio-economic status. During the celebration, the Jewish people are commanded to find someone less fortunate than themselves and offer them gifts. The second part of the command is to do so with a joyful disposition. Truly, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7) and giving to others with a cheerful disposition unites the head and they heart.
Marina Khidekel, Head of Content Development for Thrive Global, tells the story of her friend who is a teacher in Canada. The teacher’s class of 6 year-olds was learning the concept of fractions and was asked to write down whether they would like to have ½ a piece of chocolate or a ¼ of a piece of chocolate.
The class had recently added several children from the families of immigrants to Canada and one of these little girls wrote she desired to have a ¼ of a piece of chocolate instead of the more substantial ½ of a piece. The concerned teacher feared she had missed the mark in her lesson and believed some of the students failed to grasp the concept of fractions.
So, the teacher asked the little girl why she wanted a ¼ of a piece of chocolate instead of a ½ piece. The little girl said, “So that more people can have a piece of chocolate.” This is an example of the feeding of the 4,000 in reverse: The teacher sought a mathematical answer to rational question; the student offered an empathic response from the heart.
French philosopher Blaise Pascal once said, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” As followers of Jesus Christ, our calling is to love one another by taking into account the felt needs around us and to give of our time, treasure and talents as we are able to do so; God will do the rest.