Under the weight of unimaginable suffering and unmet need, the world writhes in agony all around us. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, the countless empty hands outstretched in desperation are easier to ignore than engage. Yet it’s in these desolate places that our compassion collides with the world’s need and ushers in the miraculous.
To get the most out of this Bible study, read Matthew 14-15. Before you read, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in this passage. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. And above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passages: Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:29-38
From the types and timing of Jesus’ wonders, we see evidence of both His compassion and purpose. For example, the rabbis believed only the Messiah would be able to heal a leper or cast out a mute demon. So performing these miracles (Matt. 8:2-4; Matt. 12:22-37) amounted to a challenge: Jesus was forcing the leadership to a decision about His messiahship. In verse 24, the Pharisees rejected His claim, so from then on, the Lord focused elsewhere—on preparing His disciples to carry on kingdom work in His absence. Feeding the multitudes is part of this second phase of Christ’s ministry.
At first glance, the miracle seems to be the stunning climax of an unfortunate coincidence—Jesus went to this “secluded place” (14:13) not to minister to the crowds, but to grieve His cousin’s death. Perhaps, if Jesus hadn’t withdrawn to such a desolate area instead of staying where food for thousands was readily available for purchase, the entire situation could have been avoided. At least that seems to be the disciples’ thinking when they suggest the crowds leave the deserted place to find their own meals (Matt. 14:15). But this “secluded place” is not what it seems.
The adjectives secluded and desolate (vv. 13, 15) are the Greek word erēmos, meaning “solitary, lonely, uninhabited.” Used of places, it can mean not only “a desert or a wilderness” (Strong’s Concordance) but also “an uncultivated region fit for pasturage,” which refers to an area where sheep are brought to graze. Now consider John 10:11, in which Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. What responsibilities does a shepherd have toward his sheep? Now notice how He characterizes the people in Matthew 9:36.
Compare Jesus directing the people to sit on the grass (Matt. 14:19) with Psalm 23:1-3. How does your perspective on the scene change?
In what ways does reframing this miracle as an intentional moment between the Shepherd and His sheep impact your view of God’s actions in seemingly desolate, lonely places?
Continuing the Story
Disregarding the disciples’ attempt to shift the problem to “Anywhere But Here,” Jesus transfers the responsibility to them: “You give them something to eat!” (Matt. 14:16). From their earth-bound, logical perspective, His proposal sounds downright ridiculous.
Performing these miracles amounted to a challenge: Jesus was forcing the leadership to a decision about His messiahship.
In Matt. 14:17, what was the disciples’ reply when Jesus commanded them to give the crowd food? How do you suppose they thought Jesus would react to their obvious insufficiency?
In Matthew 15, this scenario of thousands of people needing food happens a second time. Instead of trusting their history with Jesus and expecting Him to perform another miracle, they again respond from their limited mundane perspective, considering only a hypothetical solution (Matt. 15:33). Where does Jesus refocus their attention in Matt. 15:34? By shifting from the hypothetical to the actual, how does He position the disciples to participate in this miracle?
Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” Awareness always precedes action—look at Jesus’ pattern of behavior in Matt. 9:36, Matt. 14:14, and Luke 7:13. But it’s not easy to witness the suffering of others. Can you think of times when you’ve avoided someone else’s pain or need? Try to recall a particular instance—what emotions did you experience as you averted your gaze?
The English word compassion has two Latin roots that together mean “to suffer with.” Note that Jesus was grieving John’s death when He showed the crowds compassion (Matt. 14:13). In your experience, is it harder or easier to empathize when you are currently suffering?
Personal pain can either humble or harden us. As uncomfortable as it is, embracing our own suffering with gentleness positions us to embrace others, surrendering what we have (time, resources, wisdom, etc.) in order to meet them where they are. Just as Jesus did for us.
REMEMBER Compassion embraces.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
In Luke 10, an expert in the law tests Jesus, prompting Him to deliver His parable of the good Samaritan. In the story, the title character behaves as Jesus Himself so often did—he saw suffering and had compassion (Luke 10:33).
Jesus chose a controversial figure as the story’s hero.
The parable moves from the people the audience would have assumed most likely to help, to the kind of person they’d never have considered. Viewed by Jews as morally and religiously inferior, the Samaritan wasn’t deemed qualified to dispense compassion. Why do you think Jesus chose such a controversial figure as the story’s hero? Who in your culture is viewed as repulsive, and how might you view them differently in light of this passage? Does this change your perspective on what qualifies a person to serve with compassion? Note that in Luke 10:37, Jesus ends His lesson by instructing the teacher to “Go and do the same” as the Samaritan, effectively telling His audience they, too, should emulate the good actions of someone they despise.
Consider that the Samaritan was on his own journey when he came across the victim in his path (v. 33). In your daily life, do you come across people in need of your compassion? How do you view them—as unfortunate obstacles to be avoided or divine appointments?
The victim lying in the road probably appeared dead—how does that change your evaluation of people or situations you may have seen as lost causes? Jesus doesn’t reveal whether the man fully recovered, much less whether he ever repaid the Samaritan. What does that tell you about the purpose of compassion?
Ultimately, compassion is about starting where you are with what you have, moving toward suffering and trusting that God will bless whatever you bring to Him, however insufficient.
Illustration by Adam Cruft