Being practical vs. having compassion

Last Sunday’s sermon was a great take on the feeding of the five thousand.  Pastor Douthwaite saw in the account a contrast between the pragmatism of the disciples and the compassion of Jesus.

From Rev. James Douthwaite, Pentecost 8 Sermon, St. Athanasius Lutheran Church.(The reference is to a former student of mine who became a Lutheran and who is now going off to seminary.  We were sending him off that Sunday.)

 
In this story, it is the disciples who are practical. They are experienced in the ways of the world. At least some of them were businessmen before leaving that life behind and following Jesus. They knew the value of a denarii. And so it was only reasonable, it was common sense, it was practical for Jesus to send the crowds away. The reasons were many: it was a desolate place. The day was almost over. No way was there enough food out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe the disciples’ own stomachs were rumbling and grumbling. So be realistic, Jesus. It’s time to send them away.
 
But Jesus never does the practical thing. He does the compassionate thing. Compassion interrupts us and our lives and what we were doing. Compassion stops what we’re doing in order to see to the needs of someone else. Compassion makes us go out of our way to help another. Compassion means sacrificing yourself because something else has come up, whether that means sacrificing time, or money, or energy, or sleep, or whatever else you were really hoping to have or get done today. To help a family member, a neighbor, or even a stranger. That’s why compassion is so hard and increasingly rare in our world today. Our world where I don’t even have enough time to get done what I need to get done, let alone stop and help someone else! Our world of tight budgets, little time, and lots of demands. Compassion just isn’t practical.
 
So how does a compassionate Jesus respond to His practical disciples? He invites them to be compassionate too; to be compassionate with Him. They need not go away; you give them something to eat.
 
And their response: We are not able. We have only five loaves of bread and two fish. So Jesus says: Bring them here to me. 
 
I don’t know if Jesus said that with exasperation, disappointed that His disciples still didn’t get it. Or if He had a little smile on His face. I suspect it’s the latter, the smile. Jesus the compassionate having compassion on His disciples too. To teach them that with Him, there’s no “only.” When you have Jesus, you have everything. Enough to feed 5,000 men, plus women and children. Enough to feed a world full of Christians with His Body and Blood. No place is desolate or empty when Jesus is there. 
 
Brodi – that’s something for you to especially remember this day as we bid you godspeed as you leave for the seminary. You’re going to have a lot of times – as a seminarian, as a vicar, and as a pastor – where you think you are not able; you don’t have enough; you have “only” . . . whatever. But remember: there’s no “only” with Jesus. When you have Him, you have everything, and far more than enough.
 
So Jesus takes the bread and fish and looking up to His Father, says a blessing. He says grace. A thank you. Thank you for the people. Thank you for these disciples, even if they don’t quite get it yet. Thank you for the food. Thank you for the opportunity to feed them all, to teach His disciples what they need to learn: that God isn’t practical – He’s compassionate
 
So after giving thanks, Jesus gives the bread and fish to the disciples, that they do what He told them: you give them something to eat. They do, and much to their surprise, they are able. Jesus even feeds their rumbling, grumbling stomachs, too. Turns out, there is more than enough. All ate and were satisfied. Ready now to go home not in want or in need, but filled and content.
 
The God who is not practical, but compassionate. That’s what Jesus shows us. That’s who Jesus is. A God who cares about the needs of His people and provides. And not just spiritually and not just physically, but both, for we are both. . . .
 
So much had been given to [the disciples]! So much has been given to us! But how often are we blind to it, and blind to our Lord’s compassion. How quick to forget His work and faithfulness of old. How quick to look and trust only what I have in my hands instead of the fact that we are in His hands, and therefore think: It is not enough. I am not able. 
 
Repent. Of your doubt, of your lack of compassion, of your thinking that God somehow hasn’t given you what you need. There’s no “only” with Jesus. With Him whose hands were filled, always, with compassion. Whose hands baptized you and now feed you. Whose hands shield you and bless you. Who hands went to the cross for you. To pay the price you could not pay, not just for your food, but for all your shortcomings, all your sins, all your rebellion, all your doubts – that you have life. And not just life, but His life. That you who are thirsty may have drink. That you who are hungry may have food. And no mere bread and fish, but His Body and Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. To satisfy you so that now, in Christ, you are ready to go to your home filled and content, too. Your home here, yes, but even more, your home with Him, forever. 
 
For you have Jesus. And when you have Him, you have everything, and far more than enough. 
 
And having done so for you, Jesus invites you now to be compassionate too. Like the disciples, He gives to you what you need to do so. Including the heart. And to realize: this Christian life may not be practical. This Christian life may call on us to do a lot of impractical things, things that make no earthly sense – where we put our money, how we spend our time, things that maybe do not give us the biggest return on investment in the world’s eyes. To get interrupted, to not get that thing done, to go out of your way, to sacrifice. 
 
That’s not always easy. Maybe it’s never easy! That’s okay. Maybe the interruption and the getting you to show compassion is the compassion you need right now! God is not practical. He’s compassionate. And that’s better. 
 
Practical would have been to choose better disciples in the first place, right? Or better Christians; better yous and me. But God is not practical. He’s compassionate. And that’s better. And so you are a child of God.
About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.


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