As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Back from a long trip, exhausted yet exhilarated, eager to report to their master, the disciples leap at Jesus' offer to give them a day off in a relaxing spot with no more needy people--peace for a day for both Jesus and his disciples, now called "apostles" for the first time. "You've earned the rest," says Jesus. "Right on," they respond, and across the water they go.
However, they had become minor celebrities by this point--not just Jesus, but all of them who had been out healing and teaching in his name, and they were still needed, as was Jesus. Jesus saw the crowds that had gathered on the shore to greet them, and he had compassion for them, Mark tells us, "because they were like sheep without a shepherd."
Recognizing his sheep even then, Jesus calls his disciples to task. "We can't feed them," they protest. "No way!"
"Way!" responds Jesus. (Maybe that's not a literal translation.) "Give me what you have. It'll be enough. You'll see."
And he took the five loaves and two fish and blessed them, gave thanks to God for what they did have instead of bemoaning what they didn't have. And he started breaking up the food to be distributed. And breaking. And breaking. And it was enough--more than enough. More than enough for 5,000 men, we are told, and most likely their families, too.
This is the only one of Jesus' miracles that is reported in all four Gospels, twice each in Matthew and Mark. It's an important story. Why? So we can debate how it happened? Whether the small amount of food was actually multiplied into lots or whether people reached into their pockets and brought out their morsels as well? No. So we can argue about whether or not this was primarily a symbolic story reminiscent of the manna in the desert or foretelling the Eucharist or even the heavenly banquet? No. Over and over the writers of the Gospel stories tell us about this meal, not so we could split hairs on its interpretation. Why? Why is it so important?
This story is important because even when faced with his own need and the need of his disciples, Jesus looked at the crowd and had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
As we hear this familiar story again today, we must hear its message, both as sheep without a shepherd and as disciple.
The disciples were reluctant even to try to feed this mob. So, many times, are we. We believe what we bring to God's needy people is insufficient, inadequate to be of use. Unassisted, that's the truth. However, we follow the example of the One who did nothing without invoking the Divine. "Thank you for the little I have to bring, O God; bless it and make it enough, I pray," we must say. If we are indeed to be Christ's hands, feet, eyes, ears, mouth, heart in the world today, we can do no less.
From time to time, however, despite our best intentions, we find ourselves among those in need, those who are like sheep without a shepherd. This is as dangerous a state of affairs for those of us who have heard the Good News and try to appropriate the new life we have been given than it is for those who have never met the Lord, and perhaps even more dangerous. We delude ourselves about our identity. We are only disciples, never sheep. It's an "us-and-them" mentality that is destructive of both true perception and, eventually, of true self. We can be tricked by our own virtuous habits, blinded to our own neediness.
We live in a world filled with those who have never heard the voice of the Good Shepherd, a world of hungry people who don't even recognize the invitation to the feast as pertaining to them. They are trying to feed themselves on what the world has to offer--money, stock profits, cars, expensive trips, and clothing--settling for transient happiness rather than true joy, for insulation rather than true safety. They barely consider giving from abundance, much less from scarcity; in truth, charitable giving is regarded primarily as a way to have more money at tax time. They are wounded and they cannot see their own blood, and they are starving in the face of plenty. And, many times, we open our eyes and we see that they are us. While we are distracted by the world's values, we lose sight of our Shepherd and we are lost.
Colorado rancher and cowboy poet, Peggy Godfrey, is a shepherd, a good one. Peggy has a little business that is mutually beneficial for the people in her small town and for her sheep. Upon request, Peggy will bring some of her sheep to graze in people's yards and fields. Beats mowing. However, they are temporarily without their shepherd. Godfrey's poem What Now? illustrates this:
A dog got in with my sheep
a small bunch doing yard work
Only two ewes remain in the pen
One, head lowered, bloody and chewed on
Three skittery lambs remain, not theirs
The rest jumped the fence
Ran every direction
Blood, fear, panic
Oh, God, what now?
Walk the streets, yards, vacant lots
Shake a bucket of corn
Call to them over and over
Call to your ewes, your lambs
If they hear you
They'll remember who they are
Whose they are
And that pull back toward the others
As ancient as their species
As strong as breath and heartbeat
Will draw the flock together
Walk slowly, call to them
Your voice they remember from birth
Shake your bucket
Keep walking and calling
Maybe they'll hear
(Â© Peggy Godfrey, Moffat, Colorado, 2000)
Jesus is walking among us today, filled with compassion, searching for each one of us, even for those we find ourselves reluctant to help. Jesus is walking slowly, shaking the bucket--or the basket--and calling us to the feast, to the miraculous feeding that brings us home, that reminds us of who we are, whose we are. Maybe we'll hear--and remember.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.