I had such a great response to yesterday’s Bible-reading cat that I’m tempted to abandon the whole “devotional reflection” thing and go with a photo series of animals with scripture. However, since I’m not sure how much spiritual benefit there would be in such a discipline, I’ll stick with the Daily Office — and with today’s gospel lesson, which comes from the Book of Matthew.
Matthew 14:13-21 tells the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. Because the story appears in all four gospels, it’s among the better-known events in Jesus’ life and is filled with lessons that many of us have heard repeatedly. However, if there’s one thing that makes Matthew’s telling stand out, it’s the context of the story; because here, it comes immediately on the heels of John the Baptist’s execution. John, of course, was Jesus’ cousin; and so, it comes as no surprise — that in the aftermath of his death — we would be told: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place” (v. 13). But even though Jesus is seeking (and no doubt needing) time to process his own grief, when the crowds arrive, he has compassion on them; and he proceeds to minister to them in the way that only he can.
Now, I’ve got to confess that this creates a certain tension for me as a pastor — a tension that I think exists for everyone who seeks to follow Jesus. On the one hand, I want to be a person of Christ-like compassion. I’d like to be ready and willing to respond to the needs of others, regardless of the specific circumstances that are playing out in my life at the time. On the other hand, there have to be some limits. I recognize (sometimes willingly, and sometimes unwillingly) that I have to exercise some degree of self-care; otherwise, I’ll drain my emotional, physical, and spiritual batteries and get to the place where my desire and ability to be compassionate is in perennially short supply.
Fortunately, I serve a congregation that not only allows me time for that self-care — but also encourages me to take it. And yet, there have been numerous occasions when my family was on vacation — or making plans of some other kind — and had to cut things short because of a need in the church. And even more frequently, I face decisions (as everyone else does) that call me to decide between attending to my own needs and attending to the needs of others. How are we to resolve that tension?
Well, for my part (and I know plenty of wonderful pastors and teachers who might disagree with me on this), I think it’s important to remember that “self-care” is a bit of an idol in our culture. Yes, there are necessary and appropriate ways to exercise good stewardship of our own bodies, minds, and souls. But because our social milieu tells us constantly that we should “look out for number one,” and that “we deserve a break today” because “we’ve earned it” — we always need to balance that with the biblical message that the “mind of Christ” consists in “not looking to our own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
In addition, I think we need to acknowledge — with both humility and gratitude — that we can’t do everything…nor does God want us to! None of us can meet every need that comes our way; we’d be foolish to try; and therefore, we’re called to exercise discernment about when and how we should respond to the situations of need of which we become aware.
However, as the feeding of the 5000 demonstrates, what the Lord does want us to do is to take what we have — to take what we can do — and place it in His hands, There, we discover that our small offerings of compassion and generosity and sacrifice become far more impactful than we ever could have dreamed, because they’re added to the riches of compassion’s endless Source.
May that Source supply our every need today, so that we can be compassionate in responding to the needs of others. And oh yes, here’s a picture of a monkey reading the Bible: