Connections 08.06.2017: Knee-Jerk Compassion

Matthew 14:13-21

This Sunday’s lesson focuses on the fact that we sometimes have inadequate resources to meet the great need before us. It asks us to honestly face and confess our inadequacy so we can be open to God’s provision. It calls us to trust that God will use our meager resources to help meet people’s needs.

That is all well and good and necessary. When we see a need, we should assess our resources and, if we think we lack what the situation requires, we should say so. We should then ask God to work through us to meet the need anyway. We should also seek others to join us in providing the necessary resources. We might be surprised at what God will do with what we have when we share it and when we cooperate with others.

But I want to dig past the resource assessment stage to the initial reaction stage. How do we react at the moment we see people in need? What is our knee-jerk reaction when we see the sick, the poor, the refugee, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What is our immediate, automatic, gut-level response?

We can’t expect all Christians to agree on the best approach to meeting people’s needs. But we can and should expect all Christians to always be growing toward having the same knee-jerk reaction to human needs. And our appropriate knee-jerk reaction is compassion.

How do I know? Because that was Jesus’ knee-jerk reaction. When he saw the crowd, “he had compassion for them” (Matt 9:36; 14:14). That was his initial response.

Over the years I’ve had a hard time understanding people who profess to follow Jesus but whose knee-jerk reaction to people in need is apathy (“Not my problem”), selfishness (“Not with my money”), or even disdain (“We don’t need their kind”). Sadly, I’ve known a lot of people in the church with those reactions.

Now, I’m not claiming that my first reaction is always compassion. But I can testify that I want it to be and that it bothers me when it isn’t.

We follow Jesus. We should always be growing in his grace and love. We want our lives to reflect his ways.

When Jesus saw people in need, the first thing he felt was compassion.

Until that’s our knee-jerk reaction, we have a long way to go.


1. Why did Jesus try to go off by himself (v. 13)? When it is appropriate for us to get away from people? What should we do on such a retreat?
2. Why did the crowds follow Jesus? What do people see in today’s church that draws them to us?
3. Do you ever sense that Jesus is calling you to do the difficult or even the impossible? How do you react? How should you react?
4. What do you make of the fact that Jesus gave the bread to the disciples to distribute instead of passing it out himself? What does this say to us?
5. What might the disciples have done with all that leftover food?

Reference Shelf

The crowd ate and was satisfied, and indeed there were twelve baskets full of bread scraps left over. God’s provision was more than abundant, and the food was collected so it would not be wasted. A kophinos was a small wicker basket used to carry a light lunch or odds and ends. Some have sought to make something of the number of baskets, but probably we are simply talking about the Twelve’s own small baskets with which they would carry things. But nonetheless, this Twelve had symbolically served the people of God in the wilderness, and they should have recognized from this miracle that someone was in their midst who was more than an ordinary prophet. They should have also seen this as yet another indication of God’s eschatological Dominion breaking into their midst. There may also be an echo of 2 Kings 4:42-44 where a hundred people are fed on twenty loaves and there are leftovers. Whatever stories the disciples should have used to help them interpret this event, unfortunately they fail to draw the right consequences. If the crowd had been thinking of Jesus as among the northern prophets, certainly the similar story about Elisha would have come to mind.

We are told that some 5,000 men ate at this messianic banquet in the wilderness, which was indeed an enormous crowd, and all the more so if women and children were also present in addition as is likely, and in fact our Matthean account at v. 21 says so explicitly, unlike Mark. In fact, this would have been a crowd well over the population of the city of Capernaum (about 2,000 people at that time). Perhaps we should think that Isaiah 25:6-9 is echoed here, which refers to God feasting with his people in the wilderness. Old Testament stories are alluded to here, but there is certainly no focus on Mosaic ones in Matthew 14, much less any quoting or fulfillment citations of Mosaic stories. The editing of the Markan story provides more of a singular focus on Jesus’ activities, and one could as well argue that Proverbs 9, where we hear of Wisdom preparing a meal for the simple, is as much or more in mind here as any Mosaic text. This is a difference between the Markan account that does have Mosaic echoes, and Matthew’s account that deletes them.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 288-90.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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