Jesus was in a tough place. John the Baptist—the man whose mantle of ministry Jesus had picked up—had just been executed. Jesus needed some time to think, to pray, to let the storm of Herod’s anger pass over. So, he left the crowds and even his disciples behind, and got into a boat to put five or ten miles of water between him and his problems.
The crowds were in a tough place. Their friends, children, spouses, and parents were ill, representing another mouth to feed without a pair of legs and arms to help with the work. They needed some help, and Jesus seemed like the man to help them out. They made their way from their towns and their fields down to the lake, all around the lake, and camped out at the spot where they expected Jesus’ ship to land.
The disciples were in a tough place. They had not yet gotten used to playing the role of go-between for Jesus and the crowds. And this was a particularly tough situation: five thousand people needing to be fed, and a master who hadn’t exactly invited them along.
In their tough place, the crowd turns demanding. Jesus has healed their sick before; no, we won’t leave! The disciples see a solution to their own tough place: get tough with the crowd, send them away to get food, because we certainly don’t have anything to give them.
In his tough place, Jesus responds with compassion and blessing. The crowds have forgotten that they have access to someone who is not just a miracle worker, but the actual incarnation of power, love, and blessing. Jesus invites them to sit down on the soft green grass. “Slow down,” he seems to say to them. “I gave you what you wanted: now eat with me.”
How often do our prayers sound like the crowd’s prayers? “Jesus, we need… Jesus, we would like… Jesus, would you…?” And often, Jesus’ Father answers our prayers for Jesus’ sake. But we miss the deepest blessing of prayer, of life with Jesus: that is, Jesus himself. Jesus is calling us: “Sit down a while. Eat with me.”
The disciples have forgotten that Jesus is not someone they need to protect. Jesus will find his time to be alone, to pray (“immediately” after this story!). But Jesus’ place now is with the crowds. Yes, they are noisy. And yes, they are nosy. They don’t seem to truly understand the importance of Jesus, the importance of his mission. The disciples suffer from the opposite blindness than that of the crowds. The crowds are so focused on what they need that they miss the identity of the one who meets their needs. The disciples are so focused on the identity of Jesus that they miss why he is important, why he is what they need.
Jesus’ prayers, his time with God, fuel his life of compassion and blessing. Jesus doesn’t come to reveal a religious way that needs high hedges on either side to block out the view of the world. Instead, Jesus lives a life marked by knowing God’s compassion for him and sharing that compassion with others.
Our world is a tough place. It’s easy to withdraw to “spend time with Jesus.” It’s easy to get distracted by meeting the needs of others. Can we follow Jesus’ invitations: both to spend time with him and also to share his compassion and blessing with others?