We are surrounded by an ocean of need. As followers of Christ, we are deeply concerned. We want to help. We desire to be constructive. We want to alleviate suffering. We want to rescue the perishing. But let’s be frank: The prospect of actually meeting such needs seems overwhelming. And so, like the disciples, when we see those in need we are prone to “send them away.” We just don’t see any immediate solution we can provide.
Of course, it is not that we don’t care; it is rather that we do not consider, realistically, that that there is anything that we can do about the need. After all, when the multitudes are hungry, and all we can scrounge up is a few scones and sardines, “what are they among so many?” If we are honest, the idea of telling those who are hungry that a meal is just around the corner is just laughable. Unless, of course, you factor in Jesus. All of a sudden, that which we found laughable is, in fact, believable, and we tell the hungering crowds to have a seat because after all, feeding them is indeed doable. They are about to receive the Chef’s surprise, and it will be out of this world.
This account is a familiar story to most of us. But perhaps that in itself provides a bit of a challenge. Perhaps we fail to take it seriously. Perhaps we smile at this story and, while believing that it happened—and it did—nevertheless we may be tempted to relegate it to a particular period of history and thereby miss out on the principle that transcends the period. One of the major principles is that little is much when God is in it. When we obey the Lord, then a sea of needs can, in fact, be satisfied.
As I expound this passage, I have a couple of matters on my heart.
First, one of the elders of our church has recently emigrated to Australia. As a church, we are going to feel the loss of this family. There are going to be some hungry people who will need to be spiritually and relationally cared for. I hope that this message will help some in our church to offer up their scones and sardines and that the Lord will multiply them to meet these needs.
Second, as a church, we in recent months have been ministering to the children of an orphanage in our area. There is a need: a large, looming and imminent need.
We have been blessed for the past several months to have several children from this orphanage in attendance at our morning worship services. These are precious children, whom many in our church have come to love. Many have emotionally embraced them and have come alongside to teach them how to participate in corporate worship. Many have visited them at the orphanage and have ministered to them in practical ways. They are large on our agenda.
In fact, the administrator of the home recently mentioned that, while many churches have been involved with the children over the years, none have had as obvious an impact on the children as our church.
But the orphanage is facing some large challenges. In fact, it is quite possible that it is going to be forced to close due to insufficient funding. There is a large shortfall of some R30,000 per month. Some workers are not being paid their full salaries. And, of course, the most significant matter is that these children will then be sent away, either to foster care or to some other agency. Some of the children are going to be placed back with their families. But what of those who are not? Is there something that we can do? Many of us are praying that there is. And this is what has motivated me to bring this message tonight.
Is it possible that these precious children will be a part of the next generation of those who will experience God’s grace and who will be used to further the spread of the fame of God’s name? What does God want of us concerning the needs of these children? Has God brought these children into the orbit of our faith community for just a short time or (as is my prayer!) for the long term? I cannot say for sure, but I believe that we should not simply “send them away” while the means for caring for them is present right where we are.
This study is not about fund-raising. I, for one, do not see the Lord leading BBC to invest this kind of money to keep the home operating.
Though I am most grateful for the work that is being done through the orphanage, I maintain that the solution to caring for orphaned children and for children temporarily displaced is to be found in the homes of Christians. I am of the persuasion that, as well intentioned as many orphanages may be, there is a fundamental wrongheadedness with some of this. And this is due to fundamental selfishness on the part of many Christians. I fear that orphanages, like missions agencies, have arisen because the church—made up of individual Christians—are too quick to shirk our responsibility. The result is that many children remain orphaned while vast amounts of monies are used unwisely. Let me explain.
There are an estimated 3.7 million orphans in South Africa. There are a further estimated 150,000 children living in child-headed homes. And at the same time, the population of self-identifying Christians in South Africa is around thirty million. That represents, conservatively, six million professedly Christian homes.
According to UNICEF, around the world there are an estimated 153 million orphans who have lost one parent. There are 17.9 million orphans who have lost both parents and are living in orphanages or on the streets, who lack the care and attention required for healthy development. These children are at risk for disease, malnutrition and death.
As I said at the outset, these figures are overwhelming. There is a sea of need when it comes to orphans. What can we do?
I don’t know for sure how many Christian households there are in the world but, very conservatively, there are an estimated 2.2 billion professing Christians worldwide. If you allow a liberal five Christians per household, that gives us 440 million family units. If you halve that number due to abject poverty or very old age, that leaves us with more households than orphans. And since, by definition, not all orphans are in need of homes (because they have one surviving parent), theoretically there is absolutely no reason why Christians could not empty the streets and the orphanages of children in need. In the words of Jesus, “They do not need to go away. You, Christians, give them something.”
I understand that not everyone is called to practically intervene in the same way in an effort to meet these needs. But I want to caution us as a congregation to avoid listening to the appeal of this passage with an argumentative mind. Yes, I am well aware of the yes-but arguments and all the exceptions. I am well aware that orphan care will look different for different Christians and for different congregations. I get that. Yet, at the same time, I don’t plan to undermine a biblical truth by focusing on what many may call exceptions to the rule. We will be the poorer, and most importantly orphaned children will be the losers in the long run, if the church allows the biblical principle of caring for them to die the death of a thousand qualifications.
What I am going to confront us with in this study is a large challenge and a huge opportunity. This passage is a wonderful—in fact, an inspired—template to equip us to compassionately and constructively meet the needs of those are hungry for more than food; who are, in fact, in need of a godly home. May the Lord use His Word in our community of faith so that these children will not be sent away but rather fed by the Lord through us. I trust that we will learn that, when compassion meets concern, God gets creative.
The opening verse of the story helps us with the setting: “When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities” (v. 13).
The “it” of which Jesus had just “heard” refers to the murder of John the Baptist (vv. 1–12). The Lord Jesus felt this loss deeply. His prophesied faithful and fearless forerunner—His cousin—had lost his head for Christ’s sake.
Jesus wanted to be alone to grieve, and no doubt to prayerfully commune with His Father (v. 13a; cf. Mark 1:35). The sin-induced sufferings of the world were crowding in on Jesus. The cross was getting closer. Jesus sought silence and solace, but the crowds had other plans (v. 13b).
The multitudes followed Jesus. Rather than sending them away, which would have been completely understandable, Jesus had compassion on them and met their immediate temporal needs (v. 14).
Imagine the scene. Jesus was perhaps emotionally exhausted from His own sorrow, yet He was not distracted by it. He came to serve His Father by serving others and He would not be detoured from this.
It would have been perfectly understandable had He sent them away. Who would have blamed Him? But Jesus was different.
Jesus would not do what was expected; rather, He would do what was exceptional.
Jesus was not controlled by the needs of others. This is important to see. According Mark 1:32–39 Jesus did not allow the needs of those around Him to deter Him from God’s purpose:
At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. Then He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and He did not allow the demons to speak, because they knew Him.
Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, “Everyone is looking for You.”
But He said to them, “Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth.”
And He was preaching in their synagogues throughout all Galilee, and casting out demons.
Jesus was controlled by His Father’s designs for Him. While His disciples were concerned that He meet the needs where He was, He was driven by concern for His Father’s glory to move elsewhere, where they would also encounter people who had needs. Humanly speaking, He could not meet everyone’s needs, and so He met the needs that He could.
We would do well to learn from this. A friend, who serves as a pastor in another part of the world, and whose church has an extensive orphan care ministry, recently told me of a meeting that he had with the director of that ministry in his church. The man told my friend of the many hurting people he was encountering, wondering how to meet the overwhelming need. My friend wisely said, “Everyone is hurting.” His point was that we cannot possibly meet all the needs there are, but as God providentially brings needy people into our orbit, we can reach out to meet the needs we can.
This truth applies to the burdens that drive me in this study.
For example, as one of our elders moves to Australia, his leaving will create needs in our community. We will need people to rise to the occasion and meet those needs. At the same time, I am fully aware that there are needs in Australia that this man will no doubt be used by God to meet.
At the same time, the potential closing of an orphanage in our area will create needs that must in some way be met. Can we, as a church and as individual Christians, be used of God to meet these needs?
Christians are called to serve. We are called to meet needs. We are Christ’s hands in this life. We cannot merely slough off the needs around us. We must ask ourselves which needs—whose needs—we should seek to meet. No, we cannot meet everyone’s needs, but if we are not actively serving in order to meet needs, we cannot claim to be following Christ. There are obligations to grace, and “he who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked” (1 John 2:6).
Our text tells us that, seeing the great multitude, Jesus “was moved with compassion for them.” The word translated “compassion” means “to feel pity” or “to sympathise.” The root word speaks of the inner parts—of the gut. Matthew uses this word five times in his Gospel (9:36; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34 and here), each time with reference to Jesus’ compassion. In fact, the particular construction of this word is only used in the New Testament with reference to Jesus, although the root word is also used of Christian compassion in general (Philippians 2:1; Colossians 3:12).
To have compassion is to identify with the hardships and the needs of others. It includes, but is not limited to, feelings of affection. It is rather an active affection. It results in doing something to meet the need. We see this in this story.
Let’s now continue our exposition with a view to unearthing some principles to be applied. We will do so under several headings.
When Compassion Meets Concern
In vv. 14–16 we see that there is a difference between concern and compassion:
And when Jesus went out He saw a great multitude; and He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick. When it was evening, His disciples came to Him, saying, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is already late. Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.”
But Jesus said to them, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Notice that the disciples had concern, but Jesus had compassion. The disciples were not heartless. They recognised that a need existed, but their solution was to send the people away to meet their own needs. Jesus, however, was both concerned and compassionate. He recognised their need, but was also committed to doing something about it.
This, by the way, is the principle to take from this: The Christian is to be both concerned and compassionate. It is not either/or but rather both/and. Jesus was concerned for the needs of the multitude, but was also compassionate. Because He was compassionate, He “healed their sick.” His affection led to action. His emotion was accompanied by motion. His awareness was followed by involvement. His awareness of the need was matched by His commitment to meeting the need. His love for sheep was matched by shepherding the sheep. Those who were scattered (9:36) mattered. He sought to help those whom He observed as being harassed. He sought to succour those suffering. And He did the same when the need for food was brought to Him.
Compassion is grounded in concern, but concern is not enough. The disciples prove this.
After a long day (in which, no doubt, the disciples were excited to observe Jesus miraculously healing the sick), the disciples evidenced concern for the multitudes. Their concern is commendable. They were concerned for the needs of the multitudes, particularly for their physical need for food. No doubt, throughout the day, Jesus was teaching the multitudes as well. But the disciples understood that, though man does not live by bread alone, neither does man live by the Bible alone. The multitude needed physical food and spiritual food.
The disciples concern produced a plan: Send them home to feed themselves. Now, let’s not be too harsh: This was neither unreasonable nor uncaring. It made good sense. The disciples did care.
As we, as a church, hear the news of the possible closure of the orphanage, I have no doubt that we are concerned about the children. If we are not, then we are not Christian. (In fact, if we are not, then we are not human!) Our concern may lead to the conclusion of the disciples: Send them away elsewhere for their needs to be met. And those needs may well be met elsewhere. That may be God’s plan for some of the children. I cannot speak authoritatively on this matter.
But, as we will see, though sending away those in need may be the easier option, it is not always be the righteous option. Perhaps, as in this account, God is calling us to an exceptional option. And this will be driven by compassion rather than by mere concern. Concern is not expensive; compassion is often costly—sometimes very costly. The cross of Jesus proved this.
I do not mean to minimise concern. God help us to be more concerned! The disciples had the good sense to see need on the horizon. They knew that it had been a long day and the evening was setting in. They were concerned about the physical needs of the crowd. They even devised a plan to do something about it: “Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food.” Again, this was not wrong! And it may not be wrong for some of us to say, “I am concerned, but this is not a need that God intends for me to meet—at least in an exceptional way.” That’s fine. But will you consider that perhaps it is? How can one know? By the presence of Christlike compassion.
Note what Jesus said to the disciples: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
Do you sense the Lord giving you an unshakeable gut-grabbing concern to meet need? Don’t dismiss that question with an easy no. Perhaps being exposed to the Word will move you from concern to compassion.
Jesus revealed His compassion in what I would call constructive concern. “You give them something to eat” was His way of helping the disciples to move from concern to compassion. He would not let them off the hook, so to speak. Rather, He laid responsibility on their shoulders. This is helpful for us as a congregation.
God has brought these children into our sphere of influence and care. I believe that He is now confronting us with responsibility. It may be easier to “send them away,” but I suspect that the Lord is telling us that this is not necessary. This is not someone else’s problem. It is ours. We need to now be constructive.
But we also see in the text one of the major hindrances to constructive concern. This brings us to the next point.
When Calculations Meet Confidence
There is a difference between calculating and confidence. The disciples “said to Him, ‘We have here only five loaves and two fish’” (v. 17). The disciples were calculating; Jesus was confident. The challenge is for us to share the confidence of Jesus.
Jesus countered His disciples’ concern with compassion. Though it was noble that they wanted to send the multitude away to get their own food, Jesus countered that there was no need to send them away: “You give them something to eat.”
One wonders what the disciples thought when Jesus said this: “Well, Jesus has had a long day and He is tired; obviously, He is not thinking clearly. He knows our provisions; He knows that we ourselves do not even have any food. This is a very disconcerting instruction.”
I think we should give the disciples some credit. In parallel accounts of this passage, the disciples evidently did some “inventory,” because they returned to Jesus with one packet of food, belonging to a young boy (cf. Mark 6:38 with John 6:9). I would love to have witnessed the disciples procuring this young boy’s lunch!
Finding only five scones and two sardines, the disciples seem to have wondered if Jesus has some cash stashed away: “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” (Mark 6:37). Two hundred denarii was equivalent to a year’s wage for a labourer. Where would they have come up with that amount of money?
In fact, the reason that Jesus sent them on this search and inventory mission was to highlight the desperate need (John 6:5–6). He wanted them to calculate—because He was preparing to do something marvellous. I can’t but help but picture Jesus smiling as He sent the disciples out searching for food, which He well knew was not there!
Philip was probably a Baptist—and perhaps became the treasurer after Judas! “According to my calculations, even a year’s wage is insufficient” (see John 6:7). This is precisely where Jesus wanted them. He wanted to teach them that, when it comes to God-wrought, God-centred compassion, the presence of confidence is more important than the presence of calculators. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to the work of God, facts and figures rarely calculate. But faith pays the bills.
I am aware of the arguments that presumption and foolishness sometimes masquerade as faith. But perhaps too often we hide behind this argument with the result that we do not attempt great things for God.
Foolishness arises from a misunderstanding of the Bible. For example, if you decided, based on this text, that you are not going to buy groceries for the week but rather will sit down with your family to a few scones and sardines, expecting that they will multiply throughout the week, most likely you are going to hungry by tomorrow evening! However, if you indeed are in dire need for food, and you belong to the Lord, then you have every reason, based on texts such as this one, to be confident that, in some way, He will provide for you.
It is said that, by the time George Mueller died, some $7.5 million had flowed through the Bristol orphanage that he ran—without him once ever asking anyone for money. He prayed for money, and asked his coworkers to pray, but he never resorted to fund raising. But he knew that God had called him to that ministry, and God met the needs in an incredible way.
If God gives someone an unshakeable compassion to foster or to adopt these children, I would counsel them to plan for this. I would counsel them to be wise and to do some calculations: Can you afford to feed and clothe them? Do you have those things that you need? Do you have the health to do so and the realistic future to invest (i.e. your age is a consideration)? Do you have the emotional energy to invest? Do you have the time to do so? Further, they would need to calculate their spiritual maturity, the godliness of their marriage and current conditions in the home.
Jesus, in fact, illustrated the wisdom of calculating costs (Luke 14:25–33). Rather than such calculations being “unspiritual,” they may, in fact, be very spiritually wise. But when you have done your calculations, and when there is no good biblical reason not to follow through, then you need to put your calculator away and, with confidence in the Lord, commit to not send them away but to give them something to eat.
There is a young couple in our church, married only a few years, who recently decided to apply for adoption. They did not know what to expect, but when they learned that twin girls were available for adoption they immediately agreed. I don’t know how much thought they put into all the doubts that they surely faced, but I was blessed to see a young couple counting the cost and choosing not to send these children away.
It may be helpful to contemplate that Jesus’ calculations were exactly the same as the disciples’. That is why He sent them to survey the supply. He had sharpened His pencil and knew that the demand far outstripped the supply. The big difference between how Jesus viewed the situation and how the disciples approached it was just that: His view. He factored in God (He looked up to heaven and “blessed” the food in v. 19). He trumped calculations with confidence.
So, have confidence. Have faith in God and step out in faith and tell those in need that they do not need to look elsewhere: You are going to feed them. And God will see to it that you do.
So, in summary, when concern, informed by biblical confidence, meets compassion, then concern will be constructive.
When Compliance Meets Command
Next, we see that there is a dynamic when compliance meets a command. Simply put, the disciples were compliant and Jesus was creative.
And they said to Him, “We have here only five loaves and two fish.”
He said, “Bring them here to Me.” Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes. So they all ate and were filled, and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments that remained. Now those who had eaten were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
When compassion meets concern, creative things happen. We can put it like this: When compassion meets concern, God gets creative (and we become constructive).
After the disciples had done their calculations they probably rather tentatively showed the Lord all they had in the food cupboard. And what they had seemed hopelessly insufficient in the light of the need (John 6:9). But, without hesitation, the Lord said, “Bring them here to Me.” As the disciples complied, Jesus “commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass.” Parallel accounts make it clear that He did so through the means of the disciples. They went around telling people to sit down and get ready for chef’s surprise. We wonder what they said when people asked what they were about to receive. Perhaps, “All we can say is that it’s out of this world. Just wait and see.”
After praying over the meal, Jesus fed the multitudes and twelve basketfuls remained. Everyone was filled by the miraculous provision of God. I am pretty sure, at that point, that the disciples were happy they had not sent the multitudes away, for by God’s sovereign grace He, through them, gave them something to eat.
What can we learn from this? Simply, yet profoundly, that when we comply to Christ’s compassionate command we will experience God’s creative power. This miracle was a creative miracle. The Lord created more from what existed. He does this all of the time by more normal horticultural and agricultural means. The Lord met the need by His creative power.
Let’s summarise the process.
Concern met with compassion; compassion met with confidence; confidence met with compliance; and the compliant experienced a creative God. The needy were fed to the glory of God and to the good of the disciples.
But we can reduce this summary further: Concern met with Christ. And a whole lot of good resulted.
This appeal to consider the needs before us is grounded in the gospel of Christ. We cannot do such a thing in our own strength. We are in desperate need for His grace and for His strength to persevere in this.
It is the Bread of Life that will nourish us for this task. But it is also the Bread of Life that motivates us to reach out to reach orphaned children with the Bread of Life. If God calls you to this, the goal is far greater than food and shelter. The ultimate goal is the salvation of their souls. And in both cases you will need to rely on Christ our Creator (John 1).
Yes, Jesus is God, and God is our Creator. So if you are worried about having sufficient for the task of fostering or adopting, you need not worry. If Jesus Christ is turning your concern into constructive compassion, then give Him your lunch and watch it turn into an abundance of meals.
As we draw this to a close let me connect some important dots.
We, as a church, are sending away one of our elders and his family. Who will fill the shoes of their compassion? This man has served faithfully and fruitfully as an elder. He has demonstrated great initiative in reaching out to those in need. He has not only been concerned but has been constructively compassionate. Some hungry people will be left behind. Who will feed them?
And what of the likely closure of the orphanage? I trust that people in our church will pray over this message and be willing to volunteer to be a part of a miracle. They would do well to consult with those who are experienced in this area. Experience is important. Such an undertaking is not for the faint of heart. But it is for the faithful.
I would encourage men to listen to their wives and not to flippantly dismiss their willingness as a whim. I always advise husbands to let their wife have as many children as she wants. The same reasoning would apply here. Listen to your God-given helper.
Of course, those who do foster and/or adopt will need assistance. Fellow church members should be willing to supply the scones and sardines.
God has brought these children to us, and both they and we have been blessed. They are now facing a crisis. My exhortation is: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”