The Compassion of Christ
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| St. Mark 8, 1-3| July 18, 2010
In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.” St. Mark 8:1-3
Years ago my father spent several days teaching the Word of God in a small town in Haiti. He went there at the invitation of a group of Lutherans who wanted to start some Lutheran congregations but had no pastors. My father served as a seminary professor for many years but, as he related to me, he had never had a class like the one he taught in Haiti. The students were so hungry for instruction that they would skip meals and stay long into the evening as they listened to his teaching and asked him questions. Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. As poor as they were, they were much hungrier for instruction in God’s Word than they were for mere physical food and the bodily comforts of life.
Since hearing Dad’s story I have often thought of how our great material wealth in America has warped our values. The more things we get the more things we want and the more things we want the more things we think we need. Our spiritual needs are correspondingly neglected and considered unimportant. Consider the crowd to which Jesus was preaching on the day he miraculously fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. They had been listening to him preach for three days! Some folks complain if the Divine Service lasts much more than an hour. Can you imagine setting aside everything else we think is so important and spending three days living on the words that come from Jesus’ mouth?
The question for us is not whether there is anything that is valued more than hearing the words of Christ. It is whether there is anything that is not valued more than hearing the words of Christ. Basketball, hockey, sleeping in, plowing, planting, spraying, driving somewhere, preparing a meal, hunting, fishing, and a host of other activities are valued more than coming to God’s house to hear God’s word on a Sunday morning. Of course, people always have a very good reason for skipping church. But what it usually comes down to is a simple question of values. What is more valuable: what the body craves or what the soul needs?
Sin always brings its own defense. There are many excuses for despising preaching and God’s word instead of gladly hearing and learning it. People complain about the traditional church service. Accommodating churches, anxious to please, throw out the historic liturgy in favor of modern forms that are more entertaining. People find doctrine boring, so preachers, anxious to please, tailor their sermons to the so called “felt needs” of the people, providing little of value. But the main reason people don’t go to church on a Sunday morning is due to their own values. They value something else more.
When Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, encourages us not to worry about having the necessities of life, he asks the rhetorical question: “Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25) The word for life here is also translated soul. We are body and soul. Body and soul go together. When God formed Adam out of the ground, Adam did not become a human being until God breathed into him the breath of life. It was then, as Moses recounts in the Book of Genesis, that Adam became a living soul. We are both body and soul. This is how God made us when he made us in his image. And even after our fall into sin, after we lost the image of God, even though we are born dead in sin and spiritually blind, we are still body and soul.
It’s common to ascribe human characteristics to animals. You may know someone who has a dog that is treated as if he were a human being. As lords of the world into which God has placed us it is right for us to care for animals and to treat them with kindness. But the life of an animal is only a physical life. To put it bluntly, all dogs don’t go to heaven. None of them do. They don’t sin, they don’t have souls, they don’t have a redeemer, and when they die they die and the life that leaves their body is gone.
Not so with us. When our hearts stop beating and our brains stop functioning and the lungs no longer fill with air our bodies are dead. But our souls do not die. The doctrine of an immortal soul is rejected by many theologians these days. They claim that it isn’t a Christian doctrine but that Christians have taken this idea from the ancient Greeks. It’s true that the ancient Greeks believed in an immortal soul, but they didn’t believe that body and soul were made for each other. They taught that the goal of the soul is to escape the body. They denied the resurrection of the body. We Christians confess both the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. God made us body and soul and when Christians die their souls go to heaven and their bodies rest in the ground until God rejoins body and soul on the last day. On that day our bodies will be glorified and no longer subject to sin, disease, or death. Meanwhile we live in bodies that are dying.
We live in dying bodies. We live. St. Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We receive eternal life here and now as we live in our dying bodies. We distinguish between the physical and the spiritual, but the physical and the spiritual cannot be separated. We need bread. It is physical food for the body. We need God’s Word. It is spiritual food for the soul. But where is your soul if not joined to your body? We cannot see the soul. We live within the body. The two are joined until death. The God who feeds our bodies with good things is the same God who saves our souls from death and hell. He saves the body as well for as St. Paul reminds us, “This corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”
There is not one god who takes care of our physical and material needs and another god who takes care of our spiritual needs. The God who provides for the one provides for the other. Jesus said to his disciples, “I have compassion on the multitude.” They were in need and Jesus’ heart went out to them. Literally, he suffered with them. He had sympathy for them. Jesus is God and God is love. Jesus is also our brother and as our brother he has felt our physical needs. He has hungered for bread and there was no bread for him to eat. He has thirsted for cool water and was given only vinegar to drink. He has suffered physical abuse and spiritual torment. He has been without. As he said to His disciples, “Foxes have hole and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He who was rich for our sakes became poor so that we by his poverty might become rich. When he sees us in our physical needs he always has compassion for us. He is pure mercy, compassion, and love.
Seven loaves of bread for four thousand people is, of course, nowhere near enough. Just do the math. It could only whet the appetite for more food and they were already hungry. But from seven loaves Jesus not only fed four thousand people, they ate and were filled and had seven large baskets full of leftovers. It is true enough that we must work and he who refuses to work should not be fed. But it is also true that our daily bread does not come from our work but from God’s compassionate care.
God works through means. A man preaches. The words God gives him to preach give eternal life. But God doesn’t need men to preach. If he chose to do so, he could send angels from heaven to preach the gospel to us. He chooses to give us eternal life through words spoken by mortal men. Likewise, God could feed us as he fed the four thousand. But he chooses to feed us by working through the so called “natural” laws governing the sun, rain, seed, and soil and through a market economy and by giving us brains and skills and muscles with which to work. It is always God who feeds us. We pray for daily bread and he answers our prayers. The disciples who set the food before the people were being trained to preach God’s Word. They needed to know that when they put the preaching of God’s Word above any concern for their physical wellbeing, God would care for their physical needs.
Jesus showed compassion to the four thousand hungry people. The Holy Spirit caused St. Mark to record this for us so that we would learn to see Jesus as our Creator God who provides us with all our bodily needs. What do you usually think of when you think of Jesus? Ask the children, “What did Jesus do for you?” They will tell you: “He died for me. He took my sins away on the cross.” They know that the compassion of Christ is not seen primarily in feeding a multitude of four thousand, but in dying for the sin of the whole world. He suffered with us and he suffered for us and in his suffering for us he took our sins off of us and set us free. This Jesus is our God and Lord who brings us our daily bread and secures our future and determines when the rain will fall and the sun will shine.
Our God is our brother and our brother is our God. If we value his words more than the food we eat (as did that crowd of four thousand) do you think he will forget that we need food to eat? If we seek out instruction in his holy and life giving doctrine, do you think that he will feed our souls and let our bodies do without? And if we neglect God’s word in the pursuit of all sorts of things that will perish with this world, do you think we will have made a fair exchange?
The compassion of Christ is not an inert feeling that he harbors in his heart. It is active and almighty. He felt our suffering in his own as he bore our sins and guilt and thereby removed sin, death, and hell from us forever. He does not change. His compassion is simply boundless. His heart still goes out for us. He knows every need we have. He rules the world for the sake of his elect. When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness he keeps our body and soul together until it pleases him to bring us to himself in the glories of heaven. Jesus, the Bread of Life, teaches us. He teaches us that we do not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Amen