When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
God is a God of mercy because he is a God of generosity. As St. Thomas Aquinas puts it, “it belongs to mercy to be bountiful to others,” to freely supply what others lack and need. And since God lacks and needs nothing, God has an infinite supply of good things for those whom he has created and an infinite willingness to give them. God can even share his own life with his human creatures without being depleted in the slightest. This is just another way of saying that God simply is Love -- and Love can never be subtracted.
To be human, on the other hand, is to be defined by lack and need. Unlike God, we aren’t self-sufficient and we certainly aren’t infinite. Every breath we take of the air, every meal we eat of the produce of the land, is given to us ultimately by an act of divine mercy that sustains the world for our use and sustenance. No need has ever been fulfilled that wasn’t fulfilled in the final sense by God, the creator and preserver of the whole world. In short, therefore, the primary relationship that the God of abundance has with creatures of lack and need is one of mercy.
In our Gospel this morning, Jesus withdraws in a boat to a deserted place by himself, no doubt in need of respite from the demands of his earthly ministry. Recall that though he is fully God, the humility of the Incarnation consists in the willingness of the Son of God to empty himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. For our Lord to be born in human likeness is to be born into the confines and limitations of creaturehood; it is to empty himself and welcome a human life of lack and need. The Son of God can now become fatigued; he can now hunger and thirst; he can now grow weary of the crowds. And so he does what any of us would do in such a situation and retreats into solitude in order to recuperate. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. The relentless demand of the crowds upon our Lord signifies the demand that all creatures make upon the providence of God simply by existing; only now, Jesus is being subjected to this demand as a fellow human being himself. But instead of retreating further into the rest he needs and avoiding the crowds, he does something remarkable: he has compassion on them.
Compassion is very close to mercy, because while mercy is shown when we willingly fulfill the need of another, what motivates the act of mercy is the grief or sorrow that we feel at the sight of suffering. To be moved with compassion by another’s suffering is to recognize that suffering as our own. Even if we are fortunate enough to be secure from suffering, the fellow humanity of those who do suffer unites us to their experience. And the intensity of this experience of another’s suffering only increases the closer that a person is to us, which is why as moving as it is for us to encounter the suffering of a stranger in poverty, it pales in comparison to what we feel when we look upon the suffering of a loved one, a spouse, or our children. So our love can intensify our sorrow at the suffering of those close to us and compel us to show them mercy and compassion. But beneath even our love is our awareness of the basic vulnerability to suffering that we share with every human being on earth. We know -- or at least we should know -- that tragedy could strike us at any moment and that we could suddenly find ourselves exposed to the suffering of a material world. I say that we should know this, because we’ve all known those who seem to be oblivious of this fact, including ourselves perhaps: those who are so comfortable that they take their security for granted, living as though they are in no danger of suffering. Not surprisingly, such people are not generally known for their mercy and compassion. By contrast, it is most often those who are intimately aware of the fragility of their lives who are the most merciful.
Now, imagine how much more aware Christ was of this fragility of life, how much greater his capacity was to feel the suffering of those around him as his own. He had already emptied himself in his descent into the Incarnation, the infinite distance he traversed between the equality of his divine nature with God and the servitude of the human condition. To be both fully God and fully human is to comprehend the lack and need of human life to the fullest possible extent. And so in spite of his exhaustion, our Lord finds in his all too human need for solitude the deepest well of compassion for the crowds. Rather than withholding himself from them, he sees himself within them -- within us.
Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.
See how there was no scarcity to the abundance of food that our Lord provided to the crowds. Not only did all eat and were filled, but there was a surplus of what was left over. Though Christ is fully human, fully at home in a world of bread and fish, his miracle here reveals the point I made at the beginning, that when God provides to us in his mercy, our needs are not only filled to the brim, but the gifts of God overflow our needs. The mercy of God is always excessive of our natural capacities for hunger; we are not only satisfied, we are enveloped by the infinite love of God.
Here, Jesus’ ministry is directly focused on the material needs of the crowds. He cures those among them who are sick and directs his disciples to give them something to eat. There’s nothing clearly spiritual about what Jesus does for them, at least not in this passage. However, this material act of mercy should direct our attention to the spiritual dimension of God’s mercy upon us. Because, while God is already showing his mercy simply by sustaining the natural lives of his creatures on earth, our lack and our need for sustenance is nothing compared to the lack caused by our sin and our need for the regeneration of grace. We stand in desperate need of God on two accounts: both as creatures and as sinners. But the spiritual need that we have because of our sin is not so removed from our physical needs that Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand has nothing to teach us. When God bestows his grace upon us, his grace goes well beyond what is required to cleanse us of our sin. Just like the bread which exceeds the needs of the crowd so as to fill twelve baskets above what was needed, the grace of God works first to satisfy our immediate need for the forgiveness of our sins, but then keeps on pouring into us. We are not just forgiven; we are also elevated into participation in the very life of God. And through this union with God, we are brought into a relationship that’s no longer one of mercy alone, but of an infinite and all-surpassing love. Amen.