Dinner in Desolation

The situations we assume will leave us emptiest are often what God uses to fill us deeply.

Under the weight of unimaginable suffering and unmet need, the world writhes in agony all around us. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, the countless empty hands outstretched in desperation are easier to ignore than engage. Yet it’s in these desolate places that our compassion collides with the world’s need and ushers in the miraculous.

 

Read

To get the most out of this Bible study, read Matthew 14-15. Before you read, pray and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in this passage. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. And above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.

Key Passages: Matthew 14:13-21; Matthew 15:29-38

 

Background

From the types and timing of Jesus’ wonders, we see evidence of both His compassion and purpose. For example, the rabbis believed only the Messiah would be able to heal a leper or cast out a mute demon. So performing these miracles (Matt. 8:2-4; Matt. 12:22-37) amounted to a challenge: Jesus was forcing the leadership to a decision about His messiahship. In verse 24, the Pharisees rejected His claim, so from then on, the Lord focused elsewhere—on preparing His disciples to carry on kingdom work in His absence. Feeding the multitudes is part of this second phase of Christ’s ministry.

 

Reflect

At first glance, the miracle seems to be the stunning climax of an unfortunate coincidence—Jesus went to this “secluded place” (14:13) not to minister to the crowds, but to grieve His cousin’s death. Perhaps, if Jesus hadn’t withdrawn to such a desolate area instead of staying where food for thousands was readily available for purchase, the entire situation could have been avoided. At least that seems to be the disciples’ thinking when they suggest the crowds leave the deserted place to find their own meals (Matt. 14:15). But this “secluded place” is not what it seems.

  • The adjectives secluded and desolate (vv. 13, 15) are the Greek word erēmos, meaning “solitary, lonely, uninhabited.” Used of places, it can mean not only “a desert or a wilderness” (Strong’s Concordance) but also “an uncultivated region fit for pasturage,” which refers to an area where sheep are brought to graze. Now consider John 10:11, in which Jesus identifies Himself as the Good Shepherd. What responsibilities does a shepherd have toward his sheep? Now notice how He characterizes the people in Matthew 9:36.

  • Compare Jesus directing the people to sit on the grass (Matt. 14:19) with Psalm 23:1-3. How does your perspective on the scene change?

  • In what ways does reframing this miracle as an intentional moment between the Shepherd and His sheep impact your view of God’s actions in seemingly desolate, lonely places?

 

Continuing the Story

Disregarding the disciples’ attempt to shift the problem to “Anywhere But Here,” Jesus transfers the responsibility to them: “You give them something to eat!” (Matt. 14:16). From their earth-bound, logical perspective, His proposal sounds downright ridiculous.

Performing these miracles amounted to a challenge: Jesus was forcing the leadership to a decision about His messiahship.

  • In Matt. 14:17, what was the disciples’ reply when Jesus commanded them to give the crowd food? How do you suppose they thought Jesus would react to their obvious insufficiency?

  • In Matthew 15, this scenario of thousands of people needing food happens a second time. Instead of trusting their history with Jesus and expecting Him to perform another miracle, they again respond from their limited mundane perspective, considering only a hypothetical solution (Matt. 15:33). Where does Jesus refocus their attention in Matt. 15:34? By shifting from the hypothetical to the actual, how does He position the disciples to participate in this miracle?

 

Reflect

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as a “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.” Awareness always precedes action—look at Jesus’ pattern of behavior in Matt. 9:36, Matt. 14:14, and Luke 7:13. But it’s not easy to witness the suffering of others. Can you think of times when you’ve avoided someone else’s pain or need? Try to recall a particular instance—what emotions did you experience as you averted your gaze?

  • The English word compassion has two Latin roots that together mean “to suffer with.” Note that Jesus was grieving John’s death when He showed the crowds compassion (Matt. 14:13). In your experience, is it harder or easier to empathize when you are currently suffering?

  • Personal pain can either humble or harden us. As uncomfortable as it is, embracing our own suffering with gentleness positions us to embrace others, surrendering what we have (time, resources, wisdom, etc.) in order to meet them where they are. Just as Jesus did for us.

REMEMBER Compassion embraces.

 

Revisit

Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.

In Luke 10, an expert in the law tests Jesus, prompting Him to deliver His parable of the good Samaritan. In the story, the title character behaves as Jesus Himself so often did—he saw suffering and had compassion (Luke 10:33).

Jesus chose a controversial figure as the story’s hero.

  • The parable moves from the people the audience would have assumed most likely to help, to the kind of person they’d never have considered. Viewed by Jews as morally and religiously inferior, the Samaritan wasn’t deemed qualified to dispense compassion. Why do you think Jesus chose such a controversial figure as the story’s hero? Who in your culture is viewed as repulsive, and how might you view them differently in light of this passage? Does this change your perspective on what qualifies a person to serve with compassion? Note that in Luke 10:37, Jesus ends His lesson by instructing the teacher to “Go and do the same” as the Samaritan, effectively telling His audience they, too, should emulate the good actions of someone they despise.

  • Consider that the Samaritan was on his own journey when he came across the victim in his path (v. 33). In your daily life, do you come across people in need of your compassion? How do you view them—as unfortunate obstacles to be avoided or divine appointments?

  • The victim lying in the road probably appeared dead—how does that change your evaluation of people or situations you may have seen as lost causes? Jesus doesn’t reveal whether the man fully recovered, much less whether he ever repaid the Samaritan. What does that tell you about the purpose of compassion?

  • Ultimately, compassion is about starting where you are with what you have, moving toward suffering and trusting that God will bless whatever you bring to Him, however insufficient.

 

Illustration by Adam Cruft

Related Topics:  Reading Bible

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What happens to my notes

13 Now when Jesus heard about John, He withdrew from there in a boat to a secluded place by Himself; and when the people heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities.

14 When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.

15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

16 But Jesus said to them, They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!"

17 They said to Him, We have here only five loaves and two fish."

18 And He said, Bring them here to Me."

19 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds,

20 and they all ate and were satisfied. They picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets.

21 There were about five thousand men who ate, besides women and children.

29 Departing from there, Jesus went along by the Sea of Galilee, and having gone up on the mountain, He was sitting there.

30 And large crowds came to Him, bringing with them those who were lame, crippled, blind, mute, and many others, and they laid them down at His feet; and He healed them.

31 So the crowd marveled as they saw the mute speaking, the crippled restored, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they glorified the God of Israel.

32 And Jesus called His disciples to Him, and said, I feel compassion for the people, because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way."

33 The disciples said to Him, Where would we get so many loaves in this desolate place to satisfy such a large crowd?"

34 And Jesus said to them, How many loaves do you have?" And they said, Seven, and a few small fish."

35 And He directed the people to sit down on the ground;

36 and He took the seven loaves and the fish; and giving thanks, He broke them and started giving them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people.

37 And they all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, seven large baskets full.

38 And those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.

2 And a leper came to Him and bowed down before Him, and said, Lord, if You are willing, You can make me clean."

3 Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, I am willing; be cleansed." And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

4 And Jesus said to him, See that you tell no one; but go, show yourself to the priest and present the offering that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."

22 Then a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute was brought to Jesus, and He healed him, so that the mute man spoke and saw.

23 All the crowds were amazed, and were saying, This man cannot be the Son of David, can he?"

24 But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, This man casts out demons only by Beelzebul the ruler of the demons."

25 And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand.

26 If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?

27 If I by Beelzebul cast out demons, by whom do your sons cast them out? For this reason they will be your judges.

28 But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

29 Or how can anyone enter the strong man's house and carry off his property, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house.

30 He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.

31 Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.

32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.

33 Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.

34 You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.

35 The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.

36 But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment.

37 For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

15 When it was evening, the disciples came to Him and said, This place is desolate and the hour is already late; so send the crowds away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves."

11 I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.

36 Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd.

19 Ordering the people to sit down on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds,

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

3 He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name's sake.

16 But Jesus said to them, They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!"

17 They said to Him, We have here only five loaves and two fish."

33 The disciples said to Him, Where would we get so many loaves in this desolate place to satisfy such a large crowd?"

34 And Jesus said to them, How many loaves do you have?" And they said, Seven, and a few small fish."

14 When He went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick.

13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, Do not weep."

33 But a Samaritan, who was on a journey, came upon him; and when he saw him, he felt compassion,

37 And he said, The one who showed mercy toward him." Then Jesus said to him, Go and do the same."

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