(Read carefully Matthew 14:1-21 and Mark 6:30-44)
In these two parallel scriptures we are presented with two distinct conditions of heart which both find their answer in the sympathy and grace of Jesus. Let us look closely at them and may the Holy Spirit enable us to gather up and bear away their precious teaching!
It was a moment of deep sorrow to John's disciples when their master fell by the sword of Herod, when the one on whom they had been accustomed to lean and from whose lips they had been accustomed to drink instruction, was taken from them after such a fashion. This was indeed a moment of gloom and desolation to the followers of the Baptist.
But there was One to whom they could come in their sorrow and into whose ear they could pour their tale of grief - the One of whom their master had spoken, to whom he had pointed and of whom he had said, "He must increase, but I must decrease." To Him the bereaved disciples betook themselves. We read, "They came and took up the body and buried it, and went and told Jesus" (Matt. 14: 12). This was the very best thing they could have done. There was not another heart on earth in which they could have found such a response as in the tender, loving heart of Jesus. His sympathy was perfect. He knew all about their sorrow. He knew their loss and how they would be feeling it. They therefore acted wisely when "they went and told Jesus." His ear was ever open and His heart ever prepared to soothe and sympathize. He perfectly exemplified the precept afterwards embodied in the words of the Holy Spirit, "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep" (Rom. 12: 15).
Who can tell the value of genuine sympathy? Who can declare the value of having one who can really make your joys and sorrows his own? Thank God! we have such an one in the blessed Lord Jesus Christ. Although we cannot see Him with the bodily eye, yet can faith use Him in all the preciousness and power of His perfect sympathy. We can, if only our faith is simple and childlike, come from the tomb where we have just deposited the remains of some fondly-cherished person, to the feet of Jesus and there pour out the anguish of a bereaved and desolate heart. We shall there meet no rude repulse, no heartless reproof for our folly and weakness in feeling so deeply. Nor any clumsy effort to say something suitable, an awkward effort to put on some expression of condolence. Ah! no; Jesus knows how to sympathize with a heart that is crushed and bowed down beneath the heavy weight of sorrow. His is a perfect human heart. What a thought! What a privilege to have access at all times, in all places and under all circumstances, to a perfect human heart! We may look in vain for this down here. In many cases, there is a real desire to sympathize, but a total lack of capacity. I may find myself, in moments of sorrow, in company with one who knows nothing about my sorrow or the source thereof. How could he sympathize? And even though I should tell him, his heart might be so occupied with other things as to have no room and no time for me.
Not so with the perfect Man, Christ Jesus. He has both room and time for each and all. No matter when, how or with what you come, the heart of Jesus is always open. He will never repulse, never fail, never disappoint. If we are in sorrow, what should we do? We should just do as the disciples of the Baptist did, "go and tell Jesus." This is the right thing to do. Let us go straight from the tomb to the feet of Jesus. He will dry up our tears, soothe our sorrows, heal our wounds and fill up our blanks. In this way we shall be able to enter into the truth of Rutherford's words when he says, "I try to lay up all my good things in Christ and then a little of the creature goes a great way with me." This is an experience which we may well covet. May the blessed Spirit lead us more into it!
We may now contemplate another condition of heart as furnished by the twelve apostles on their return from a successful mission. "And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught" (Mark 6: 30). Here we have not a case of sorrow and bereavement, but one of rejoicing and encouragement. The twelve made their way to Jesus to tell Him of their success, just as the disciples of the Baptist made their way to Him in the moment of their loss. Jesus was equal to both. He could meet the heart that was crushed with sorrow and He could meet the heart that was flushed with success. He knew how to control, to moderate and to direct both the one and the other. Blessings forever be upon His honored name!
"And He said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat" (Mark 6: 31). Here we are conducted to a point at which the moral glories of Christ shine out with uncommon luster and correct the selfishness of our poor narrow hearts. Here we are taught with unmistakable clearness that to make Jesus the depository of our thoughts and feelings will never produce in us a spirit of haughty self-sufficiency and independence, or a feeling of contempt for others. Quite the reverse. The more we have to do with Jesus, the more will our hearts be opened to meet the varied forms of human need which may present themselves to our view from day to day. It is when we come to Jesus and empty our whole hearts to Him, tell Him of our sorrows and our joys, and cast our whole burden at His feet, that we really learn how to feel for others.
There is great beauty and power in the words, "come ye yourselves apart." He does not say, "Go ye." This would never do. There is no use in going apart into a desert place if Jesus is not there to go to. To go into solitude without Jesus is but to make our cold, narrow hearts, colder and narrower still. I may retire from the scene around me in chagrin and disappointment, only to wrap myself up in an impenetrable selfishness. I may fancy that my fellows have not made enough of me and I may retire to make much of myself. I may make myself the center of my whole being and thus become a coldhearted, contracted, miserable creature. But when Jesus says "come," the case is totally different. Our finest moral lessons are learned alone with Jesus. We cannot breathe the atmosphere of His presence without having our hearts expanded. If the apostles had gone into the desert without Jesus, they would have eaten the loaves and fishes themselves, but having gone with Jesus they learned differently. He knew how to meet the need of a hungry multitude, as well as that of a company of sorrowing or rejoicing disciples. The sympathy and grace of Jesus are perfect. He can meet all. If one is sorrowful, he can go to Jesus; if he is happy, he can go to Jesus; if he is hungry, he can go to Jesus. We can bring everything to Jesus, for in Him all fullness dwells, and, blessed be His name, He never sends anyone away empty.
Not so, regretfully, with His poor disciples. How forbidding is their selfishness when viewed in the light of His magnificent grace! "And Jesus, when He came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things." He had gone to a desert place to give His disciples rest, but no sooner does human need present itself than the deep flowing tide of compassion rolls forth from His tender heart.
"And when the day was now far spent, His disciples came unto Him and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far past: send them away." What words from men who had just returned from preaching the gospel! "Send them away." Ah! it is one thing to preach grace and another thing to act it. It is well to preach, but it is also well to act. Indeed, the preaching will be worth little if not combined with acting. It is well to instruct the ignorant, but it is also well to feed the hungry. The latter may involve more self-denial than the former. It may cost us nothing to preach, but it may cost us something to feed, and we do not like to have our private store intruded upon. The heart is ready to put forth its ten thousand objections, "What shall I do for myself? What will become of my family? We must act judiciously. We cannot do impossibilities." These and similar arguments the selfish heart can urge when a needy object presents itself.
"Send them away." What made the disciples say this? What was the real source of this selfish request? Simply unbelief. Had they only remembered that they had in their midst the One who of old had fed "600,000 footmen" for forty years in the wilderness, they would have known that He would not send a hungry multitude away. Surely the same hand that had nourished such a host for so long a time could easily furnish a single meal for five thousand. Thus faith would reason, but unbelief darkens the understanding and contracts the heart. There is nothing so absurd as unbelief and nothing which so shuts up the bowels of compassion. Faith and love always go together, and in proportion to the growth of the one is the growth of the other. Faith opens the floodgates of the heart and lets the tide of love flow forth. Thus the apostle could say to the Thessalonians, "Your faith groweth exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all toward each other aboundeth." This is the divine rule. A heart full of faith can afford to be charitable; an unbelieving heart can afford nothing.
Faith places the heart in immediate contact with God's exhaustless treasury and fills it with the most benevolent affections. Unbelief throws the heart in upon itself and fills it with all manner of selfish fears. Faith conducts us into the soul-expanding atmosphere of heaven. Unbelief leaves us enwrapped in the withering atmosphere of this heartless world. Faith enables us to hearken to Christ's gracious words, "Give ye them to eat." Unbelief makes us utter our own heartless words, "Send the multitude away." In a word, there is nothing which enlarges the heart like simple faith, and nothing so contracting as unbelief. Oh! that our faith may grow exceedingly so that our love may abound more and more! May we reap much permanent profit from the contemplation of the sympathy and grace of Jesus!
What a striking contrast between "Send the multitude away" and "Give ye them to eat." Thus it is ever. God's ways are not as our ways. It is by looking at His ways that we learn to judge our ways - by looking at Him that we learn to judge ourselves. In this lovely scene Jesus corrects the selfishness of the disciples, first by making them the channels through which His grace may flow to the multitude, and secondly, by making them gather up "twelve baskets full of the fragments" for themselves.
Nor is this all. Not merely is selfishness rebuked, but the heart is most blessedly instructed. Nature might say, "What need is there of the five loaves and two fishes at all? Surely, the One who can feed such a multitude with the loaves and fishes, can as easily feed them without such an instrumentality." Nature might argue thus, but Jesus teaches us that we are not to despise God's creatures. We are to use what we have with God's blessing. This is a fine moral lesson for the heart. "What hast thou in the house?" is the question. It is just that and nothing else that God will use. It is easy to be liberal with what we have not, but the thing is to bring out what we have and with God's blessing, apply it to the present need.
So also in the gathering up of the fragments. The foolish here might say, "What need of gathering up those scattered crumbs? Surely the One who has wrought such a miracle can have no need of fragments." Yes, but we are not to waste God's creatures. If in the using of the loaves and fishes we are taught not to despise any creature of God, in the gathering up of the fragments we are taught not to waste it. Let human need be liberally met, but let not a single crumb be wasted. How divinely perfect! How unlike us! Sometimes we are stingy, at other times extravagant. Jesus was never either the one or the other. "Give ye them to eat." But, "Let nothing be lost." Perfect grace! Perfect wisdom! May we adore it and learn from it! May we rejoice in the assurance that the blessed One who manifested all this wisdom and grace is our life. Christ is our life, and it is the manifestation of this life that constitutes practical Christianity. It is not living by rules and regulations, but simply having Christ dwelling in the heart by faith - Christ the source of perfect sympathy and perfect grace.
C H Mackintosh