By Chuck Queen
In the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21, the writer basically follows Mark’s account, though Matthew omits Mark’s description of the crowd as sheep without a shepherd. I suspect he does so because he already used that phrase earlier in the story to describe the crowds in 9:36: “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
I haven’t really been around a large herd of shepherdless sheep, but I’m told that if you take away the shepherd and his dog they simply wander around nibbling their way into one danger after another. And according to Matthew, not only are they without a shepherd, they are also “harassed and helpless.” That’s a telling phrase, isn’t it?
In Matthew’s version, Jesus withdraws on account of Herod’s threats. On the other side of the lake Herod has no power. When confronted with the hostility of the kingdom of Herod, Jesus withdraws to avoid any kind of violent confrontation.
Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, there is this contrast between the kingdoms of this world — the kingdoms of violent, oppressive political power — and the nonviolent kingdom of God as proclaimed, embodied and represented by Jesus.
These, of course, are very different kinds of kingdoms. In the kingdom of Herod brute force is called into play at the drop of a hat to squash any signs of uprising. Little or no thought is given to the well-being of those subjugated under Herod’s power. Against this backdrop stands the politically powerless, nonviolent kingdom of God represented by Jesus who is committed to liberation and love.
So, on the one hand, there is Herod who is a big part of the reason the shepherdless crowd is harassed and helpless, and on the other hand, there is Jesus who is filled with compassion for them.
This harassed and helpless crowd had been with Jesus all day as he taught them and performed healings. It’s evening now and his disciples are getting edgy, “Jesus, it’s getting late, don’t you think you should dismiss all these people so they can get to a village to buy bread.” This assumes that they have money to buy bread once they reach a village. Would they? Not likely.
So Jesus turns to the disciples and says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat. Assume responsibility. You take care of them.” And they say, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Really? That’s all?
When we look at all the harassed and helpless children beaten down by the Herods of this world, like sheep without a shepherd, crossing our border and coming into our country, I wonder if Jesus is saying to us, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat. You take care of them.”
And what do we do? We look at our meager resources, our limited capacity to extend care and we say, “This is too much for us. We can’t care for our own kids. How are we going to care for all of these?”
And once we convince ourselves that it is not our responsibility to care for these children, that we cannot possibly be expected to take these kids in, that we don’t have enough food and shelter and medical care and money for education and all the rest, then we look for ways to justify our lack of compassion and faith.
Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, told Fox News recently that he thinks the most compassionate thing we can do is secure the border. He thinks Jesus would build a fence around the border to keep all these children from coming in.
He said, “If you’re a homeowner with a swimming pool that doesn’t have a fence around it, and a neighborhood child wanders in and drowns, you’re liable because you have enticed that child into a dangerous situation. The remedy is to build a fence.”
Jeffress argues that we need to build a fence around our borders so massive and policed so heavily that mothers and fathers will not be enticed to send their kids to our country in order to escape grinding poverty, sex trafficking and rampant violence.
Jesus would be in favor of keeping hurting, starving, abused kids out of our country, wouldn’t he? Because after all, we have our own hurting, starving, abused kids to care for.
Someone might object and say, “But Jeffress, didn’t Jesus say, ‘Let all the little children come to me, for such is the kingdom of God?’”
Jeffress says, “Yes, Jesus loved the children, but he also respected law. Jesus said, ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.’”
That was Jeffress’ final argument and message to the many Christians who watch, “Fox and Friends”: Jesus loves the children, but Jesus respects law more. So let’s build a fence and keep them out.
When I hear an argument like that from a Christian minister I have to wonder if he has actually read the Gospels. Over and over again Jesus violates holiness laws and overturns legal codes in order to minister to and care for human need. In fact, it gets him in all kinds of trouble with the religious authorities. With regard to Sabbath law, for example, Jesus says, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” Again and again, in story after story, human need trumps law. Always.
Now contrast. Robert Jeffress with Deval Patrick, the governor of Massachusetts. In a recent speech, he defended his plan to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of these children.
He said, “We have rescued Irish children form famine, Russian and Ukrainian children from religious persecution, Cambodian children from genocide, Haitian children from earthquakes, Sudanese children from Civil War and children from New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina.”
Flanked by religious leaders he also said, “I believe that we will one day have to answer for our actions — and our inactions. … My faith teaches that if a stranger dwells in your land, you shall not mistreat him, but rather love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Every major faith tradition on the planet charges its followers to treat others as we ourselves wish to be treated. I don’t know what good there is in faith if we can’t, and won’t, turn to it in moments of human need.”
What would Jesus expect us to do? Do you think Jesus would approve of what the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has recently done? Perry ordered 1,000 National Guard Troops to the border to conduct ground and air operations and to partner with local and state law enforcement agencies.
The kids that are coming across the border, we are told, are looking for officers in order to turn themselves in. They are hungry and tired and some are in need of medical attention. I guess they won’t have to look very hard now. One can only hope that Governor Perry is sending the Red Cross and humanitarian aid to the border along with all the troops.
We all know how the Gospel story turns out, don’t we? “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, 12 baskets full [one for each of the disbelieving disciples?].”
I wish I could ask all professing Bible believers who want to turn these children at our border away if they really believe their Bibles.
Sometimes it’s not about calculations or configurations or plans or having enough resources or figuring it all out ahead of time. Sometimes it’s only about stepping out on faith, trusting God to do what we can’t.
Sometimes doing the right thing is doing the compassionate thing, even when you know you don’t have what it takes, even when you know you don’t have the time, the talent, the money, or anything else. Sometimes the only thing that matters is obeying Jesus and leaving the outcome to a Power that is way beyond your own.