By: Father Francois Beyrouti There is more to reading the Bible than we often assume. We sometimes hear a passage in Church and think that we know it because we heard it before. The Bible is so rich that even if we read or hear a passage 100 times there is always something new that we can learn.
For example, today’s Gospel is usually titled “The feeding of the five thousand.” Jesus does feed 5000 but we often overlook a very important element of this Gospel. “Why did Jesus feed the 5000?” Yes, Jesus fed 5000 because they were hungry. Yes, Jesus performed this miracle because the disciples told Him: “We have only five loaves here and two fish” (Matthew 14:17).
We focus on these two elements and sometimes focus on a third that Jesus prepared us for the Eucharist when he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds” (Matthew 14:19) or fourth that after “they all ate and were satisfied…they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.” (Matthew 14:20-21) These are all important elements of today’s Gospel but these do not fully answer the question: “Why did Jesus feed the 5000?”
Because of the nature of this amazing miracle we quickly overlook an important verse at the beginning of this story: “As Jesus went ashore he saw a great throng; and he had compassion on them, and healed their sick” (Matthew 14:14). There is a very important phrase within this sentence: “he had compassion on them.” This is important as it helps us to balance this story and focus not only on the great miracle of multiplying fish and bread but on why it happened.
Yes, Jesus performed this miracle because the crowds were hungry. Yes, Jesus performed this miracle because they only had five loaves and two fish. Yes, Jesus performed this miracle to prepare us for the Eucharist. But prior to all these and at the heart of today’s Gospel is that Jesus had compassion.
Why is this word so important? The word ‘compassion’ means ‘to suffer with.’ Compassion is not an emotion of pity, sorrow, or condescension. True compassion means that we suffer with the one who is suffering. Sometimes we know people who have had difficult lives or we see people who live on the streets and pity or blame them for their misery. This is not compassion. Compassion is the grace to feel the pain of the one who is in pain and to feel the suffering of the one who is suffering. This is a grace because when we feel authentic compassion we also feel the urgency to help the other out of their suffering.
The word ‘compassion’ is a crucial word to understand the life of Jesus. One of the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus is that He will be the suffering servant. You can read the full passage in Isaiah 53, but I will only read a few verses: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).
The Messiah as prophesied in the Old Testament would not only suffer with us but he would suffer for us. Therefore, when we read in today’s Gospel that Jesus had compassion on them, this does not mean that Jesus pitied them but that He was showing that He is the Messiah who is willing to suffer with them. Jesus was not eating a leg of lamb while the crowds were hungry. He was suffering with them. Then when Jesus performed the miracle He ate with them. Jesus therefore suffers with the crowds and then also rejoices with the crowds. Jesus felt their suffering in order to relieve it. This is why it is important for us to read the Bible slowly and carefully. The footnotes in a Catholic Bible also help us to see some of these connections.
That Jesus shows compassion throughout His life is an important element for us to focus on. This also helps us to understand that Jesus was not just a wise teacher or a miracle maker but that compassion was at the heart of everything He did and said during His life. The compassion of Jesus, that Jesus was ready to suffer with us during His life, helps us to understand why Jesus was willing to suffer for us with His death. Jesus did not look for suffering but was willing to suffer to show us how much He loves us. Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians: “Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:8-9). It is within this larger context that we need to understand today’s Gospel.
When we first hear this reading, we might think the greatest miracle is that Jesus fed 5000, but when we look at this Gospel a little deeper we realize that the greater miracle is that God loved us so much that He was willing to be with us and also to suffer with us and for us. This is how Jesus shows us His compassion.