The fourteenth chapter of Matthew's gospel from which today's reading is taken is crammed full of issues and tensions and disturbing events not to mention the avalanche of complex human needs by which Jesus is assailed, and which, moment by moment, pile up over his head and threaten to entirely bury him.
Herod Antipas, a man enslaved by lust and human respect deals treacherously with John the Baptist and has him executed for speaking the truth. John, the precursor to the Messiah, humbly offers his life for the truth he was sent to speak.
Would Jesus have grieved more over the heroic death of his beloved John than over the craven betrayal of Herod? His heart would have been broken for both men and deep anguish would have penetrated into his soul.
Today we would be encouraged to take 'compassionate leave' from work and perhaps some weeks of counselling to help us cope.
Jesus, too, feels the need to withdraw, the call to prayer, and heads by boat to 'a lonely place' where he could be alone with his disciples but the people thwart his plans. Instead of rest and healing he finds 'a large crowd'.
Could you imagine reading: Jesus instructed the Twelve to go to the crowd and tell them that the Master had just had some bad news and wasn't feeling too well. He said 'Tell the crowd to come back in a few days so I can have some time out'?
Instead we read: So as he stepped ashore he saw a large crowd; and he took pity on them and healed their sick.
What would you call that? Generosity? Compassion? Self-forgetfulness? If this had been an exceptional occasion of putting the other first we might be content to call it something like generosity. 'Oh, remember that day, when he was looking for peace and quiet but the crowd was there instead; wasn’t he generous?'
It seems to me there must be another word for it, something to capture the mad extravagance of his total 'being there for me'.
Perhaps divine generosity is a better term. Divine generosity is not just something to thank God for; it brings us to worship him. It is a 'goodness without limits' perhaps best imaged by the twelve baskets full of scraps left over from the miracle which follows. They stand there in a heap, perhaps under a tree, tantalising the imagination much like the stone jars of wine left over from the feast at Cana.
Jesus is just like that. More … always more. Impossibly more! More patient, more forgiving, more loving, more understanding, more merciful, more self-giving - divine generosity - and with those capable of understanding I sink to my knees in adoration.
The crowds have received more than a free meal; it is a free meal pointing them to a fullness of life sustained by a food beyond their capacity to purchase. This was the burden of Jesus' entire mission - to lead them (and us) beyond the material to the spiritual - where true life is to be found.
Isaiah, in the first reading, cries out with the very words of God, imbued with a kind of desperate longing for our response: Oh, come to the water all you who are thirsty; though you have no money, come! Why spend money on what is not bread, your wages on what fails to satisfy?
This impassioned invitation from the Lord himself is searching for ears capable of hearing and valuing it; for men and women, and children, who have somehow learned to pierce the gaudy brightness of this world's offerings and have glimpsed the eternal beauty and joy of the world beyond.
Money … wages … can buy food for this life; for eternal life we must draw close to Lord.
When the crowds have gone Jesus sends the disciples across to the other side of the lake and himself goes up into the hills to pray. He shows us the source of the strength and the integration of his inner, psychological life. Jesus lets absolutely nothing stand in the way of his prayer; not a busy day, not a tragedy, not the acclaim of a crowd, not even his death on a cross. Jesus, in fact, died praying.
Chapter fourteen goes on to describe how, just before dawn Jesus goes to the disciples walking on the waters of the stormy sea. The Twelve are terrified on seeing him and Peter steps out to go to the Master who must reach out a saving hand to stop him sinking.
When they reach the shore more crowds come to meet him and he must spend another day, teaching, healing, giving, pouring himself out. What a truly awesome Saviour we have!