Jesus, seeing a crowd of people had compassion on them. Mark sets the scene in the opening verses of Chapter 8:
“In those days, when there was again a large crowd and they had nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples and said to them, “I feel compassion for the people because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. “If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a great distance.”” (Mark 8:1–3, NASB)
The Physical Need
There are two needs of which Jesus is aware concerning the crowd. The first one is that the crowd had nothing to eat and had been following Jesus for three days.
It is likely that many of the people were hungry when they began following Jesus and they were hungrier still after three days. There was a very real and very urgent need for food.
The danger we have as the church in North America is that we can assume that the government will take care of the needs of the people around us. After all, we might argue, isn’t that why we pay taxes?
While programs for the needy may be a staple of 21st Century politics, there are still great needs that we can meet if we only open our eyes to see them. Like the disciples, we sometimes need someone to point out the opportunities because we are often conditioned to look past them.
When we see a crowd, too often we see an inconvenience. Jesus saw the crowd as an opportunity. In this particular case, it was an opportunity that he did not miss and the result was the physical need of the crowd was met. They were fed.
The Spiritual Need
One of the constant sources of embarrassment to the theologically conservative churches is that sometimes those liberals on whom we look with theological disdain do a much better job of meeting the physical needs of the people around them.
Yet, to only meet the physical need is to miss an opportunity for greater good. If we are right in our belief that our choices in this life have eternal consequences, then we need to be sure to use every opportunity to address the spiritual need of the people around us.
To be smug in our theological correctness without reaching out into the community is contrary to the example of Jesus. Jesus met the physical need as a means of building a bridge to address the spiritual one.
At the very least, we can be praying for the crowds of people we see. Jesus’ words in Matthew 9 are good encouragement:
“Seeing the people, He felt compassion for them, because they were distressed and dispirited like sheep without a shepherd. Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. “Therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into His harvest.”” (Matthew 9:36–38, NASB)
In John 6:45, following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus informs his hearers that He is the bread of life. It is easy to see the need for physical bread, perhaps less so for our spiritual needs.
We, as the church, need to offer physical bread in the form of meeting the community’s physical needs. We also need to offer Jesus as the spiritual bread that will satisfy the inner longing for relationship with God.
We can do neither if we do not engage the crowd.