Sermon audio here.
For thousands of years people have wrestled with the question, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?” Whether it’s tragic shootings like Dallas or Orlando, economic or political panic due to the latest Brexit, FBI exoneration, or incendiary tweet, this chaos can cause us to draw any number of false conclusions.
One is that if there is an all-powerful God, He must be evil or He wouldn’t let these things happen.
While that might seem like a reasonable thought, it’s also a supremely arrogant one. Who are we to presume to know the mind of God? We’re not God. We don’t see the big picture. We often draw false conclusions due to our limited perspective, like questioning God’s goodness.
The same thing happens with Severus Snape in Harry Potter. He’s always doing things that seem bad. But we don’t know the whole story, and so there’s this constant tension: is he a good guy? Is he a bad guy? Finally, at the end of book six, we watch in horror as Snape murders Dumbledore in cold blood and his true colors are finally revealed. Or are they?
As it turns out, this was Dumbledore’s plan all along. He was going to die anyway, so he secretly ordered Snape to kill him. This way, Snape could prove his loyalty to the Evil Lord Voldemort and gain his trust, which would play a key role in the Dark Lord’s eventual demise.
But before we knew this—when our perspective was still limited—we were absolutely convinced of Snape’s wickedness. In reality, everything he did, especially sacrificing Dumbledore, whom he loved and respected, was for the greater good. Snape only looked like he was up to no good because we didn’t know the whole story. In fact, he’d been a hero all along.
If you’re not careful, you could end up accusing Jesus of the same thing in today’s Holy Gospel. The crowds had been following Jesus around for 3 days. He knew they were hungry and some were far from home. He could have fed them at any point, but instead He waits until they’re nearly fainting with hunger. Only then does He say, “I have compassion on this crowd.”
But where was this compassion before now? Three days is a long time. Why did Jesus put the crowds in this position in the first place and let it get to this point?
This is where it gets uncomfortable, but there’s no getting around it: the crowds’ hunger was no accident. In order for Jesus to do this miracle, He needed a hungry crowd. God did the same thing with Israel in the wilderness: He let them go without for a time so that they would rely on Him rather than themselves.[i]
In both cases, He let His people go hungry—at least for a little while—on purpose. That sounds less like compassion and more like child abuse.
But that’s true only from a very limited perspective. It puts excessive focus on the crowds’ temporary discomfort and ignores the greater good. Sometimes a little pain is necessary before things can get better.
We just experienced this at the pediatrician’s office when Rebekah went in for her last visit. It so happened that she was due for about 900 shots. Now Rebekah hadn’t done anything wrong. She was absolutely full of smiles, as happy as can be to see the doctor. And then came the needles, one after another, piercing her tender flesh.
There’s no denying it. The doctor hurt her. She had the tears to prove it. Is that child abuse? Of course not. Yes, the doctor shoved a bunch of needles through her flesh, but it was for the greater good. Had she not done that, Rebekah wouldn’t have received the necessary vaccinations and could end up with the Black Death or some other terrible disease.
When you go to get blood drawn, the doctor or nurse is hurting you on purpose. They may not enjoy this, but they know full well it’s going to hurt and do it anyway. Why? Because it’s a small price to pay to know whether or not you’re sick.
That’s what’s going on in today’s Holy Gospel. Letting the crowds go hungry may have seemed cruel, but Jesus needed them to see their helplessness, and it usually takes being in a bad situation to realize this. What Jesus put the crowds through wasn’t pleasant, but it was for their own good.
When Christ sends something into your life that isn’t pleasant, He’s not abusing you, He’s reminding you how deeply you need Him. It’s only abuse if the doctor’s sticking you for fun. It may not be pleasant, but it’s for your own good.
All Rebekah knew is that it hurt, but she doesn’t see the big picture. When bad things happen and we’re tempted to rush into judgment against God, we do well to remember that there’s a lot going on that we don’t know.
But here’s what we do know. God loves you so much that He took on human flesh and suffered and died for you. He provides for all your needs, especially the forgiveness of sins and assurance of His love through preaching and the Sacraments. Keep your eyes fixed upon Jesus. In Him, you see the definitive proof that God is love.
Today’s Holy Gospel, then, is a lesson in faith. Jesus wants you to realize that you don’t see the big picture. He wants you to repent of acting like you do. He wants you to trust in Him even when it seems like He’s up to no good. He works all things together for your good, even when the news is filled with tragedy, even when it feels like He’s leading you around a desolate place for days on end with no food.
If Jesus can rescue 4,000 people from the point of physical death with seven loaves and a few small fish, how much more can He deliver the world from eternal death with His Body and Blood?
Soli Deo Gloria
[i] Cf. Deut. 8.