I believe there are some portions of Scripture that you have to read with an Asian sensibility to pick up on the subtext of what is going on. By "Asian sensibility" I mean that instead of describing someone's feelings in graphic detail, like clashing bold colors splashed onto a canvas, there is a spareness of description that speaks more eloquently than a thousand words. Saying less is saying more, especially when the feeling runs so deep you don't wish to cheapen it with empty talk.
In the previous passage we learn of the horrifying circumstances of John the Baptist's death. John was Jesus' cousin, his own blood and the forerunner of the Messiah. He was a holy man, the last in a line of great Old Testament prophets, a bold preacher and a humble servant of the gospel. He fell into the hands of Herod and was slaughtered like an animal, his head paraded around on a platter at a drunken dinner party.
When the news reaches Jesus, he gets in a boat and withdraws to a lonely place. Nothing more is said about his response to John's death, yet you can imagine what he must be feeling. It is one of those classic Oriental moments when words are considered abhorrent, because there are no words to say when someone receives news like this. Jesus' silence proclaims his grief, and his desire to be alone tells how overwhelming the pain in his heart must have been.
And yet the multitudes follow him, robbing him of the luxury of momentary solitude. He does not rebuke them or lash out, instead he humbly tends to their needs. Matthew notes that Jesus "felt compassion for them and healed their sick," apparently feeling the need to explain what motivated Jesus to go out there and minister to them. Jesus wanted space, but his compassion for the people is what strengthened him for the task.
The disciples aren't delicate in expressing how they feel. "It's late and we're in the middle of nowhere. Get rid of these people and let them find their own dinner." They're depressed about the news of John too, and now they're exhausted and frustrated from having to deal with a horde of needy people. But Jesus responds with, "These people aren't going anywhere. You give them something to eat."
We'll talk about what happened next in another post, but for now it's apparent that Jesus is asking his disciples to follow in his example. This goes against the grain of what we're often told, namely, that you should give out of a full reservoir, not an empty one, otherwise you will suffer spiritual burnout. I still think that's true, but this story presents a different angle, which is that quite often you think you have nothing to give, but in fact you do. The disciples had been serving all day; they think they cannot do it for another minute. But Jesus pushes them further, and when they step out in faith they find God's miraculous provision waiting for them.
I'm sure you can relate to the disciples, feeling like you're done for the day but then God lands a brand new overwhelming task on your plate. You feel you cannot give another ounce of strength in service, but somehow either faith or compassion helps to move your sluggish heart forward, and in the end it is really God's miraculous provision that bears your weary body through to the end of the task.