Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54 When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55 and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Clergy talk a lot about self-care, but were not very good at it. We talk about setting boundaries, but we don’t do very well at that either. I must confess that even as I write this meditation, I’m starting a vacation period. I probably should be doing other kinds of things, like relaxing. However, this blog won’t take care of itself, and I have a book that needs finishing. I have books to read (and they’re not what you would call “pleasure reading.” So, if I offer words of advice in this meditation, I’m probably not following them. I’m not supposed to eat chips and drink soda either! I make the confession up front so you won’t think I’m being holier than thou!
When it comes to getting away from things, I can do it. I just have to turn off the phone and leave Facebook alone. It’s just that FB is so tempting! So, if I can’t relax it’s probably my own fault. But enough about me (and my clergy colleagues), we have a reading from the Gospel of Mark to consider.
This reading from the Gospel of Mark frames the story of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ trip across the lake without the benefit of a boat (walking on water). The story begins with the disciples returning from their first preaching mission. Jesus wants to know how things went. He knows that they’re probably tired. They’ve given their all (we preachers know what that feels like—Sunday afternoon is best spent away from church life). It’s time to sit back, have a meal, and share some stories. We call this retreat time! There is only one problem with this scenario—Jesus can’t seem to get away by himself. Where he went, the crowds followed. The people were hurting and they were hungry (both for food and a word from God). They were, Mark reports, like sheep without a shepherd. Sheep without a shepherd can get lost in a hurry. They need herding. They need protecting. When Jesus sees the people he has compassion for them. So what does that mean?
Douglas John Hall writes that the meaning of compassion here needs to be understood as more than mere pity. Pity, he suggests, “is something you can manage from afar.” When I see a commercial that shows pictures of starving children or brutalized animals, I can have pity on them. I might even send in a few dollars to help with their plight. According to Hall, that’s not what Mark has in mind here. He writes: “You do not have compassion, really, unless you suffer with those to whom you refer. The precondition for compassion is unconditional solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it” [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3, p. 262.] So, Jesus ministers to them. He will, as the text continues on beyond the portion chosen for the day, feed the people, even though it will tax his strength. He needs to get away, but now is not the time. There are needs that need to be attended to.
I’m not sure how to apply this passage to my own life and ministry. Compassion is a tall order, at least if it is more than simply showing pity. Yet, if Jesus is our model and our guide (as well as our redeemer), then his actions should provide some guidance. To act with compassion is to be involved in the lives of thus hunger and thirst and hurt.
Wherever Jesus went, the crowds were sure to follow. Back and forth he went across the lake. He couldn’t get ahead of things. People were there, ready to engage him. He is the shepherd who heals and feeds the people. He welcomes all who come. He visited villages, cities, and farms. As he walked through marketplaces people laid the sick at his feet and begged him for permission to touch the fringe of his cloak.
At the same time, Jesus did take time away. Yes, it was difficult to do. There was often little leisure time for him and his disciples to have a bite to eat. Still, in the omitted verses, which detail the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ venture walking on water, Mark reminds us why Jesus sent the disciples off in the boat by themselves. Jesus needed time away to pray (Mark 6:45-46). Yes, we forget that Jesus needed to take time off by himself so he could reconnect with God and find inspiration so he could continue on his journey. He faced great pressures, but he was also committed to the principles of self-care. When out in public Jesus rarely had time to be anonymous. So, he had to schedule time alone (even away from the disciples). After all, they might have been his apprentices, but they were sheep needing tending as well. So, off he sent them.
So, what word do we hear in this passage? There is, of course, a strong message about Jesus’ acts of service. But there is also a call to step back and experience refreshment in the presence of God. Perhaps this word of wisdom from Karen Marie Yust is appropriate for us to hear:
[T]he message of verses 30-34 is ambiguous: set yourselves apart for divine and physical sustenance, and at the same time, set aside your own retreat when others are in need of spiritual sustenance. How does a congregation shape its life together to honor both of these teachings? [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Vol. 3, p. 262].
The first call is to show compassion, but where and when possible take time for refreshment. That likely will require discernment and intentionality!