Proper 11/Trinity 8
Mark 6:30-24; 53-56
Compassion of Christ
In the opening chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are presented with a very busy Jesus! Mark sets a tone and pace for his readers that is frenetic and fast – it presents a picture of Jesus going from one place, one person to the next – hardly stopping to catch his breath.
Mark keeps Jesus and the disciples in Galilee as Jesus preaches, teaches and heals the masses whilst spending time teaching the disciples. But the side of Jesus that we are presented with today is one who recognizes, honours and tends to his own tiredness. Jesus also responds to the tiredness and exhaustion of his disciples with care and compassion. His response turns into action as Jesus tries to do something about it.
To give this morning’s reading the right context it is important to look at the whole of chapter 6 to understand why everyone is so exhausted. Chapter 6 begins with Jesus in his hometown, where he was dishonoured and ended up amazed at their unbelief. Who were the unbelieving? His family, friends and those who had known him since childhood.
Hang on to that for a moment; the people who have known you the longest completely dismiss you and the work you are doing. How draining that would be; not to mention disappointing! Remember that Jesus was a human being, he felt things: experienced grief and rejection, felt frustration, was disappointed and let down. Emotional exhaustion by any other name.
After this visit home, according to Mark, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples in two’s (v 7) to start doing what he has been showing and teaching them to do – teaching about repentance, casting out demons and anointing the sick and curing them. The disciples have been given the authority to go out along with some rules about how they are to conduct themselves. This is the beginning of their ministries. You can maybe imagine the enthusiasm they set out with! Jesus would now appear to be on his own.
Mark then turns back to the ongoing saga of John the Baptist. Mark interrupts this part of the narrative with the news of John’s death. Jesus had sent the disciples out and they (now referred to as apostles) are back together. They seem to be very anxious to tell Jesus about all the amazing things they have done and taught.
They started off full of energy and enthusiasm and have likely returned shattered! Jesus recognizes this and wants to take them away to a deserted place by themselves. The apostles are tired, Jesus is mourning the death of his cousin. Very good reasons to get away. Jesus calls them to come away with him to a deserted place to rest a while. Not sure how long ‘a while’ is but Jesus wants to provide the rest and recuperation for the apostles and himself.
What do we learn about Jesus in this passage this morning? He was human – in some of the ‘throwaway’ lines in Gospel that usually precede the big events we see this humanity – his hunger, his need for sleep and food, his inclination to hide, the need for rest and solitude. Our God rests and it is important for us to know that. As we stand on ‘Freedom Day’ tomorrow and whatever that may bring, the need for rest will be even more important.
However, the plans for rest and refreshment go awry. Jesus is also like us in that his best-laid plans went sideways! The crowd, those sheep without a shepherd, follow Jesus and apostles to their supposed place of rest. I suspect that many a human reaction would be one of disappointment – to say it mildly.
This is where we see that Jesus is decidedly un-like us; he does not turn away or throw a strop. He has compassion, He recognizes that the needs of the crowd in the moment are greater than his. He begins to teach them. Not only does he teach them, he then feeds them. All 5000 of them! This is a sermon for another day but the feeding of the 5000 by Jesus and the apostles is set in the midst of their exhaustion and grief.
A second attempt after dinner is made to get away. Jesus sends the apostles back across the lake in the boat. He went up to the mountain to pray. Jesus then comes back down and walks on the water, across the lake to the boat – again a sermon for another day!
As Jesus and the apostles arrive on the other side of the lake, still searching for the rest that seems to be eluding them, they are met with the crowds. Once again Jesus is recognized, the crowds come, bringing the sick to be healed. Once again Jesus meets them with compassion, they might touch the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
I think I envy Jesus and his stark understanding of need. I ashamedly find it easy sometimes to pass the buck on compassion when I am hungry or tired or needing some solitude. It is tempting to say that it doesn’t all depend on me. I’m not the last stop – am I? I think one of the big lessons this week is the tension between compassion and self-protection. Jesus lived with it too and that is good to know.
Debie Thomas – a writer and essayist I greatly admire writes: ‘On the one hand, he (Jesus) was unapologetic about his need for rest and solitude. He saw no shame in retreating when he and his disciples needed a break. On the other hand, he never allowed his weariness to blunt his compassion. Unlike me, he realized that he was the last stop for those aching, desperate crowds — those sheep without a shepherd. Unlike me, he practiced a kind of balance that allowed his love for others, his own inner hungers, and the urgency of the world’s needs to exist in productive tension.
Is there a lesson here? I’m not sure. Strive for balance? Recognize weariness when you feel it? Don’t apologize for being human? Take breaks?
Yes. All of those essential things. But maybe also — and most importantly — this: We live in a world of dire and constant need. Sheep die without their shepherds. There are stakes, and sometimes, what God demands of our hearts is costly.
While balance remains the ideal, it won’t always be available in the short-term. Sometimes, we will have to “err.” We’ll have to bend out of balance.
If that happens, what should we do? In what direction should we bend? If this week’s Gospel story is our example, then the answer is clear. Seek rest, of course. But err on the side of compassion. Jesus did.’
Jesus lived a busy, frenetic life. His humanity shows in his need for food, sleep and time away; Jesus and the apostles shared common human emotions of grief, mourning and great excitement. Jesus also acknowledged the need for rest in those around him and worked to do something about it. His best laid plans didn’t work out – again – we see his humanity and the shared experience of disappointment when things don’t work out the way we wanted.
Yet – Jesus always responds in compassion to those around him. This isn’t the easy option! But it is to compassion we are called.