By Debie Thomas
I’m especially grateful for the lectionary this week, because it offers a portrait of Jesus I rarely consider. When I read the Gospels, I tend to envision a brisk and efficient Jesus — full of purpose but short on time — striding from village to synagogue to hilltop to seaside, a whirlwind of miracles, parables, and life-changing conversations swirling around him. In fact, for most of my life, I have regarded Jesus as a severe, Type A workaholic, a superhero striving to save the world before his clock runs down.
But a breathless zealot is not who emerges from this week’s Gospel reading. Instead, we find a Jesus who recognizes, honors, and tends to his own tiredness. We encounter a teacher who notices his disciples’ exhaustion, and responds with tenderness. We find a Savior who probes below the surfaces of our frantic, “productive” lives, and pinpoints the hungers our work-obsessed culture won’t allow us to name: the hunger for space, reflection, solitude, and rest. Having spent several days now with this lectionary, I wonder if the striving, hurrying Jesus I usually think of is really Jesus at all. Maybe he’s a distorted mirror image of me. My own busyness. My own long-held dread of “wasting time.” Maybe he’s a pseudo-god I use to excuse my own lifestyle.
The lection is an odd one this week, a disjointed cut-and-paste job that brackets Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand to focus on the seemingly less spectacular events that precede and follow it. Mark 6:30–34 describes the return of the disciples from their first ministry tour — their inauguration into apostleship. Exhilarated and exhausted, they have stories to tell Jesus — thrilling stories of healings, exorcisms, and effective evangelistic campaigns. But Jesus senses that there are darker stories in the mix as well — stories of failure and rejection, perhaps. Stories of doubt. Hard stories they need to process privately with their Teacher.
Whatever the case, Jesus recognizes that the disciples need a break. They’re tired, overstimulated, underfed, and in significant need of solitude.
Jesus, meanwhile, is not in top form himself. He has just lost John the Baptist, his beloved cousin and prophet, the one who baptized him and spent a lifetime in the wilderness preparing his way. Worse, Jesus has lost him to murder, a terrifying reminder that God’s beloved are not immune to violent, senseless deaths. Maybe Jesus’ own end feels closer, and his own vocation seems more ominous. In other words, he has many reasons to feel heartbroken.
“Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile,” he says to his disciples as the crowds throng around them at the edge of the Sea of Galilee. “Come away with me,” is how another translation puts it, and I hear both tenderness and longing in those words. Jesus wants to provide a time of rest and recuperation for his friends. But he’s weary, himself; the hunger he articulates is his own.
Lesson One for me? Pay more attention to the “throwaway” passages in the Gospels, those little transition verses which often precede or follow the “main events” of Jesus’ life story. Passages like Luke 5:16: “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Or Mark 11:12: “The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry.” Or Matthew 8:24: “Jesus was sleeping.” Or Mark 7:24: “He didn’t want anyone to know which house he was staying in.”
In these “minor” verses, I see essential glimpses of Jesus’ human life. His need to withdraw, his desire for solitary prayer, his physical hunger, his sleepiness, his inclination to hide. These glimpses take nothing away from Jesus’ divinity; they enhance it, making it richer and all the more mysterious. They remind me that the doctrine of the Incarnation truly is Christianity’s best gift to the world. God — the God of the whole universe — hungers, sleeps, eats, rests, withdraws, and grieves. In all of these mundane but crucial ways, our God is like us. Our God rests.
Of course, this lesson isn’t new; it runs through Scripture from its earliest pages. In the Genesis, God rested on the seventh day, and called the Sabbath holy. Honoring this is no small feat in our 21stcentury lives, where every hour of every day is measured in profits gained or advantages lost. For me, rest never comes naturally. I forget about it. I fear it. I resist it. To remember that God rested, that Jesus rested, is to be both startled and humbled. How dare I claim not to need a break when Christ himself took one? The Sabbath is the only thing in the creation account that God called holy. We would do well to pay attention.
But returning to the Gospel, Jesus is also like us in that sometimes, his best-laid plans to find rest go awry. According to St. Mark, Jesus’ retreat-by-boat idea fails. The crowds anticipate his plan, and follow on foot. By the time he and his disciples reach their longed-for destination, the crowds are waiting, and the quiet sanctuary Jesus seeks is nowhere to be found.
Does Jesus run? Does he turn the boat around and sail away? No. As Mark puts it, “Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began to teach them many things.”
The second half of this week’s lection essentially offers a repeat of the first. The miraculous feeding of the five thousand over, Jesus once again “insists” that the disciples get back in the boat and sail away. Vacation Attempt, Take Two.
But once again, according to Mark 6:53–56, the crowds anticipate Jesus’ plan, and word of his whereabouts spreads. As soon as the boat lands at Gennesaret, the crowds go wild, pushing and jostling to get close to Jesus. They carry their sick to him on mats. In every village and city Jesus approaches, swarms of people needing healing line the marketplaces. They press against him. They plead. They beg to touch the fringe of his robe and receive healing. Jesus’ response? Once again, his response is compassion. “All who touched him were healed.”
In some ways, I envy Jesus the stark acuity of such need. Here, in my cozy middle-class American life, it’s too easy to pass the buck on compassion. Whether I’m looking at the needs of my own family, my seemingly self-sufficient neighbors, or the wider community, it’s tempting to tell myself that nothing urgent is at stake. Everything can wait. After all, I’m not the last stop, am I? Not much depends on me.
Or does it? I think this week’s Gospel reading is about the ongoing and necessary tension between compassion and self-protection. And the great lesson for us is that Jesus lived with this tension, too.
On the one hand, he 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.
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