XVI Sunday in Ordinary Time-July 22
Gospel reading: Mark 6:30-34
Today's passage, like those of the last two Sundays, is an account of the ministry of Jesus and contains several messages that are important for us today. We can feel free to identify with one of the three characters in the story: - Jesus, - the apostles, - the crowds.
Verse 30. Jesus highlights the contrast between two aspects of teaching: - "what we do” - “what we teach". These are two distinct realities and in our teaching we should reflect on both. We need to share how we feel about things - within ourselves, with one another, and finally with our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. What we teach must include how we relate to what we have experienced. The emphasis is usually quite different and does not reflect how we ourselves respond. There are therefore two important conclusions. The words “they returned to their master” remind us that we need to emphasize both of them in how we relate with Jesus.
On the part of Jesus, the passage is telling us that, like all good teachers, he wants us to look at the distinction we have made between the two. As regards ourselves, we need to share both what we do and what we teach with him, our Divine Master.
Verses 31 and 32 . Jesus makes another distinction, this time between - our “teaching” - our “going away to a lonely place” so that we can “rest for a while”. This “resting” would include what we do on our own. These are the times when we know that no one is there to look after us or to see that we do nothing wrong. We all have to take time off for rest. We take the verb “eating” here in a very wide sense. It must include activities such as getting a good rest from our work, enjoying the good things of life. The fact that the apostles did not have time to eat is of course very significant. It means that the need to look after themselves has become very great. They must learn how to find rest for themselves.
Verses 33 and 34 . Jesus' plan is thwarted by the people. The passage stresses that the crowd gathered almost by chance; the people came by accident. “ And “he took pity on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd”. This is very important. We need to listen to what people are asking for. We must respond to them remembering that they don't have people around them who can give them training or leadership. They have no one who can console them or give them a new direction to follow in their lives. And so he set himself to answer their great needs. The passage stresses two important realities - accommodating our need for rest, to get something to eat - responding to the needs of others. The passage also concerns “the crowds”. We too can always expect that Jesus will be there to look after us. He wants to understand our needs and to respond to them. We must make sure that our meditation is true to our experience. We must not move to a conclusion too quickly. We will then find, by the end of the passage, that we have been really helped to understand our lives better.
"The one who loves the community destroys the community; the one who loves the brothers and sisters builds community." Dietrich BonhofferLord, all of us work for people:
- at work we have school principals, heads of government, directors of firms;
- within our circle of friends there are those who organise functions;
- in the Church community there are priests, choir leaders, youth group leaders.
We thank you that once in a way you send us someone like Jesus, someone who, when we speak about all we have done for the organisation, will notice that there is so much coming and going in our lives that we have no time even to eat, and will say to us that we must come away to some lonely place, all by ourselves, and rest for a while.
Lord, we thank you that this is how you relate with us. "God loves us too much to allow us to be satisfied and contented with mere images or signs of his presence." Abhishiktananda
Lord, prayer is that moment in our lives when we come into your presence to tell you all we have done and taught, and you see that with all the coming and going about us we are not finding time to be nourished ourselves; so you say to us that we need to come away to some lonely place by ourselves, even if when we step ashore there is a large crowd waiting for us, there is no need for us to panic because eventually we will find that we can teach them at some length.
"The abbot is to temper all things so that the strong may still have something to strive after and the weak may not draw back in alarm." The Rule of St Benedict
Lord, great people are like Jesus- they know that it is necessary at times to go away to a lonely place and rest for a while;
- but they know too that there are times when we have to forego our moment of rest because there are people out there who are like sheep without a shepherd, and we must take pity on them. Help us to be more like your shepherd.
Lord, you know how difficult we find it when we want to include our deep feelings into what we teach. We would like to include both but so often we neglect what we really believe because we are afraid of betraying the deep teaching of Jesus.
"The biggest mistake sometimes is to play things safe in this life and end up being moral failures." Dorothy Day
Lord, the world is so complex that we feel to run away from it, to take off in a boat where we can be safe.
Indeed, it is necessary to do that from time to time. But that is dangerous too, because once we step ashore, we will see that a large crowd has gathered there, like sheep without a shepherd, and your will is that we should be like Jesus for them and set ourselves to teach them at some length.
Introduction to the Celebration
The desire to be in the presence of the Lord and to listen to his teaching is what draws us together each time we assemble as a church — just as we are doing now. Today we hear of early groups of people who also had the desire to be with Jesus and how he took pity on them 'because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length'. Let us set the tone for our celebration by thinking about our need to listen to the teachings of Jesus so that they can bring light into our lives.
Today's passage is the prologue to the story of the feeding of five thousand men with five loaves and two fish (6:30-44) — a story whose perfect form is found in Mark. As the prologue, it is there to establish the reason why the people were there and in need of feeding.
As a distinct element within the story, it shows us Mark combining the images of shepherd (one who guides and protects), teacher (one who feeds understanding and guides) and the one who cares (feeds with food and looks out for the people) in the person and work of Jesus.
The opening verses of this passage 'come away ... and rest awhile' have launched a thousand retreats — but with scarce respect for the actual meaning of Mark's text. The whole point of Mark's story is that while it might be nice for Jesus and the disciples to have time 'away from it all', that is not to be for the simple reason that there is a people in need of pity which manifests itself in teaching.
2. On a practical level there is nothing remarkable about the scene: it all takes place over distances of just a couple of miles along the shore of a small lake and there were plenty of lonely places just behind the small village settlements that are referred to in the gospels as 'cities'. Moreover, we are so used to hearing of miracles or healings or exorcisms — all of which can cause us to wonder 'what was that really like' or which make us feel uneasy; or hearing bits of Jesus's preaching we find hard to apply to our own lives, that we are apt to dismiss something like today's gospel as an irrelevance!
3. However, the fact that 'Jesus took pity on them ... and set himself to teach them at some length' contains a lesson for us that is of the first importance. This is what we must explore in the homily today.
4. It is very easy to think of Jesus taking pity on people. Sinners, poor people, sick people, hungry people, people in mourning, paralytics, outcasts such as Zacchaeus (or some other tax-collector), people possessed by evil spirits: in each of these cases we can think of Jesus taking pity and then either doing something about it or teaching us about our duties of pity. He pitied sinners and forgave them; he pitied the sick and healed them; he pitied the widow and raised her son to life; he had pity for outcasts and made them welcome at his table; and he preached that we, his disciples, should take pity on the hungry, the poor, and those who are suffering. But the pity he shows today does not fit this pattern. He takes pity on the whole people — rich and poor, healthy and sick — and the form that his pity takes is teaching.
5. The idea that Jesus takes pity on people because they are like 'sheep without a shepherd', and the idea that teaching could be an expression of pity / mercy, are two ideas that are very alien to us. On the one hand, we do not like the idea that we need to be taught: we are in love with the notion of our own autonomy. This is expressed in the atheist sentiment: don't walk in front, I may not follow; don't walk behind, I may not lead; let's just walk beside each other! On the other hand, teaching conjures up someone who knows what we do not and tells us — implicitly showing up our imperfection — and teaching also seems to be just a technical skill: imparting boring skills be they how to cook, do arithmetic, a language, or car-maintenance. Teaching is no more than 'transferring skills' — to use modern educational jargon.
6. But these notions of autonomy and of our human need to be taught are incompatible with the basis not just of Christianity, but all monotheistic belief. It is our belief that the universe — be it the outer universe of atoms or galaxies or the inner universe of our human existence — cannot be understood without reference to God. God is the maker of all that is, seen and unseen, and without thinking about God and the divine origin and purpose of the universe, there is something lacking in our understanding, in our judgements on how we should act, and in the depths of our hearts. As Augustine said: 'You, 0 God, have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless without you.'
7. Yet, modern society tries to live in a God-free zone and make out that the divine is an optional extra, no more than a personal choice. While, at the same time, the'body, mind, spirit' shelves of bookshops groan under the number of books by lifestyle consultants that promise happiness by a mix of diets, mind-games, and ways of re-arranging the furniture in your home. The God-free zone is also a happiness-free zone.
8. We only become fully human when we recognise that there is more to life than the sum of the bits we can manage, the bits we can cope with, and the bits we can see. This recognition is rarely a blinding flash of understanding that there is a 'God-shaped aperture' in our existence, rather it is, more often than not, a painful discovery that we would almost be glad to avoid. Yet in this discovery we need also to appreciate the wisdom who teaches us — here lies the mission of Jesus the prophet and teacher. He teaches us to become aware of the deeper needs of our humanity: to see ourselves as the Father's children, to work together to build the kingdom, and the need to journey through life towards our true home. Jesus both teaches us of our fundamental dependency on God, and of the love that God constantly offers us.
9. We as a community continue that teaching: not just transferring skills such as how to pray or how to help the poor, but teaching in the sense of bringing people to wisdom. This is the wisdom that knows that our lives are incomplete without acknowledging who we are as creatures within a God-given universe.10. The people hurried after him, and he set about teaching them at length. Here is a hard question: are we willing to sit as students (the same word as 'disciples' except it is less pious) at the feet of Jesus — and be taught at length?
This text follows on from what happened last Sunday when Jesus missioned them as his apostles. If their success depends on their being sent by Jesus, then to some extent it also depends on their returning to him. In other words, it only makes sense because of their relationship to him and this is what is demonstrated in this short text. They return to him, no doubt full of all that had happened to them but also tired and so he suggests time apart. Such is the hunger for the good news of the kingdom that they don't even have time to eat. However, the people know the lake shore and can guess where they are headed for and so, on arrival, Jesus and the apostles are greeted by a large crowd. Jesus' response, however, is not one of frustration but of compassion and the apostles learn once again from the Master what it means to be a shepherd. It is also noteworthy that what Jesus does for this large crowd is not to perform miracles but to teach them at length, thus highlighting again that vital aspect of Jesus' ministry.
Reflection It is a sad reflection on two thousand years of Christianity that there are still so many divisions among those who claim to follow Christ. However, this is a reminder to us that reconciliation is not something that we merely wish for or give approval to. Being reconciled to those from whom we are estranged can be very difficult. Wounds do not easily heal and recognising our need to forgive and be forgiven takes courage and humility. The readings remind us that our faith response to the difficulties we face as a church must always be rooted in the compassion of God. We are also reminded that teaching and learning will always be part of what we do as a Christian community.