By Craig Condon
According to a Greek legend, in ancient Athens a man noticed the great storyteller Aesop playing childish games with some little boys. He laughed at Aesop and asked him why he wasted his time in such frivolous activity. Aesop responded by picking up a bow, loosening its string and placing it on the ground. Then he said to the man, “Now, answer the riddle, if you can. Tell us what the unstrung bow represents.”
The man looked at it for several minutes but had no idea what point Aesop was trying to make. Aesop explained, “If you keep a bow always bent, it will break eventually; but if you let it go slack, it will be more fit for use when you want it.”
All of us need to get away for a vacation from time to time. Some people really have a hard time doing that. They think that when they go on vacation they have to take their cell phones and laptop computers so that they can check their voice mail and email, and maybe even get caught up on some work that they didn’t get finished before they left. They might as well stay at home!
Jesus recognized that we need to take some time off once in a while to get caught up on our rest, and an example of his concern is found in Mark 6:30-35. His disciples had just returned from a long and exhausting ministry trip, so He instructed them to “come aside… and rest awhile”. Jesus cherished personal privacy for times of spiritual renewal and teaching His disciples.
Prayer was likely involved. Jesus was a praying machine. He prayed at all times and in all locations, sometimes by himself and sometimes with other people. He prayed when he was in trouble. He prayed for other people. Jesus offered his disciples a model for prayer-the Lord’s Prayer. For Jesus, prayer goes hand in hand with faithfulness.
The disciples needed to centre themselves, to eat a proper home-cooked meal, to be in communion with God and to sort through everything that happened. Jesus knows that in order to do this, he and his disciples had to take a break. Jesus probably told the disciples that they must take care of themselves if they are to take care of other people.
Jesus also needed time to mourn privately. The events in this passage occurred just after Jesus learned that his cousin John the Baptist was executed by King Herod. This passage is an indictment of Herod. The people of God have become exactly what Moses and Ezekiel warned against. They became sheep without a shepherd, weakened, scattered and vulnerable. The so-called shepherd threw a banquet for his courtiers and officers, at which he killed the herald of God’s coming kingdom. The people were looking for a true shepherd who would bring them into God’s kingdom.
Unfortunately, as the Scottish Poet Robbie Burns would say, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Jesus belonged to the people now, and the crowds followed Him wherever He went. Despite His own weariness, Jesus ministered to the needy crowds because He saw them as sheep not having a shepherd.
The people saw Jesus first as a healer. He must have been disappointed to think that they missed the substance of the truth, but He chose to be known as a servant. He was pleased to know that the first purpose of His earthly mission was being accomplished.
Compassion arose with Jesus as He saw the same signs in the crowd that He saw in a flock of sheep that lost its shepherd. They made noises that bordered on hysteria, especially when everyone talked at once. They wandered aimlessly and without hope. They were defenseless. They had no protection and no division of labour. Jesus reached out to the crowd by teaching them, organizing them, speaking for them and feeding them. He left them free to decide whether they believed He was the Messiah or just a miracle worker who served a good meal.
Jesus continues to teach us many things today. He wants to teach us about eternal life and eternal love. He wants to teach us about faith and trust in the power and goodness of God. He wants to teach us about the cross and the way of sacrifice and sacrificial love. He wants to teach us about the dangers of following the crowds who are really lost, harried, hassled and hurried and don’t know the way of life and love and giving of one’s self to others. He wants to teach us about the necessity of rest.
Jesus was part of God’s plan. Jesus represented God’s compassion for the disciples, the people and us. Jesus was God’s compassion in the flesh. He saw people as an opportunity to reveal God’s loving care and compassionate power to meet their deepest needs.
Jesus’ compassion overruled all of the arguments against ministering to thankless crowds, hardened disciples and selfish, sick people. Today, we also live in a world full of people who are sick and hurting and in need of God’s love, grace and forgiveness. Our kind words, our smile and our help can make all the difference in their lives. We can offer a place of refuge from the difficulties of their lives.
When Jesus saw the crowds, He knew just what they needed. Eventually they will need bread and fish, and He provides that in verses 35-52, which form Mark’s version of the feeding of the 5,000. We will hear John’s version of the feeding of the 5,000 and the subsequent “Bread of Life” discourse in our Gospel readings for the next five Sundays. Jesus taught them many things in order to build the foundation of truth that would serve them when feelings fell and He was not physically present. He set the example for all leaders of the masses who have true compassion and integrity.
For Jesus, compassion is not just a feeling but a doing. He had to show His followers that compassion is a part of discipleship. Compassion is required on our part. It hits us in the gut and sends us into motion for the sake of others. How can we rest when people are homeless, families are starving and children are suffering due to injustice? How can anyone rest in the midst of the pain and suffering that exists in the world today? Isn’t it selfish to rest when the world needs us? If we want to be used by God, we have to imitate Him and have compassion for those in need.
We are sent into the world to be the presence of Christ. We go to places where we can get rest and let God heal us and renew us. Then we go back out again for another chance to be God’s presence in the world. Going to church refreshes us, fills our spiritual gas tanks and equips us to do God’s work in our world.
Jesus never allowed His weariness to overwhelm His compassion. He knew He was the last stop for the desperate, aching people. His personal boundaries were less important to Him than His desire to love others.
The press of our modern society and the needs of the people will always be among us. We can’t get away from the emails, the calls we have to return, the meetings, our duties in life, or conflicts. Our zeal for the things of God must be according to the fact that we need to sometimes stop, be still and listen to God’s voice.
While it is important for us to do God’s work, it’s also important for us to take time for rest. We find true rest through recognizing the presence of God and trusting Him. We can relax or grip on our work, our careers and our families and turn them over to God in faith. We can take time each day to tune out the distractions, put away the tense restlessness and reflect in gratitude on the wonder of God’s love and faithfulness.
God created us with internal reserves of physical, emotional and spiritual energy, but we need frequent recharging or we’ll wear ourselves out. After we’ve spent our energy, we must rest and become recharged. How can we love ourselves and others when we are always going and doing and not pausing for rest? If we aren’t rested and well, how can we do well for the people we serve? The ongoing grind of doing God’s work in our world calls for getting away from time to time to reflect, to renew, and to spend time with God.