Year B: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Return of the Twelve

Mark 6: 30-44

The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught.  He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” people were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So, they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

 Discussion questions:

  1. Compassion can be thought of as an exchange of feeling, suffering and oneness with another. How is your compassion for others a way of resting in, or being in union with God?
  2. How does your level of mental and physical activity get in the way of your ability to see the needs of others and feed them, to stay connected to the “sustaining source” of God’s compassion?
  3. How do you relate to the idea of receiving God’s “divine energy and nourishment”? Do you ever experience burn out and do you think Jesus wants you to take care of yourself? Why?
  4. What gifts for ministry have you received and how do you use them? Do you feel accountable to Jesus for the way in which you use them, or do they flow from compassion? Explain.

Biblical Context

Mark 6:30-34
Mary M. McGlone CSJ

Taken in context, today’s short Gospel is not so much an independent unit as a transition from one scene to another and a setup for the scene to come when thousands will find their nourishment in Jesus. As an independent incident, it reflects on Jesus’ overwhelming popularity and his attention to everyone in need.

As the scene opens, Mark tells us that the “apostles” gathered with Jesus. This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that disciples are called apostles. (The title is nowhere near as common as we might think: It appears only here in Mark, once in Matthew, six times in Luke and never in John.) They have just come back from their mission and Jesus invites them to go with him to a desert place to rest. (Resting is also a rather uncommon concept in the Christian Scriptures. This is the only time it has a positive connotation.)

Mark builds this story with care to awaken his readers’ religious imagination and memory. When Mark said that Jesus and companions were headed for a deserted place, Jewish people pictured the scene against the background of the desert of the Exodus and the Israelites who followed Moses into the wilderness. The people seeking Jesus’ company set up the next scene. Jesus and the disciples arrive at their destination only to find that the crowds have anticipated their arrival and are waiting for them before they can begin to settle in.

In the most evocative part of this reading, Mark tells us that Jesus saw the crowd and “his heart was moved with pity for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The word pity (splanchnizomai, also translatable as compassion) has a particular meaning in New Testament Greek. The people of Jesus’ time understood the intestines to be the seat of feelings and the word pity meant “to feel the bowels yearn.” This is hardly the response of a detached superior to an underling. This describes someone whose care for the other moves from the inside out, someone who, as an old saying goes, sees the other weep and tastes tears. Mark is painting a picture of Jesus as someone who so resonated with the people’s desire that their hopes overcame his preferences, their hungry desire for spiritual nourishment moved him to act.

The next phrase adds to that impression and begins to set the scene for what is to come. Mark drew on one of the great images of his culture and faith when he said that Jesus saw the crowd like sheep without a shepherd. David was the prototype, the shepherd-king, the ideal ruler who was concerned for the people, not his own aggrandizement. As a religious image, not only did God call the king to be a shepherd but, as in Psalm 23, God was imagined as the divine shepherd.

This short Gospel adds depth to Mark’s growing portrait of Jesus. Now we see the wonder-working Son of God from Nazareth as the shepherd. He represents the God who allows the people’s hopes and needs to become his own. Mark tells us that Jesus taught the people, but what he did was also a key lesson for the disciples accompanying him.

Resting in Compassion

Fr. John Shea

It is tempting to read this passage from the point of view of harried, overworked missionaries. The apostles have just returned from the front lines of mission and debriefed with the person who sent them. Now, as Jesus said, it is time to go away by themselves and rest. After a tour of duty, they deserve some “rest and relaxation” They cannot get it where they are. There is “a revolving door” of people coming and going in such numbers and with so many demands that the apostles cannot even eat. So, they get in a boat to get away, to rest and eat by themselves in “a deserted place” that is, a place without other people. But the demanding people continue to harass them. They go on foot to the place that Jesus and the apostles are journeying to by boat, and the feet of the people are faster than the oars. They arrive before the apostles. When Jesus goes ashore and sees the crowds, his compassion trumps his plan for eating and resting in a deserted place. He discerns that the people do not have the teaching they so desperately need. So, he responds by teaching them “many things” No rest for the apostles. The mission is back on.

But this passage is peppered with spiritual symbols, and they tell a different story. After the apostles tell Jesus bout their teaching and deeds, it is not time for a break from mission. It is time for a deeper teaching about the nature of the mission and how it is to be carried out. They are invited to “come away to a deserted place” to “rest” and “eat” (v. 31). A deserted place, as the disciples will emphasize later on is not where food is normally found. Therefore, the desert becomes a symbol for learning how to be fed by God. To come away to that place means to return to the Source, to be nurtured by God. Also, rest should not be taken in a conventional sense. It does not mean more time to sleep and play and less time to work. Rest is Sabbath rest, learning how to be sustained by the goodness of Creation rooted in God. Rest does not mean inactivity but acting in consort with Creation, with the Spirit of the Creator who is already acting. The overall project is to learn how to receive divine energy and nourishment, energy and nourishment that drives the mission.

This is not an easy lesson to learn. The ability to receive from a transcendent Source entails interior adjustments. A shift in consciousness is required. Therefore, they must “go in a boat,” cross over to another way of thinking. This other way does not leave people behind. Wherever the apostles go, people will recognize them and be there before them. The problem is not people but the “coming and going” that prevents eating. In other words, the way their activity takes them away from the sustaining Source is the problem. On the other shore, in the new consciousness, everything begins with compassion, with noticing and identifying with unmet spiritual needs. The mission is rooted and sustained by divine compassion, and the apostles must stay in touch with this compassion.

When we recognize our sameness, our actions come from a space of communion. They are not the willful efforts of a separate being trying to exert influence in the foreign territory of another. They become the coordinated work of united people who are grounded in what ultimately unites them: a common humanity and a common Source. Compassion is not an achievement but the recognition of the deeper truth which action flows easily, without pressure and pushing, happening more by itself.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.