16th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)
Imagine: You and a team of trainees just returned from an exhausting week in the field. Every day brought new challenges. You spent the majority of your time teaching, problem solving and helping people who desperately needed your assistance. The stakes were high, and your work was exemplary. You are exhilarated, exhausted and hungry. Back at the office your supervisor listens as you recount your adventures, and invites you and the team to a brief offsite retreat. Meanwhile, the news of your success is spreading rapidly, and during the short time you are traveling to the retreat site an urgent request for assistance arises. Upon your arrival you discover a crowd of anxious people waiting. So much for taking a break. But here’s the thing. Without breaking stride your supervisor assesses the situation and responds with patience and compassion. You never sense frustration or disappointment or bother, because it is not there. Your supervisor is showing you what solidarity looks like.
This is the gospel of Mark 6:30-34. You might notice that Mark spends a lot of time presenting the rigors of discipleship to his readers. This story began with the disciples witnessing Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth by his own people (MK 6:1-6), followed by Jesus summoning the twelve and sending them off in twos to help spread the message far and wide (MK 6:7-13), and finally the disciples return from their mission, euphoric and bursting with tales of their success. But Jesus has more in store, of course.
“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.” [MK 6:31]
It’s important to understand the depth of poverty in Jesus’ day. The majority were non-landowning peasants, day laborers if they were lucky, and dirt poor. Even those who had jobs barely had enough to get by thanks to the burden of religious and secular taxation. The crowds following Jesus were always hungry. Everyone was.
So, coming away to a deserted place away from the crowds in order to eat makes sense. I totally get it. As a young mother I regularly ate my lunch in the bathroom. My daughter, an absolutely adorable and ravenous 2-year-old, used to follow me around the house saying “Hungry, Mama. Hungry.” I fed her. I fed her her food and then I fed her my food. Her excellent hearing included knowing when the refrigerator door was being opened. There I’d be, the upper half of my body inside the fridge, sneaking a piece of sliced turkey and she would appear behind me, her angelic face looking up at me asking, “Some?”
Coming away has another meaning according to John Shea. “To come away to that place means to return to the source, to be nurtured by God.” In that place, the disciples could find refreshment. But again, there is more to Jesus’ invitation.
If work is done in order to be completed, no matter how energizing it once was, it soon becomes a chore. Furthermore, it doesn’t take very long to discover no job is ever finished. Even in our “deserted place” the work awaits our return. There is no escape. Mark doesn’t say how the disciples reacted when they saw the crowds, whether they groaned about needing a break, or if they were disappointed because they just wanted to finish their sandwich in peace. What Mark does tell us is how Jesus reacted from the deserted place. He was filled with compassion, literally. The original Greek says his gut was wrenched by the sight of the crowd. These were his people.
Jesus’ solidarity with the poor provides us with an important lesson: If our genuine concern for others emerges solely from a sense of difference, for example, those who are poorer, those who are less healthy, those who have less opportunity, those without a stocked pantry, those without clean water, and so on, we quickly tire because there is no end in sight. But if what we do for one another comes from a place of solidarity, we enter the resting place, our source and our refreshment; we recognize our commonality in the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged. These are our people.
This is why Jesus instructed the disciples not to take anything on their mission other than a walking stick and a pair of sandals; they were to move about the community as equals with those they served; they had to depend on God’s providence just like everyone else.
This is what discipleship means. When our starting place is our common humanity, our focus shifts. What we do for others, we soon realize, we do because they are just like us, and we cannot stomach having it any other way.
Today’s readings can be found here.
 John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 184.