In our part of the world, these are vacation months; sunny days at the Jersey shore are the favorite choice of many. We all need to get away occasionally, recover from accumulated fatigue and tension, and “recharge our batteries” with big doses of rest and relaxation and physical activity different from the work variety.
The opening sentences in today’s gospel excerpt (Mark 6:30-34) are easy for us to understand: the apostles’ reporting to Jesus on how things were going out in the field. Lots of enthusiasm, also some problems and complaints. We can be sure that Jesus was very patient and affirming as he listened to their eager and also their troubling accounts.
And then, like a compassionate physician, he prescribes for them. He doesn’t say, “Well, boys, get back out there while the going is good. There’s a lot more to be done and the time is short.” Instead he says, “You need a break, a change of atmosphere. You need a rest, some time for yourselves. Let’s go. I know a quiet, secluded spot where hardly anyone ever goes.” So they head out to cross the lake.
I can’t hear this gospel story without remembering the funny, very probable interpretation a priest-friend of mine gave it at a Mass over 40 years ago. He focused on the part in which the people, eager to outwit Jesus and his get-away plan, run around the lake shore so as to greet him and his apostles as their boat would pull in. My priest friend cleverly and humorously mimicked what he suggested might have been the waving and hooting and hollering of the crowd as they assumed that Jesus was as happy to see them as they were to see him. And the priest ended his interpretive version by saying, “Mercifully, history has not recorded the words the apostles used when they saw that crazy mob! Some “secluded” place that turned out to be.”
Of course, Jesus reacted with his usual compassion. Tired as he was, he knew that the people’s real need had to come before his own. And so he resumed his comforting, hope-filled, healing, life-giving teaching, staying at it that day for a good long time, suffering, as he was always willing to do, for the people he was dedicated to serving.
What can we learn from this episode? For one thing, despite some strains of piety that have developed in the church over the centuries past – the idea of “burning ourselves out” in the cause of this Jesus of Nazareth — we have his own example of a balanced life, a life of hard work, personal dedication and sacrifice, but also eating and drinking and recreating with friends and getting away from it all. No one must be made to feel ashamed for trying to achieve such balance. There is nothing wrong with attachment to things that give us necessary and helpful pleasure, so long as we hold them lightly, use them gratefully, share them generously, and are willing to give them up if they stand in the way of a good that conscience and the example of Jesus tell us we should pursue.
Jesus must have been looking forward to an enjoyable time of R & R with his best friends. But when the dire spiritual need of the people became obvious to him, he yielded his personal pleasure and gifted others with himself instead.
Granted, it can be hard to know what to do in such circumstances, and sometimes we may be selfish in the decision we make. But the habitual determination and the effort to do what is right, to do the Christ-like thing, is most important no matter the occasional failure. It’s reassuring to realize that Jesus does not ever ask the impossible of us and that he respects the varied needs of our human nature, the same needs that he himself experienced and felt free to satisfy.