Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Sometimes we miss important details in the scriptures.
For instance, do you recall the story of the exchange of power between King Saul and King David in Israel’s history? If you don’t, I commend to your reading 1 Samuel 23 and 24. You won’t be bored!
To remind you. . . .
And so what we remember is that David righteously spared King Saul’s life; that Saul was cut to the heart and repented of his folly; that waiting on God’s providential hand is what people do who desire to live after God’s own heart; and so on.
But we forget a very pertinent detail: God’s hand of providence works in and through even the most earthy of life’s details—even in and through bodily functions!
In today’s Gospel, then, the architects of the Revised Common Lectionary—the people who decided what passages we read today—didn’t want us to miss some details that are often overlooked.
Did you notice? They left out a good chunk of narrative. We hear just 9 verses of a much larger section of scripture, a 27-verse passage: after 5 verses we skip 18 then read the final 4.
Now, these middle, omitted verses are extremely significant. They relate two very important miracles; namely, feeding the 5,000 and walking on water. And, just so you don’t come away feeling slighted, it’s okay: there are other Sundays when we contemplate each of these two miracles in the Lectionary.
But today we look at the bookends: the narrative that takes place on either side of these miracles. And I’m convinced this is the case so that we don’t miss them—so that we don’t miss the important details Jesus wants us all to know—because we’re too distracted by the signs and wonders.
So then, what is it Jesus wants us to know?
It starts with v. 34: “As [Jesus] went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
It starts with compassion.
A question then: What’s the difference between compassion and pity?
The Gk. pathos can be translated either way: pity; or compassion. Jesus had pathos for the crowd.
From pathos we get our English words pathetic, sympathetic, sympathy, empathy, pathological—to name but a few. And we see something of pity and compassion in each word.
But the chief difference in my thinking is this: pity is removed; whereas compassion is involved.
Pity takes on a sort of distinction. I feel a type of sorrow for my neighbor because his plight is so pitiable—or sad, or tragic, or whatever. So, out of the goodness of my heart I decide to do something about it—I buy her a pair of shoes; or offer him a ride; or throw some money her way. And thank heavens I’m not in his position; for then I don’t know what I’d do!
You see, pity has left me feeling sorry for my neighbor, maybe even sorry enough to do something about it. But at the end of the day I’m still over here dealing with my life and he’s still over there dealing with his: a distance still remains between me and my neighbor.
But compassion means, literally, suffering with, or suffering alongside. There’s no “me vs. him” mentality here. Compassion is involved, not one step removed. Compassion is thus significantly different than pity.
And this is exactly what Jesus does with the desperate, noisy, dirty, smelly, needy crowd. He comes alongside them and is moved to passion for them—a kind of suffering with them.
And isn’t this a picture of what he did on a much larger scale? In the Incarnation, he emptied himself of the Godhead; and he took on humanity.
He comes alongside the whole world—the cosmos—and takes on our passion, our suffering.
And it’s exactly what he calls us to do: to be moved by the hurting, desperate, needy people of our day; and not merely to have pity on them, but compassion—to come alongside them.
We are called to live out the Incarnation.
But (earlier) I said it starts with compassion. What other details can we discern from today’s passage?
A few observations:
- As followers of Christ (and as already mentioned), we are called to be the Incarnation of Christ. We are the Church and thus Christ to the world; even if we are merely the fringes of Christ’s cloak, we possess the divine power to heal a hurting, desperate, and needy world.
- As followers of Christ, we are called to live out his compassion for the world. How?
- Flexibly, knowing that God may change our plans, just as God changed the plans of Jesus and the disciples. They were withdrawing to an uncrowded place for renewal; yet the crowd follows them and doesn’t allow this renewal to occur. So what does Jesus do? He allows his plans to be changed and has compassion for the crowd. He loves his neighbor. He exercises selflessness.
- Untiringly, with the knowledge that the work here is ongoing, around seemingly every corner.
- Trustingly, knowing that God will give us the strength to sustain us even when “robbed” of planned times of renewal.
- But also—and here’s where I want to focus in our remaining time—we are humanity, the disciples, the crowd; we are not Christ. Look around: in our world, today, who’s flocking to Jesus on Sundays—to be with him, to be healed by him, to commune with him, to touch him—but us? It’s not that weekend-warrior neighbor of yours; or that other neighbor who sleeps in every Sunday and finds his spiritual refreshment through his bicycle. No, these aren’t the picture of a flocking crowd, desperate to see Jesus. If anyone in our culture fits a description of desperation, it’s us!
Okay, so that’s not quite fair. I realize it.
We are the ones flocking to Jesus on Sundays, yes. And the world around us can appear not to care much about Jesus, like they’re fine on their own without a Savior and Lord, thank you very much. But they are nonetheless needy, hurting, even desperate. As are we.
Our world often shows its desperation in vastly different ways than it did in the days of Jesus. All too often, today’s world turns to alcohol and drugs—legal and illegal—out of desperation. So, yes, it’s not really fair to say that we churchgoers are the only desperate ones in the world.
But we are desperate; and it brings up a fair point for us to consider.
We are Christians, disciples of Christ earnestly trying to bring the good news of Christ to the world around us; through teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked. This is called outreach. And it is a very important part of our community life.
And right now, incidentally, (I don’t know if you know this, but) outreach is a kind of fad in churches all over the country (if not the world). During my job-search process, without exception every single parish profile I looked at placed outreach as one of its top priorities—to the point where I began predicting it; and muttering things to myself like, “Tell me something I don’t know”; and, “Well, that’s original!”
Now, hear me clearly: I’m not downplaying outreach. It is very important. As today’s passage demonstrates, the world all around us desperately needs Christ.
But we, the Church, are desperate too. So, what I want us to ask ourselves is: What about in-reach?
We are just as desperate and needy as the world around us for Christ’s hand of love and selflessness; of joy in all circumstances, whether good or bad; of peace, healing, and reconciliation in our relationships; of patience and large-heartedness; of kindness, giving others the benefit of the doubt; of goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
So, what about in-reach? Is this a priority for us—as much a priority, anyway, as outreach?
It was for Jesus and his disciples.
We know, as individuals, just how important it is to live balanced lives. It is important to interact with others, to live in community, in relationship. And thus it is important to put others first: to practice a form of personal outreach. We know this!
But, as individuals, we know it is just as important to set aside times for personal rest and refreshment. Taking time to withdraw for prayer is a practice Jesus himself modeled. Medical research today touts the values of getting enough sleep and taking regular vacations. And what of mental health? We’re learning more and more daily about just how important lifelong learning is. All these pursuits are simply forms of personal in-reach.
It’s the same with the body of Christ! As a church, we value outreach immensely. But let’s not forget in-reach!
In our zeal to be Christ’s hands and feet to the needy world around us, let’s not forget that we are hurting and needy people too; just as desperate in our desires—maybe even more so!—to see Jesus and to experience his compassion.