Homily for the
16th Sunday in Ordinary TimeMark 6: 30-34
July 19, 2009
St. Timothy, Banksville, Conn.
“The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught” (Mark 6: 30).
In last Sunday’s gospel, Jesus sent the apostles out to preach repentance, heal the sick, and drive out demons—with a warning that not everyone would accept them and their message (6:7-13). Today they return from their mission. We can’t tell from Mark’s words whether they return elated by some success and warm receptions, or dejected by rejections. But it seems they had plenty to say—“they reported all they had done and taught”—and maybe there’s a hint here of pride, of losing sight in whose name and by whose power they’ve been doing and teaching. Some commentators on this passage take note of their reports on what they have done, rather than on what God has done thru them.
The better to understand what’s happening in today’s gospel, we note what precedes this return of the apostles and Jesus’ taking them aside “to a deserted place” (6:31), and what’s about to happen when the crowds follow them to this place.
What’s going to happen, and you may already know this, is that Jesus will feed them miraculously. That’ll be our gospel next Sunday.
What has happened just before the apostles return—our lectionary cycle skips over this—is that King Herod has imprisoned and executed John the Baptist (6:14-29).
Jesus and the apostles, then, have good reason to take a break, to try to go on retreat, as it were. They have plenty to reflect on: the apostles’ mission, all that they did and taught, and what it means for them and for Jesus; and the implications of what Herod has done because of what a prophet has taught. Jesus has warned them that they and their message might be rejected, and boy! have they seen the gravity of the warning, if not in their own travels around the villages of Galilee, certainly in the fate of John.
Coke used to advertise with the slogan “The pause that refreshes.” (Most of you are old enuf to remember that.) That’s Jesus’ intent here, for—as Mark comments—“people were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat” (6:31). This before the age of telemarketing—all those annoying phone calls at dinnertime!
Pausing, reflecting, stepping aside with Jesus is necessary for every disciple. Our lives are full of doings, of conversations, of travel, or human interactions, of stress. Our world is chaotic and confusing, sometimes frightening and dangerous. That’s why businessmen and congressmen make professional retreats. We disciples of Jesus have to do some of that too.
We may not be able to do that in a formal sense, such as going away to a retreat house for a weekend—altho that is a good idea now and then. We need to find a way to do it informally but pretty regularly, tho. We need to stop and think about our lives, our actions, our words, our relationships and how all those bear on our being disciples of Jesus. Are we doing and teaching as Jesus wants us to? Do we have a personal relationship with Jesus? In the words of a poster from the 1970s, “If you were put on trial for being a disciple of Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Furthermore, we need to stop and reflect about the world we live in, and our place in it as disciples of Jesus. There are plenty of King Herods around, people who are unfriendly to the Christian message. Do they tempt us to trim our Christian sails, to cut moral corners, to be less obvious Catholics? On the positive side, how are we making the world a better place, a more ethical place, a more humane place, a more just place, a happier place? A Christian who’s not salt and light for the world, Jesus says isn’t worth anything (Matt 5:13-16).
Jesus and the apostles’ plan for a little down time doesn’t quite work out. “People saw them leaving and … hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them” (6:33). Bummer!
So does Jesus tell them all to go away, as you and I probably would do? Can’t we have a little privacy, folks? If he let out a primal scream, or even groaned, St. Mark doesn’t say so. “When he … saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (6:34). There’s a contrast here between Jesus’ sentiments and those of King Herod. In the Hebrew tradition, going back to King David, the shepherd boy who became king, the king is the shepherd of his people. The king stands in God’s place, God being the true King of Israel. And “the Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want” (Ps 23:1). King Herod doesn’t give a hoot about the people, as we’ve just witnessed in his treatment of John the Baptist. Jesus feels compassion for them. Herod takes care of his pals—John’s destruction came at a lavish party. But the people are hungry, and as we’ll see next week, Jesus is the one who feeds them. Herod is no shepherd—which is why Jesus’ “heart was moved with pity for [the crowd], for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus is the good shepherd.
But feeding them with bread (and fish) isn’t the 1st thing Jesus does. There’s something even more fundamental than food for the body. “He began to teach them many things” (6:34). The 1st thing Jesus does in his compassion for the crowds is to teach them. People hunger for sound teaching, for truth—which obviously they don’t get from their Jewish king, who murders prophets; nor will they get it from their Roman overlord—Pontius Pilate will ask Jesus scornfully or perhaps skeptically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38).
When we were children, we certainly longed to be fed—and to be held and loved, and to be entertained. But we also had insatiable curiosity, didn’t we? We were always asking our parents questions about the world, about people. We all have an inbuilt desire for truth, which begins with wondering how things work and such, why is that man doing that or that woman saying that. But eventually we get to the real meat: we want to know who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going. Those are the sorts of things that Jesus addressed, and what the crowds hungered for. Those are the sorts of things for which we still turn to Jesus and to those whom Jesus has commissioned to do and to teach in his name: his apostles, the successors of his apostles, our Catholic bishops. We call them shepherds of the flock of God because they nourish us with the Gospel and with the Gospel’s implications for our own day—with the truth, in other words. The Church is the continuing compassion of God for the crowds of humanity.
At least it’s supposed to be. That’s what bishops and priests are supposed to be. And all of us. For all of us are the Body of Christ. We’re all supposed to hunger for the truth, and to do and teach the truth: to our children, our co-parishioners, our neighbors, our fellow citizens. We’re all supposed to try to shape our families and our society according to the truth: to who God is, who we are as human beings made in God’s image.