Once when I was a kid, a stray dog showed up at our house. We’ll call him Fred. He had superpowers. He was able to climb the fence into our own dog’s kennel and decided to stay there. He slept in our dog’s doghouse, he ate his food, and there was nothing we could do to get rid of him. Once we brought him from house to house; nobody claimed him as their own. Finally, one day one of my sisters and I decided we had had enough. We got on our bikes and brought him to a field a ways from our house. We dropped him off in the field and immediately hopped back on our bikes and raced back home at top speed. I don’t think I have ever biked as fast in my life. We turned the corner onto our street and there was Fred waiting for us on our front porch, wagging his tail triumphantly. I’ll never know how he beat us home – he would have had to cut through numerous backyards – some of which had fences or hedges around them – and either fly and run faster than any dog has ever run. When he saw us, the look he gave us said, “Feed me.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples also tried to make a getaway. If you remember last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two to preach, to heal the sick, and to cast out demons. Today we hear how the disciples have returned to Jesus, and he urges them to come away with him to rest for a while. In his ministry, Jesus was constantly followed by crowds of people. We hear several times in Mark’s Gospel how the crowds would literally press around Jesus. So Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee in search of peace and quiet. And lo and behold, when they arrive, they see that the crowds have already beaten them there. The crowds have brought their needs, their cares, their illnesses, their desperation, their sadness, their hunger. In his place, I think any one of us would have had the same reaction that I had when I saw the dog Fred on my front porch – “Oh no.” The peace and quiet that we had hoped for suddenly no longer possible. No doubt we would be agitated or annoyed or irritated – maybe even a little depressed.
These would be pretty normal human reactions. But in contrast to them, what was Jesus’ reaction? He was not annoyed or irritated or depressed. Instead he immediately subordinated his completely legitimate desire for rest to the needs of the people. Jesus felt compassion for the people. And the word for compassion used in the original Greek is literally translated as: feeling deep with one’s being, deep within one’s guts. In other words, Jesus was moved to his core at the sight of the needy masses. They were “like sheep without a shepherd.”
But their shepherd had finally come. Throughout the centuries of the Jewish history of the Old Testament, the Jews had been waiting for a shepherd to come to guide them in the way of truth and of righteousness. The crowds waiting for Jesus are a symbol of the whole of the Jewish people. The first reading from Jeremiah tells us how they had suffered at the hands of wicked shepherds – leaders who had misled them, scattered them, abused them, taken advantage of them. But the Lord promised them a good shepherd who would come and gather them together again to lead them in the way of truth, a righteous shepherd who would govern his people wisely, who would do what was right and just. And that shepherd came to them in the person of Jesus Christ.
What does this mean for us? I believe that there is a double message in this Gospel. First, Jesus calls us to come away with him for a time, to take some time each day to rest with him. Life can be challenging; it can be exhausting. Never mind the bad stuff in life, the busy-ness that is built into our culture, the evils that we sometimes have to endure, even the things that are good and fulfilling and life-giving can wear us out. Caring for the ones we love, as wonderful as it is, is not always easy. It can take a lot of energy sometimes. So it is absolutely vital to take time out to spend with Jesus each day in prayer, so that he can give us the strength we need to carry on, to continue to do his will, so that we can grow closer to him in the midst of our busy lives. The people that have hurried to meet Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee are anxious to gather around him and be in his presence. And the Gospel tells us that Jesus then “began to teach them many things.” That is essentially what prayer is: putting ourselves in the presence of Jesus and letting him teach us.
The second message in this Gospel is that, although we may get tired and grow weary caring for others or helping others, Jesus never grows tired of us. He never gets weary when we come to him. I have heard people say before, regarding certain personal intentions, “I think God has more important things to think about than my…” fill in the blank. They hesitate to bring their needs to God because they think they are too simple or insignificant. Maybe if God were a busy CEO or the president or somebody like that, he would be too busy. But he’s not, he’s not even a superhuman being or a super-hero, he is God, and he is never too busy for us. Our needs are neither too big nor too small for him. The co-worker that we don’t get along with is not too insignificant a problem. The fact that the demands of work and family life are making it too difficult to get enough sleep is not too insignificant a problem to bring to God. God cares even about the minutiae of our lives. We shouldn’t hesitate to bring our needs, our fears, our desires to him. He is our shepherd and we are his sheep, and he never gets tired of us. When we make mistakes, which we have a tendency to do, and usually we make the same ones over and over, God never grows weary of forgiving us if we turn to him.
And he seeks to give us peace. St. Paul mentions the word peace four times in the second reading from his letter to the Ephesians. Christ came to give us peace, to heal the wounds and divisions in families, in communities, between peoples and nations. And he came to heal the wounds in our own hearts, to give us his gift of peace. So I ask you to take some time today and each day this week to acknowledge Jesus’ presence in our lives and to rest in his presence, in the confidence that the Lord never grows weary of us.