Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
Now many saw them going and recognised them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Mark’s gospel leaves an impression of breathless haste; it is like a child telling a story. Many sentences begin with “And”; he often uses phrases like “straight away”, “and immediately”; he uses the ‘historic present’ (“Jesus says to them,” not said), which gives a feeling of urgency. The Old Testament took thousands of years to unfold, but the New Testament unfolded in just a couple of years. There is an urgency about the gospels – Mark’s in particular – that makes it quite clear they are not just for reading; they are for doing.
Mark’s source was Peter, who had always been at the centre of the action himself; so this is a special glimpse into the Twelve’s first hectic experience of pastoral work. Today’s reading is the second time in Mark’s gospel that the disciples are too busy even to eat (the other reference is 3:20). When they tried to get away to place where they could rest, they found more work waiting for them there. This is exhausting even to read about; it sounds just like the present age.
It is interesting that Jesus did not insist on the day-off they had planned together. Instead “he set himself to teach them (the crowd) at some length.” The needs of the crowd came first; he was not forming the Twelve into an élite whose needs took precedence over everything. They were running the risk of burn-out, but it must be a risk worth running.
The crowd, Jesus said, were “like sheep without a shepherd.” He once told a parable about a hundred sheep, one of which was lost; the shepherd left the ninety-nine and went in search of the one that was lost (Lk 15:4; Mt 18:12). To go in search of someone who is lost is to be a little lost yourself, in the sense that you have to go away from your familiar circle and into strange places. Because we are all, to different degrees, unsure of ourselves we like to stay with the familiar. That is more reassuring because it is where we find our identity. A parish can become a place where the ninety-nine are lost, while the priest looks after the one who isn’t lost. But that is another way of being lost; in fact it is worse than the other because it does not come from an adventurous spirit; quite the opposite. Shepherds can themselves be lost, even while appearing to be at the centre of things.
Sheep nibble themselves astray: they keep their heads down, just as we tend to keep our heads glued to our jobs – until we look up and realise we don’t know where we are. It would be a very good thing to stop and rest, as Jesus said. When we look at it rightly, there is only one Shepherd, and every one of us is the lost sheep.