In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Apostles return from their apostolate, and Jesus provides for them.
The text of the Gospels is bottomless. On the surface, they come back from their journeys, and he says, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile.” That makes sense and is, obviously, endless richness for prayer. But as we ourselves come away into this deserted place of Scripture, we find Jesus saying and doing more.
The opening words have too much, I’ll only point toward their richness. “The apostles gathered together.” But “gathered together” is “synagogued,” that’s just the Greek word. Jesus has been going through the synagogues teaching, and when he sends them out to continue that mission, they come back and synagogue with him. It’s both ironic, because perhaps they should be in other synagogues—and wonderful, because they know that Jesus is the true synagogue.
Apo- means away, and “apostles” means “sent out,” though before “sent” the root seems to mean “set”: they are “sent out” because they are “set apart.” So again, there’s a double irony. First: when he sets them “apart,” they come “together.” Second: the Greek word for synagogue starts with the idea of movement, being “led” together, but ends in stability, being “set” together—while “apostles” starts with the idea of being “set” and ends in the movement of being “sent.”
I don’t want to make this too complicated. Let me just say two things. In general, there is always more in the text, the Gospel is worth pressing into. And in this particular, there’s a wonderful dynamic relationship between going out, being sent by Jesus, and coming back together with him, a circular movement out and back, over and over. That’s the life of the apostle, missionary disciple.
And that’s the theme of the rest of the Gospel. Ironically, they go away to a deserted place to rest—and when they get there, a huge crowd is waiting.
With his splendid humor, Mark underlines the irony. He gives the quaint detail that before they left, the apostles “had no opportunity even to eat,” because of the crowds. But what happens immediately after our Sunday reading ends is that Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” The Apostles think they don’t have enough; they are going away to the desert place to get some time for themselves—and Jesus turns it upside down, and makes the desert place the place where they will have to provide, not by resting but by relying on him (as they serve a huge meal: hard work). Out and back, synagoging and apostling.
Even funnier: Mark says “they went off in the boat.” Then he adds the detail that the crowds “hastened there on foot . . . and arrived at the place before them.” After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus is going to walk on water. But almost a more awesome miracle is that the crowds walk on land faster than the boat can go on water. Before the miracle of Jesus providing bread comes the miracle of Jesus providing hungry mouths to feed. The desert place is not the place of recharging, it’s the place of harder work—but more divine work. Out and back, synagoging and apostling.
And it is all rooted in the heart of Jesus: “When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them.” (“Heart was moved with pity” is a Greek word that means “spleen” or “bowels.” It’s more visceral than our romantic “heart”: his stomach churns for them—a nice line for hungry crowds.) When we rest our heads on the heart of Jesus, when we go to his desert place, more than crowds, we discover his hunger and thirst for the crowds, his infinite love.
The other readings are also worth more words than I can give them.
In our Gospel, Jesus says “sheep without a shepherd”—and Jeremiah blames shepherds “who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” There’s a lovely ambivalence in Jeremiah’s prophecy: “I will appoint shepherds,” the Lord says, he will send apostles. But “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock,” he will send one shepherd, a king. Out and back: the shepherds who stand on their own are bad shepherds. Only Jesus is the good shepherd: and those who synagogue and apostle with him, who lay their heads on his heart and are filled with his stomach-churning love.
In Ephesians, Paul’s words about the Law are harsh: “abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims.” (Worse: “legal claims” is in Greek literally “dogmas.”) Now, Paul is the last one to abolish right doctrine or morals. But he does say we must go deeper. Our “peace,” our “reconciliation,” our coming “near” are not by signing up for divisive party lines, but being drawn by “the blood of Christ” and becoming “one new person” with him, finding “access in one Spirit to the Father.” The only Christian doctrine and morals are the ones always rooted in union with Christ.
True union with Christ fills us with a hunger that leads us back out to his apostolic work in the world.
Do you ever have false union, prayer that doesn’t lead you back?