Last Sunday, we heard about Jesus sending the Apostles out, two by two. Today we read about their return. After their mission of proclaiming the good news and curing people and driving out demons, they come back to Jesus and report to him all they have done and taught. His first response is to offer them rest. “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
Rest is part of the plan of God from the very beginning. In the story of creation, God worked for six days and on the seventh day he rested, thereby setting the pattern for us: both to work and to rest. It is important to note the kind of rest the Lord is talking about. He does not send the Apostles off by themselves to chase idle pleasures. Rather, he invites them to come aside with him; he gets into the boat with them. Spiritual refreshment in the presence of the Lord provides us with the deepest kind of rest, the peace that our souls long for.
Today many of us feel stressed and exhausted and in need of a break. And too often, when we are in this condition, our first impulse is not to go off with the Lord to a deserted place, but rather to go away from him. Instead of rest, we choose escape – into distractions or pleasures, or even worse, sin. Sin can never give us rest; it only destroys our inner peace. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, wants us to rest with him and in him. When we are with the Lord, he gives us repose in verdant pastures and leads us beside restful waters, as the well-known Psalm 23 reminds us. The Lord is the One who shepherds us in such a way that he refreshes our soul. We need this kind of refreshment every day.
Our worthwhile attempts to come away and rest a while do not always work as we expect. When Jesus and the Apostles arrive at the “deserted place,” they are met by a vast crowd! We can imagine that the Apostles were not too happy about it. The very thing that they thought they were getting away from greets them on the other shore. The Gospel does not tell us their reaction, but it reveals something much more important: the inner response of Jesus. When he saw the vast crowd, “his heart was moved with pity for them.”
Here Jesus gives us precious insight into the compassionate heart of the Father. What does God see when he looks at us? He sees that we are lost and needy, “like sheep without a shepherd.” His response is not condemnation, but profound compassion. We do not always remember this. At times, we are afraid to approach him, thinking that he will be angry with us because of our sins and failings. This is a terrible misjudgment of God. When he sees our weaknesses and our needs, he is moved with pity for us. Our sins offend him – even wound him – but his love for his sheep far outweighs his hatred of sin. This love is most fully revealed in the Cross, by which Christ Jesus drew us “who once were far off” due to sin and reconciled us with the Father.
When Jesus sees the vast crowd, he begins to “teach them many things.” We will see next Sunday that after teaching them he will feed them through the miraculous multiplication of the loaves. But first, he teaches. This tells us something else that we easily forget: we need the teaching of the Lord. We need the word of God, especially when we are weary and weak. In this week’s Spiritual Reflection, Pope Francis refers to the teaching of Jesus as the “bread of the Word.” The Good Shepherd is always teaching us, feeding us with his word. He speaks to us through events, through so-called coincidences, through other people, through our own meditations, and also through the sufferings and challenges we often face. As we ponder the Scripture readings, we do well to ask: “Lord, what are you saying to me today? What do you want to teach me today?” In this way we open our minds and hearts to the unfolding of God’s providence throughout the day.
The first reading reminds us that God also uses human instruments, human shepherds – bishops and priests, parents, teachers, government officials and leaders in society. Sometimes human shepherds fail; sometimes they even commit injustice and mislead. God will hold them accountable: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture.” Still, even when human shepherds fail us, we cannot say that we have been abandoned because the Lord is always our Shepherd. Each of us can say with confidence, “there is nothing I shall want…. Only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life; and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD for years to come.”
Do I take time for spiritual rest where the Lord refreshes my soul with his peace? Am I afraid to approach Jesus thinking he may be angry at me because of my sins and failings? Do I often pray for our shepherds that they may be faithful to their call to lead us?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 17, no. 6. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.