This week’s gospel text is an interesting one. And by interesting, I mean that if you happen to have blinked or yawned during the reading, you probably missed it. For those that listened intently, you were probably waiting for something to happen that never did. That was certainly my first reaction! Our text today is actually two smaller texts put together, as you can see in your worship folders. They are actually the verses immediately preceding and immediately following two miracle stories, the feeding of the five thousand and walking on the water. And interestingly, these two miracle stories are the text for next week. On most occasions, the texts for today are seen as an introduction and an afterthought. But today the lectionary calls them into our focus, and for good reason, as they reveal to us in an intimate way a Jesus who is compassionate and overflowing with power.
What we remember about Mark, here, is that he has no time for introductions or afterthoughts. Mark is the shortest gospel, having no time for a birth narrative or genealogy. Mark sets records in scripture with his use of the words “and”, “then” and “immediately”. Which means, simply, that if it’s here, it’s important. And the best way I know how to illustrate the way in which this text is essential to us is by comparing it to one of my favorite things in the world: movies.
Those who know me know I love movies. Just this week, I spent $40 to watch the full Dark Knight trilogy in IMAX on opening night of the third and final film. I spent 9 hours in a theatre, and several hours before waiting in line. (In fact, much of my sermon preparation this week happened in that theatre.) Movies have a unique way of telling stories, showing us while at the same time telling us what it wants to communicate.
In movies, there are big, flashy scenes. In the Batman movies there are fight scenes with explosions and cool cars and gadgets. But this is not the whole movie. (If it were, it would be a Transformers movie.) In between the action set-pieces, there are scenes of characters dialoguing with one another, experiencing things, philosophizing, growing and changing. It is these scenes that contain the real heart of the movie. We learn about the characters, what makes them tick, what they care about, what’s important to them. Without these establishing scenes that zoom in on the characters and show us their heartbeat, the big flashy scenes would feel empty, or without stakes . I believe that this is what today’s two texts do. They aren’t the flashy, memorable miracle stories. They are the zoom-ins on the character of Jesus that we are given, so that we might read and better understand the miracle stories through them.
So we zoom in on the disciples and Jesus who are weary, worn-out, tired. Jesus invites them to rest, an important, biblical invitation to God’s people. It hearkens back to the Old Testament teaching of Sabbath. Sabbath is the institution that insists we are made for more than working, that we are not slaves but human beings. Sabbath is a reminder to relax, retreat, refuel. And the disciples have certainly earned a break! They have just returned from their “sending out”. In fact, this word used to describe them, “apostles”, means “the ones sent out”, and this is the first time they are given this title. They have been so busy, that the text describes them as having “no leisure even to eat”. In the fast-food, drive-thru, delivery, and microwave-oven world, doesn’t that sound familiar? We spend extra money to help us spend less time to do the things we enjoy. Jesus calls them to rest from their weariness, a reminder we still need today.
Unfortunately for the disciples, this rest will have to wait. The crowds anticipate their movement and get there before they do! You can imagine their frustration in this moment, like getting a phone call from work while you’re on vacation. But we’re not told the story from the disciples’ perspective anymore. The camera zooms in a little closer, just on Jesus. Imagine for a moment that the noise of the crowd dies down, and all you see is Jesus’ face, in slow motion, as he gazes out at the crowd. What face do you expect to see? A tired face? An angry face? Perhaps a little mix of both? Maybe we imagine Jesus sighing, knowing there’s still work to be done, but begrudgingly.
But the face of Jesus we are given is none of those. It is compassion. We are told that Jesus had compassion. This word compassion is not a word synonymous with pity, as it is used sometimes in our language. This is not the compassion that makes an obligatory donation to “Compassion International”. The word for compassion in this text means that Jesus felt it, literally translated, in his bowels. This is the kind of compassion that suffers alongside. And in a way, the tired and worn down Jesus chooses to suffer alongside those who are tired and worn down by oppression, sin and illness. Jesus sacrifices his own need for rest, for the sake of others finding rest. The passage forces us to simultaneously believe in a God who calls us to rest, yet willingly gives up his own rest for others’. The only response to such a calling is “thanks be to God”.
And this verse concludes by saying that Jesus had compassion, because they “were like sheep without a shepherd”. This is not the first time this phrase is used in the Bible, and therefore calls our attention to its roots. The phrase occurs first in the book of Numbers, as God instructs Moses to appoint Joshua as a leader for the community as they enter the promised land. This invokes for us, then, the idea of the founding of a new kind of community, and the inauguration of a new leader, a transfer of power for a developing kingdom. In our story, the new kingdom is a collection of people that would pursue God hastily, going ahead that they might meet God there, and the new leader of this community is Jesus, full of compassion, even when he is empty of everything else.
Now, we fast-forward thorugh two big Jesus miracles, the “action scenes”, and cut to “the healings at Gennasaret”. Just as before, the crowds subvert any attempts to give Jesus or the disciples rest. The text is general about the healings, which probably suggests that there were very many of them. Jesus’ healing ministry has incredible impact here. You can imagine the film version of this would be in “montage” format, with some soft music playing in the background, as the sick are brought on mats and find life again. The look of wonder on the face of the sick and their loved ones, that same look of compassion on Jesus’ face. We might see a flashback to the young man who is lowered through a roof on a mat by his friends. Then we see more sick reaching out to touch the end of Jesus’ garment. Some might mock them for their superstition, but this text passes no judgment. Instead, their unorthodox faith is rewarded. Anyone who touched it was healed. Another flashback to the woman who is healed of her bleeding. Perhaps one more flashback to Jesus’ inability to heal in Nazareth, as we once again see a direct correlation between people’s faith in Jesus to heal and his ability to actually do so. In Nazareth, there is doubt and hostility, and Jesus can do nothing. In Gennasaret, there is superstition and wild hope, and Jesus is so overflowing with power and compassion that even the furthest edges of his clothing can heal the sick.
And it is not just physical healing that takes place here. The word that is used to describe the result of touching Jesus’ garments is, actually, the Greek word meaning to save! Those who touched Jesus’ garments were not simply healed. They were saved! Salvation is physical, it is emotional, it is tangible, and it is holistic. Salvation is raw, and salvation is here!
We are indebted to those who assembled our lectionary texts for highlighting such obscure passages for us this morning, passages we might normally skip past looking for “the good stuff”. The very act of reading these verses as holy scripture this morning is a practice-run of slow, meditative faith. A journey of faith is not simply lived or experienced as one monumental highlight to the next, but more often in the quiet in-between, the every-day. Even in the everyday, the repetitive, the monotonous, Jesus is still Jesus; unrelenting compassion, teeming with salvation, anticipating our faithful and risky response.