The last few Sundays, our gospel readings from the Gospel of Mark have been short but they describe much about the life of Jesus with His disciples. Last Sunday we heard how Jesus sent them out on mission with nothing in hand except for a staff and to rely on the generosity of the people whom they encountered. 

Today, the Gospel tells us of the return of the disciples. They come back full of stories and experiences to share with Jesus and with one another and would have shared about the generosity of the people whom they met on the journey. They were probably enthused by the stories they heard from each other, so much so that Jesus had to intervene saying, “You must come away to some lonely place all by yourselves and rest for a while” – to a lonely place. It was to be a time of not only rest but also reflection and contemplation.

However, Jesus’ idea of being in a “lonely place” all by themselves does not materialise because the crowds were waiting for Him. On seeing them, Jesus “took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length.”

The word “pity” as we understand it today is quite different from what the Jewish word really means. Jesus was not looking down on them but He was moved to a point of sadness because He recognised that they are like sheep without a shepherd, they don’t know where or whom to turn to. Jesus could feel the vacuum in their lives of not having any direction or any centre in their lives – Jesus now reaches out to that. Through Jesus, that empty space is now filled with God’s grace.

As much as Jesus wanted to remind His disciples that it was important for them to have time for themselves for reflection, prayer, and contemplation, yet when Jesus sees the people, His heart is moved to be with them. Jesus sees a greater need and immediately responds to it – He was not only cognisant of the moment, but He was also sensitive and quick to respond to the moment. The fact that the crowd went ahead to meet Him tells us a lot about Jesus, a gentle yet inspirational prophet. They came to Him because they weren’t afraid of Him or His judgements, even those who weren’t particularly proud of their past actions felt safe with Him – they felt loved, not judged. 

Looking around us, this time of pandemic is somewhat similar to Jesus getting off the boat and stepping ashore, there are so many people waiting, feeling helpless and possibly without direction. Since our baptism calls us to be an example and be Christ-like to one another, what are we going to do?

Church historian Eusebius describes a fourth-century epidemic that swept through the Roman Empire and it was the Christians that tended countless numbers that had no one to care for them. Not only did they care for the sick and dying, but Christians also distributed bread to those in need. As a result, Eusebius concludes, “[the Christians’] deeds were on everyone’s lips, and they glorified the God of the Christians.”

The pandemic with all its limitations and challenges provides us also the opportunity to be “Christians” – in the footsteps of Jesus, just like the Christians in the fourth century. It is said that ‘moments of crisis define who we truly are and what we truly believe’. We have the time, here and now, to define what we profess with our lips and who we are as disciples of Jesus. Love of God and for neighbour is most evident not when expressions of love are easy, but when they are difficult. 

If the crowds felt loved and not judged by Jesus, then the love which Jesus expressed through human action must be the healing remedy for the many people who are feeling the pain of the pandemic. “For anyone who does not love a brother [or sister who is suffering in this pandemic], whom one can see, cannot love God, whom one has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (18 July 2021)