This is a gospel passage we might skip over, as it’s sandwiched between Jesus missioning the twelve disciples and multiplying loaves and fish to feed a crowd of five thousand. Sitting with this scene, we can imagine the apostles’ emotional state: drained from their first travels as partners in Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (Mk 6:8-13) and concerned about what the beheading of John the Baptist might bring (Mk 6:17-29). Tired and afraid, the disciples are surrounded by a growing crowd seeking to have their needs met. Jesus knows there will always be people in need. In this moment, Jesus teaches his disciples to be attentive and responsive to their own needs, calling on them to “come away to a deserted place and rest a while.”
Reading this passage today, we might find it especially easy to relate to the exhausted and worried disciples. The pandemic both caused and exposed so many needs; who among us doesn’t feel stretched thin if not outright depleted? With COVID-19 variants on the rise, we might be nervous about what the days ahead will be like, given the return to school in a few weeks.
“You can’t pour from an empty cup,” as the saying goes. While true, today’s gospel does more than endorse self-care as a good and just expression of compassion. This passage is illuminating because it shows that connection is the way forward. Whatever the disciples do while they rest and whatever they talk about—giving thanks for how they were able to help people or lamenting any obstacles they encountered on their journey—the disciples rejoice and commiserate together. They experience personal restoration precisely through the mutuality of their relationships.
Self-care isn’t just another item on our to-do list; it’s the habit of respect and responsibility that makes the inclusion and interdependence of solidarity possible. It’s no accident that this retreat from the crowd sets the table for the miraculous feeding of five thousand; making time to rest and reflect, to give and receive compassion, and take stock of reasons to be filled with gratitude increase our capacity to practice tenderness and generosity. Healing is a communal gift and task.
Marcus Mescher is associate professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University in Cincinnati, OH. He is a four-time Jesuit school graduate (Marquette University High School, Marquette University, Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, and Boston College). His book, The Ethics of Encounter, exploring how to build the “culture of encounter” championed by Pope Francis in an American context, was published by Orbis Books in 2020.