Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
There is a lot written about ministerial burnout and depression. Simply Google the bolded phrase and see what you get. I am not going to overwhelm you with statistics here. I am however going to remind you, as I remind myself, that part of depression and burnout prevention, in all helping professions, is to have a clear sense of boundaries and to maintain them. Having and holding those clear lines of what is our “Journey Inward” time for self restoration and replenishment, so that we can be at our best for our “Journey Outward” time is an essential skill for ministry. We are trained and experienced boundary keepers and we can tell horror stories from our own and others lives of the times when we have allowed those fence lines to slip or be overrun. Depression, disillusionment, acidie, and at worst suicide are the bitter harvest that await, should we not defend ourselves.
As a trained and experienced minister I know the things I have just been talking about, and that is why I find the story of Jesus in this Sunday’s gospel so disturbing. It seems the Lord I follow, the Master and Mentor I serve, is a very unskilful boundary keeper!
Or is there perhaps a secret that Jesus knew that my trainers and mentors in the ministry didn’t pass on to me?
There can be no doubt that Jesus was tired and distraught. The news he had just heard was of the bizarre murder of John the Baptiser at the whim of Herod’s wife. Jesus’ withdrawal “to a deserted place” it seems, can only be understood as an self preservation strategy. My ministerial training approves. “When the going gets tough, the wise go on a retreat!” A boat trip to a desert location, lots of sleep and rest, some journalling and reading. Regather and refocus. This is all good, so far. Textbook stuff.
The insatiable crowds motivated by multiple needs and interests, however, follow Jesus, and Our Lord, if he had any sense, would have sent his disciples (there were no secretaries then) to tell the crowd that the Master was not available and could they please reschedule?
It is at this point in the narrative, in what happens next, that I think I may have found the secret of Jesus’ life and ministry. A secret I wasn’t taught in seminary.
Matthew says, “ he had compassion for them and cured their sick” and again when the disciples (read secretaries) act very professionally and want to send the crowd home so that they can close the office for the day, are told by Jesus, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” Can you hear the protests… I imagine they would have sounded like an Thai “tuk tuk taxi, “But,but,but,but, but…!”
Am I forcing the narrative if I read that Jesus’ deep human need for self preservation was sublimated here by his deeper motivation and core value of always living from a place of compassion?
Let’s not get too caught up in the mechanics and mysteries of how five loaves and two fish feed five thousand men and their families, with twelve baskets (one for each tribe of Israel) left over. I want to suggest that the actual feeding is the second miracle.
The primary miracle, as I read it from the demands and exhaustion of pastoral ministry, is that a human being endangered by a head hunting king, in grief over John’s death, exhausted by an itinerant ministry; can find the compassion in the midst of all this to care about healing and feeding those needy crowds.
Could it be that compassion practised self-sacrificially can cure exhaustion? Is is just possible that compulsive boundary keeping and safe scheduling protects and preserves the false self, and keeps me from finding my true self in compassionate care?
My pastoral care manuals say “NO!”
My master says, “Follow me!”
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