This reflection was first published on Agapaostore's blog.
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while
Sometimes we think of prayer as a chore. But what if we saw it as the sweetest time of our day? What if, like Jesus is suggesting here, we simply took it as a time to rest in God? Maybe then we wouldn’t always be saying things like, “I just can’t find the time to pray,” or, “I try to pray, but it’s so hard to focus.” If we looked forward to our time in prayer, maybe we would then prepare our hearts for it better. Jesus is saying to the disciples, “You’ve done the tasks I gave you. You completed your mission. Now, come and rest in me.” As a teenager, I used to work long hard days with my father. Nothing was sweeter than enjoying a hearty home-cooked meal after a day of jobs well done. The rest, the time with family and friends, was a sufficient enough reward. Jesus is showing his disciples that when they do his will, everything falls into place. Usually, when I say I can’t find the time, motivation, energy, or focus to pray, it’s because I haven’t been doing God’s will throughout the day in the first place. So it’s no one’s fault but my own when prayer doesn’t fit in. If I can’t find time to rest in the Lord, I’ve simply gotten off track and I need to get my priorities straight.
They hastened there on foot
When we talk about God’s permissive will, it’s often in connection with something bad that he allowed to happen. That’s not always the case, though. Here in this passage we see an example of God’s permissive will where he is showing compassion to his followers when he intended to go and rest with just his disciples for a while. It’s a glimpse into the mystery of God’s heart, where he wants us to prioritize prayer above all things, but he is still moved by the needs of his children and understands when we have to leave prayer to go tend to them. I’m picturing a priest saying yes to hearing someone’s confession during his few moments of quiet time in his day. I’m also thinking of the mother who goes to her prayer space to pray, and is interrupted by one of her children who is having trouble sleeping. God does not expect us to say no to these people just so we remain resolute in putting prayer first. We can still put God first. God will still provide the time. But sometimes the needs of others are God’s way of speaking to us, and that in itself is a kind of answer to prayer because it means we are in conversation with him.
his heart was moved with pity for them
Much has been said about the relation between the head and the heart. Some people say there is no greater distance than the 13 or so inches between them, but I beg to differ. The smartest decision can sometimes be the most heartfelt decision. When our Blessed Mother intercedes for us before her son, she appeals to her son’s compassion and pity for us. Why Christ bothers with such a meager species as us is a mystery in itself, but he does nonetheless. And the fact that he does says something about his love for us, whom he has made to be his. Love is the smartest choice, and it is the most powerful. It always wins. Jesus could have chosen to turn his back on the followers who needed his wisdom. He could have just gone off somewhere to rest with his disciples. But because he reached out to as many people as he could, he spread the seed of his word to more people and they went off to spread it to others. This expanded the Church. He saw people seeking after him in their sojourn here on earth and wisely thought that this may be their only chance to receive the words they need to hear about the kingdom of heaven. How many times do people come into my life seeking the same thing? Should I turn away from them to get more rest, or should I reach out to them as Jesus did?
they were like sheep without a shepherd
As always, Jesus is right. People are like sheep. We follow someone or something that we deem is trustworthy. Even when a person claims to be thinking for themselves, more often than not when you ask them why they think a certain way they cite sources they trust, thus making appeals to some authority. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s humbling to admit we need guidance. But that’s the very issue the Gospel is pointing out here. We don’t admit that we are sheep and then we act like sheep anyway. We’re too prideful to admit that we need a shepherd, and then we go follow the very next hired hand we see. When they prove to be not up to the task to guide us, we move on to the next hired hand. I use the collective “we” here intentionally because this is a societal issue. Our appeals to authority are coupled with bandwagon appeals. We say things like, “the experts say it’s true” and “the majority believes it”, and these arguments are enough to convince us that something is true. But the experts are not our shepherds; and the majority often has no one leading them at all, so they just latch on to the latest trend. What if we made Truth himself our shepherd? What if we became the ones Jesus speaks of when he says “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me; and I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, and no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28)?
Lord, you are the guiding light in my life. Thank you for teaching me your ways and for giving me wisdom from heaven. Teach me to prioritize prayer, but to also know when you are answering my prayers by calling me to some specific action right in front of me. Help me to follow you so I may lead others to you. You are the Good Shepherd, and I am honored to go wherever you lead me. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
It’s time to listen for the Shepherd’s voice. It’s usually quiet but clear as a bell, familiar but distinct. If you are having trouble distinguishing between God’s voice and your own, the world’s or the devil’s, seek God further in Scripture again. This week’s Gospel is short, but it’s still packed with truth. Give it another read if you didn’t hear God’s voice the first time.