Mark 6:30–37 ESV
The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
Today’s text opens with a remark about the insane schedule of Jesus and his disciples. There was so much going on they did not even have a chance to eat. Their lives were likely getting thin and moving toward the ragged edge. How do I know this? Because of the way Jesus responded to them. He said, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”
That sounds good, doesn’t it—getting away with a small group of friends to a quiet place to hang out with Jesus? When is the last time that happened for you? I’m trying to remember. The press of life never stops and it never will stop. Even when you enter into so-called retirement it never stops—which can be a good thing, right?
What happened in today’s text is a real marker of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit is abiding among a people in a palpable way, you can’t keep others away. The gravity of the Spirit pulls them in like a tractor beam. The Holy Spirit never tires of this, but human beings do. Even Jesus got tired. If he didn’t, we would know he was not fully human.
Note how when the disciples got in the boats to head for the hills, the people ran after them along the shore. This demonstrates the profound human hunger to be encountered by the Holy Spirit. Most interesting to me about today’s text is the way Jesus responds to the people. Here’s their chance to take a much-deserved break with Jesus and they arrive at their retreat only to find hordes of people (thousands, even) waiting for them. The technical term for such an occurrence is “bummer.”
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
Compassion is an expression of the Holy Spirit. Charity often comes from feeling sorry for people. Compassion only comes from feeling sorry with people. Another interesting observation is the way the Holy Spirit expresses compassion in this situation’through the ministry of teaching them “many things.” Note the way teaching is connected to shepherding. All of this should be a deep encouragement to teachers of every sort, especially school teachers. Doesn’t this capture the calling of a teacher’to compassionately shepherd people by teaching them many things?
Now to the point. The time came for supper and instead of enjoying a nice meal around the campfire with Jesus, the disciples are having to concern themselves with feeding five thousand people. This is nuts! Jesus adds the last straw when he tells his disciples to give them something to eat. Absurd! He pushes them so far past their human limits that their heads were spinning. He’s stretching their capacity beyond their own good intentions so they will learn to minister in the compassion of the Holy Spirit. He’s about to set up an extraordinary teaching moment for his disciples.
Unless our capacity gets stretched, we can stay stuck in our own abilities for a long time. This is where boundaries come into play. Jesus was taking these guys for a much-needed break and now he has them scrambling around to figure out how to feed five thousand people! In present-day terms, Jesus made an intentional move to set a healthy boundary for himself and his followers and the people ran right over it. They always do. There is no end to human need and there is no end to the capacity of the Holy Spirit, but there is a definite end to our human ability. The trouble is that we don’t usually know that end until it’s too late and we’re burned out. The problem when burned-out, over-tired people try to set boundaries occurs when they wind up crafting desperate strategies to protect themselves from other people instead. We call them “walls” and they keep other people out by isolating ourselves in.
There’s a better way. Boundaries are not about protecting ourselves from people. Healthy boundaries prepare us for people. Jesus had little boundaries all over the place. Early in the morning he would go to that solitary place to pray and its distinctive effect caused his disciples to ask him to teach them to pray. He put a ban on fasting while he was with his disciples so they would know fasting was about fellowship with him when they were physically apart. He reinstalled the factory settings on Sabbath-keeping as a boundary for the sake of people rather than a legalistic religious observance for God. He taught them to eat and drink in remembrance of him and in these smallest portions would come the greatest nourishment. And, yes, he did his best to take them on staff retreats to debrief and unwind even though people still needed help.
Healthy boundaries set us free from the trap of thinking we are responsible for people and free us up to be responsible to people. Healthy boundaries are not about saying no to people so you can say yes to yourself. They are more about saying yes to yourself in the name of Jesus so you can say yes to people in the power of the Holy Spirit. I think for Jesus, setting boundaries is a way of being obedient to the limitless Holy Spirit so the Holy Spirit can work amazing grace through our limitations instead of despite them.
Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.
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