From the Gospel of Mark:
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 6:45-46 (NRSV) – March 27, 2014.)
Jesus sure spends a lot of time on mountains! And I can understand why. They are generally inaccessible to all but the most determined making them the perfect place for someone who needs a little “down” time, a little bit of “I’m exhausted by all of this and need to recharge” time, a little “leave me be for a while” time.
It may be cynical of me, but my first thought reading these two verses was, “I hope he remembered to turn off his cellphone.” I have learned that lesson well, even though I sometimes fail to follow my own advice and answer the phone on my day away from church business and usually regret it when I do.
Why is it that we take little note of, and often ignore, these last two verses of the story of the feeding of the 5,000? When Matthew’s version of the tale is used in the Sunday readings (as Proper 13 in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary), his similar statement is cut off from it:
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. (Matt 14:22-23)
Luke does not mention Jesus’ behavior after the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but neither Luke’s nor Mark’s versions are read in the Sunday rotation. John’s version ascribes a motive other than prayer to Jesus’ climbing the mountain: “When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15, RCL Year B, Proper 12)
I don’t give John’s political twist much credence. It may be that people wanted to “make him king,” after all the Jews were anticipating that sort of Messiah, but I suspect that exhaustion and the need for privacy were much bigger motives for Jesus at the moment.
When in public worship we end the story with the report that “those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matt. 14:21, cf. Mk. 6:44), we get an incomplete picture of Jesus. And John’s “I don’t want to be king” motivation for his departure just makes it worse! He becomes a superman who does incredible miraculous things with little or no effort and with no cost to himself, and then (like some super-spy) thwarts the political designs of the ignorant and ill-informed; as a model for life or ministry, he is an impossible paradigm. Being Christ-like becomes an impossible task beyond the ken of mortal human beings.
But what if we include these two verses, this post-script about depleted reserves, this acknowledgement of Jesus’ weariness and need to replenish? What a richer, more nuanced vision we are given! Jesus becomes a much more accessible savior! He truly is seen to be (as the writer of the Letter to Hebrews insisted) someone who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses . . . in every respect . . . as we are.” (Heb. 4:15) He is seen as a model of healthy ministry, of self-care following service to others. We see him as someone who really would turn off his cellphone!
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.