A REFRESHING EFFECT OF THE GUT-WRENCHING DESIRE TO SERVE
A Reflection on Mark 6:30-34
One of Jesus’ comfort zones is a deserted place. Found four times in the Gospel of Mark, the phrase “deserted place” (Greek: eremos topos) refers either to a wilderness—an uninhabited place where one can rest or pray (e.g. Mk 1:35) or to a place in the periphery inhabited by the marginalized and the poor (e.g. Mk 1:45). In the Gospel, Jesus exhorts his disciples to go to such a place in order to rest for a while (vv. 31, 32). Together with Jesus, they sail to a desolate place at the other side of the Lake of Galilee. At that place, however, are a throng of needy people waiting for them (v. 33). Upon seeing these people, Jesus is reported to have had compassion (Greek: esplagchnisthe) for them whom he likened to a sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things (v. 34).
Instead of taking a much-needed break, Jesus and his disciples attended to the needs of the people. But were they able to take a rest at that deserted place? Not at all. But they could not have anymore felt a pressing need to rest. This is implied in the use of the Greek verb for having compassion: “splagchnizomai.” Interestingly, the noun version of this verb, splagchnon, literally refers to gut or internal organs (intestines, stomach, lungs, heart, etc.). In a way, Jesus and his disciples had a gut-churning reaction at the sight of the people in need. They felt down in their bowels the people’s desperate need—perhaps for guidance and healing—that they experienced an adrenaline rush to be of help and to comfort the people right there and then. So deeply motivated were they to bear witness to the life-giving message of the Gospel that their wearied bodies and spirits got immediately rejuvenated.
What inspires Jesus and his disciples remind me of a Belgian missionary named Father Damian. It was his gut-wrenching compassion for the lepers that motivated him to bear witness to the Gospel in the island of Molokai in the 19th century when the cure for leprosy was not yet discovered. His gut-level compassion for the lepers enabled him to nurse the wounds of the lepers without fear of getting infected with the debilitating and deadly sickness. Despite the tiring and despairing experiences at the leper colony, Damian did not leave the island in order to have time to rest and to get a medical checkup. He found enough respite in that forsaken leper colony.
Pope Francis has echoed the Lord’s exhortation to go to the present-day peripheries not so much to take a rest as to reach out to those who have been pushed to the margins. Our encounter with them may hopefully have a gut-wrenching effect on us that we may become deeply inspired to address their needs. As to the most of us, we don’t have to go to foreign missions or to poverty-stricken places in order to reach out to the marginalized. Not readily seen in our relatively well-off and secularized world (Note: Belgian context) are those who are suffering from social isolation and depression. Listening to their stories or simply greeting them with a sincere smile can be a good start in helping them become receptive to the liberating message of the Gospel.
In our bearing witness to the Gospel, we cannot help but get occasionally tired. If we encounter some desperately needy people in an isolated place where we have intended to take a rest, may we become receptive to the gut-churning desire to be of help to these people. Their cry for help represents the voice of God who—in a twist to Saint Augustine’s famous line—makes us restless until we find rest in him. Rest in God somehow entails letting the deeply profound desire to be of help to the needy move us into taking concrete actions.
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