What is your idea of the perfect get-away spot, a place where you can relax and enjoy some peace? Vacation spots vary, including sea side resorts, lush valleys, and wooded parks. Would you include deserts in the list? In this morning’s Gospel passage, we are told that Jesus led his disciples to a desert place to rest. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” Now I will admit that being deserted and being a desert are not exactly the same thing. However, if we look at the Scriptures as a whole, it becomes fairly clear that God associates the desert as a place to begin or maintain a relationship. Scripture scholars refer to the desert as “God’s trysting place.”
No matter which you choose as your translation, “desert or deserted,” it is clear that the Gospel is telling us that Jesus and his disciples were looking for some down time. Last week Jesus sent his disciples out to preach. This week we hear that upon their return, they were eager to tell Jesus about their experience. Unfortunately, they didn’t find the time or the place to do so. Instead a crowd had gotten to the deserted place before Jesus and his disciples. They needed Jesus to care for them as they were in need of healing, of curing, and of exorcising.
The reading from Jeremiah that we hear today is paired with this Gospel because Jeremiah preaches that God will care for his people when those who were appointed to do so failed at their jobs. Jeremiah is speaking about a specific historical occasion, but these words can be applied to any instance when those who are responsible for others do not fulfill their responsibility. When the shepherds start looking out for themselves instead of caring for the needs of the flock, God finds it necessary to step in.
The desert is often used in the Scriptures as a place of testing. Moses and the Israelites spent forty years in the desert trying to find their way to the Promised Land. Elijah trudged through a desert on his way to Mt. Horeb where God spoke to him and bolstered his flagging courage. Jesus spends forty days in the desert and is tested before his public ministry begins. All of these experiences lead me to believe that our human existence can be likened to a desert. Our human lives are our time of testing to decide whether we shall live with God forever. Isaiah writes a picture a banquet on God’s holy mountain that we often hear proclaimed at funerals. Every mountain in the Scriptures is surrounded by a desert. To get to the top of the mountain, one has to get through the desert.
This story also acts as a prelude to one of the most spectacular episodes of the Gospel which we will hear in next week’s Gospel. It is in the very same deserted place to which Jesus led his disciples that he will feed the multitude with seven loaves and a few fish. Imagine if you will more than 5,000 people making their way to Jesus to be cured, healed and exorcised only to find themselves in a place where there was nothing to feed their hunger or to slake their thirst. No shepherd would lead his flock into the desert to find pasture. Yet it is in the desert that Jesus feeds his flock.
Yesterday I was at a birthday party where the conversation turned to various vacation spots that had recently figured in the lives of the family that gathered to celebrate. You can be sure that no one spoke of having a wonderful vacation spot in the desert. In fact one person even mentioned that he used his vacation time to escape the heat, and it didn’t make any difference if it was a so-called “dry” heat or not. I suspect that many of us feel the same way. However, it is helpful to remember that as we make our ways through life, struggling to make a living, to raise a family, to provide for our loved ones, we too can come to expect that God will take care of us if we, like the crowd in today’s Gospel, go out to find him. Our Sunday Eucharist is another kind of banquet on a different kind of mountain. The Eucharist is food for the soul, to sustain us when the heat of the day threatens to overtake us and lead us away from the spring of salvation that is Jesus.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator