Have you ever tried to leave work early? Or take an entire afternoon off for yourself? Or get away by taking a peaceful drive in the country? Or spend some quiet time with friends? But someone catches you just before you leave to ask you one more question or to complete one more task. Perhaps you are able to leave but your cellphone rings once you reach your destination or you are in the middle of an amazing dream and your on-call pager beeps? Many of us have tried to leave or withdraw at one time or another, only to find that we just can’t seem to get away.
In Mark 3:7-12, Jesus withdraws to the sea only to find that the crowd follows him. This is not the only time in the Gospels we hear that Jesus withdrew; Jesus withdrew many times — to pray, to rest, to spend time with his disciples, and to spend time alone. Jesus withdrew to take care of himself.
The Gospel provides us with a vivid picture of the excitement caused by Jesus’ teaching and his miracles, yet we also see a picture of Jesus withdrawing from Capernaum to the sea. Mark tells us that people come from everywhere as the word of Jesus’ healing spreads. Jesus’ rising popularity is revealed and people will simply not leave Jesus alone. The crowd is desperate and needy.
So great is the pressure of the crowd that Jesus asks his disciples for a boat to keep the crowd from crushing him. Yet there is no escape from the people who wish to see him — some have traveled hundreds of miles to be healed. The crowds corner him at the Sea of Galilee, pushing forward to touch him. The story of this amazing person in Galilee who could cure anyone of anything was carried from village to village and from region to region. The town of Galilee was quickly overrun with people eager to be cured.
Talk about pressure! Not only was Jesus confronted by the Herodians, the Pharisees and the people who wished to be cured, but the unclean spirits emerge from the crowd. Amid everything else, Jesus’ secret is in danger of being revealed prematurely when the unclean spirits declare him to be the Son of God. Jesus is not yet ready to disclose his identity, so he must drive out the unclean spirits and silence them.
When I reflect on Jesus’ public ministry, I am reminded of how astonishing it is that most of his ministry took place in less time than it takes to graduate from high school. In a period of three years, beginning with his baptism, Jesus organized and taught his disciples. He empowered them to heal and to preach. Jesus himself healed thousands of people. In three years, Jesus reached beyond the boundaries of cultural norms and restrictions to share the good news with sinners, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, and the sick who were marginalized from society.
Jesus raised the dead, he fed thousands of people and he taught them how to survive on faith. Jesus challenged people to look seriously at their faith and to realize that God is a God of love and grace, not social class. God is a God of justice, not privilege. God is a God of compassion who weeps for each one of us and our burdens, and a God who suffers along with us.
Jesus did all of this and more in three years. When we look at Jesus’ ministry, we may ask ourselves — how did he do it? Yes, Jesus was divine, yet he was also human and we can’t deny that humanity has limitations. We all have our limits and our breaking points. With all the demands placed on Jesus, why didn’t Jesus burn out?
Jesus practiced good self-care. When Jesus needed food or water, he asked for it. When Jesus needed emotional support from his friends, he didn’t hide it. When Jesus’ heart was broken, he wept. Jesus was faithful to God, and part of that faithfulness was taking care of his real and legitimate human needs. No one will deny that Jesus’ life included suffering and sacrifice, yet it did not include self-neglect or self-destruction. Jesus is a good role model for self-care and he invites us to withdraw.
Teresa Schulz is a spiritual director, lay theologian, retreat facilitator, lecturer, volunteer chaplain and co-founder of mainespiritus and Tools for Intentional Living. She lives in the Portland area.