Sara Chang recently led our national Graduate and Faculty Ministry staff in a Bible study of Luke 9:1-17, addressing the weariness we may be experiencing in this present time and where we find the reserves to meet the needs of others when we are weary ourselves. We are so glad Sara gave us permission to share an edited version of her remarks–this was so good!
We often talk of a “Double loneliness” that Christian graduate students and faculty simultaneously experience in the university and church. The university can be a lonely place to freely express our Christian identity and the church can oftentimes be a lonely place to be fully understood in our academic work.
This year, on top of the pandemic, on top of schools going virtual, on top of the loneliness and isolation, there has been a “Double weariness”-perhaps triple or quadruple weariness- with unprecedented unemployment rates, the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 deaths among people of color-particularly Hispanic, Latinx, Black and Native people and the traumatizing murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery, among others.
On top of that, our nation was confronted with the horrific mass murders in Atlanta that demonstrate the gruesome intersection of racism, misogyny and the dark underbelly of evangelical purity culture gone deeply wrong. All within a context of an accelerated rise in hate crimes committed against Asian Americans, almost 3,800 in the last year, perpetrated from within the West Coast to the White House.
Many of us are feeling this double, triple, quadruple weariness each day as we attempt to be faithful Christian academics.
Jesus addresses the disciples weariness
Luke 9:1-17 is an apt passage to address this weariness. The Gospel of Luke is written by the sole Gentile author of Scripture and his writings in his two-volume work “Luke-Acts” comprise 25% of the New Testament. Luke was a travelling companion with Paul and a trained physician. It is estimated that he wrote this Gospel in the late 50’s during Paul’s third missionary journey or Paul’s imprisonment in Caesarea.
How, then, does Luke 9 address this weariness so many of us are feeling?
The disciples had been so successful in their first missionary journey that verses 7-9 are devoted entirely to Herod’s perplexed reaction. Amid the joy they must have had in reporting to Jesus all they had done in verse 10, it can’t be missed that in the backdrop of this commissioning and sending is the assassination of John. It’s Luke’s way of saying to us readers-”The mission is going to be dangerous and costly. Following Jesus will involve rejection and death. Death of our Savior and perhaps even our own.”
I smile when I read of Jesus taking the disciples with him in verse 10 and withdrawing by themselves to a town called Bethsaida. Isn’t that what we all want right now? Jesus to drive up to our house and whisk us away to a remote place with him– even if it’s lunch time and we’re trying to cook lunch for our kids before our next meeting begins in 2 minutes, or we’re staring blankly at our inbox with 100 unread emails and a long to do list, or that we’ve just finished 7 hours of straight zoom meetings.
This was Jesus’ pattern of ministry throughout Luke, regular prayer in a lonely place amid demanding crowds or big decisions. In this, Jesus is trying to demonstrate to his disciples natural rhythms of ministry and rest that are essential for sustained life and ministry.
When we can’t rest
But what do we do when we can’t rest? What do we do when the needs of our communities are too real and too raw to deprive them of Jesus? What does effective work in a depleted state look like and how do we do what God has called us to when we are exhausted and have double weariness from trauma upon trauma?
It’s clear from verse 12 that the Disciples thought they had the answer- turn their backs, send them away, resume their retreat and let the people fend for themselves. And perhaps this has been our answer as well.
But let’s step back for a moment and consider the composition of the crowd. This was an agrarian society and most in it were facing abject poverty. It is also extremely likely that the crowd consisted of potential believers of diverse backgrounds who may have had misunderstandings or misgivings about Jesus and his ministry. Verse 11 tells us that Jesus “healed those who needed healing” which confirms the fact that there were indeed people of differing abilities, health, and age. In many instances, whole families had come together, keeping in mind that women and children were not numbered among the 5,000. This was a crowd much larger and much more diverse than meets the eye.
For the disciples, this is the epitome of being overwhelmed.
Yet, this scenario has an uncanny resemblance to the events immediately preceding it. If you recall, when Jesus sends the disciples in verses 3-4, Jesus instructs them to “take nothing for the journey-no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town.” Both passages involve preaching about the kingdom of God, healing, food and money.
What is Jesus doing?
So, if Jesus knows his disciples are exhausted from their first missionary journey, why command them in verse 13, “You give them something to eat”? It sounds almost calloused and tone deaf.
Yet, through this we see Jesus placing the burden of hospitality on his disciples as a test of sorts. And in a matter of fact and slightly indirect way, the disciples reveal their gap in understanding-”We have only five loaves of bread and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.”
Now, Jesus has just previously called his disciples to radical mutual dependence on those they are ministering to, yet it seems they have forgotten how Jesus provided for them just the day before. In fact, it highlights how truly challenging it is to have faith in the power of Jesus, even when he’s standing right before you. These disciples are the very ones who have seen Jesus perform countless numbers of healings, exorcisms, distanced healings, resurrections-not to mention their more personal encounter of the miraculous catch of fish not too far away at the Lake of Gennesaret. If Jesus had provided for them then, what was stopping him now?
We all know how the narrative ends-Jesus has the crowd sit in groups, he takes the five loaves and two fish, looks into heaven, gives thanks, and breaks them distributing to all the people until they are satisfied.
But the crux of the passage is at the heart of what the disciples misunderstood. What point is Jesus trying to make with the loaves and the fish? I submit that it is this-In times of great weariness, of double weariness, of exhaustion and pain, Jesus is the depth of our reserve.
Jesus is a God who sees our pain, and He sees the ways we are limited. But He uses what we have, the very little we have, to meet the immense, the pressing and the very real need around us.
For the last two years especially, I have been leading as the only woman on a board in the midst of shades of patriarchy, racism and theological debates over the essential qualities of the gospel. It has been one of the most challenging places I’ve ever been. It’s been challenging all the more when my daughter has listened in, unknown to me, and overheard me recounting to a mentor the ways this year has absolutely crushed me. I was not only touched, but saddened to find a note she wrote and subsequently left on my desk chair a few hours later- ”Mom, I’m sorry that happened and I’m sorry that you cried…and can we make banana bread today? I love you!”
Yet, I can say without reservation, that Jesus has been my reserve when I wanted to run away from my broken, divided and hurting, but beautiful community.
Perspective, Expectation, Calling
The disciples showed their hand in their response to Jesus in verse 13–“We have only five loaves and two fish.” Their perspective needed a corrective. Their expectation needed a corrective. Their sense of calling needed a corrective.
Perspective-wise, the disciples thought they had to provide the meal. The disciples thought they had to meet the need. But this was only for Jesus to provide, using the very little they had to offer. Just meager bread and fish. Jesus uses the very little we have in our hands.
Regarding expectations, the thought of the unexpected and unimaginable became even more tiring to the disciples. How could they possibly feed all those people? We can resonate with them for wondering that. The thought of accomplishing a task that was never ours to accomplish is unimaginably draining, unless it is not ours alone to accomplish.
How are we limiting what Jesus wants to do by falsely operating as if we’re the primary means by which our work is accomplished?
And lastly, their sense of calling needed a corrective. Seeing Jesus breaking the loaves and fish must have invoked in the disciples’ minds the stories of God providing manna in the wilderness or Elisha when he fed the 100 people with 20 barley loaves and fresh ears of grain in 2 Kings 4. Little did they know that Jesus was not just doing a miracle but calling them to a radically expanded definition of ministry-welcoming, hosting, and providing table fellowship.
Jesus’ hospitality can be seen throughout Luke as he is consistently at tables with the wrong people-tax collectors, sinners, women. For the ancient Mediterranean (and many in various cultures today) meals didn’t just satisfy hunger; They were a place to welcome people, extend intimacy, form solidarity and create acceptance. Having a meal together was salvific and it was the act of treating people like family.
One commentator describes this passage highlighting the relationship between Christology and discipleship saying, “one can’t embody authentic discipleship unless one perceives faithfully the nature of Jesus’ person and work.” This passage makes that abundantly clear-Jesus’ nature is one that extends radical, sacrificial, cross-cultural hospitality and solidarity to those others deem as warranting exclusion. He doesn’t just talk, he doesn’t just preach, but he has compassion and couples his words with deeds.
In conclusion, we would be remiss if we didn’t discuss verse 17 and the significance of the twelve basketfuls of leftovers. Despite their weariness, the mission and ministry provided for them as well. There was sustenance as they were forced to see Jesus as the depth of their reserve to meet the immense, pressing and very real need around them.
What about you? This year and season, you may be feeling double, triple or quadruple weariness. Spend time acknowledging this and resting in the fact that God sees you and wants to be your reserve for the needs He’s calling you to meet in your work, communities, and families.
Perhaps you have been following the news more closely this year. What has been your response to the pain and need around you? On campus? In your department? Like the disciples and the diverse crowd, who does it feel costly to be in solidarity with? Spend some time asking God what your 5 loaves and 2 fish are and how He wants to use that to fill your reserve and serve those around you in word and deed.
Finally, are there ways that you or your faith community are limiting what Jesus wants to do by falsely operating as if you’re the primary means by which things are accomplished? Spend some time in repentance and ask God for a vision of partnership where he is your reserve in the midst of great weariness and need.
Sara Wolfgram Chang is the Scripture Manager for Urbana 22 and Area Ministry Director for Graduate & Faculty Ministries in Michigan. Sara holds dual degrees in Flute Performance and Psychology from the University of Michigan and a MDiv with an emphasis in Asian American Contexts from Fuller. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband and daughter.