Life in mission: compassion

eremosA Heart Moved. 34 When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.

It is easy to imagine the groan of despair that must have gone up from the exhausted disciples, when they saw, long before they had reached the other shore, that the inevitable curious crowd had followed and the possibility of rest was fading. It is probable that this natural weariness accounts for the note of irritation in their question to Jesus in v.37, as well as their obvious hint in v.36 that the crowds had had more than enough teaching already: “36 Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?”

Note that he did the preaching to the crowds himself; he did not call upon his disciples to join in the task now. Compare his anxiety to secure proper rest for them after their wearisome preaching tour, careless though he might be for himself.

But Jesus, just as weary as the disciples and seeing the same crowds as they, had compassion on them (34). The comparison of the people to “sheep without a shepherd” is an allusion to Num. 27:17 and Ezek. 34:5. It is notable that in Ezekiel, the motivation of God to promise the people a “good shepherd” is that God was moved with pity/compassion. Also noteworthy is that both Numbers and Ezekiel take place in the wilderness. In Num. 27:17 Moses prays that the Lord will appoint a leader to take his place prior to his death in the wilderness lest the people “be as sheep which have no shepherd.” It is significant that God appointed as shepherd Joshua, whose name in the Septuagint is “Jesus.” In Ezek. 34 the shepherd image is also associated with the wilderness. There is no shepherd for the sheep, but God promises the coming of a faithful shepherd, “my servant David” (Ch. 34:23), who will establish a covenant of peace, causing the people to “dwell securely in the wilderness” (Ch. 34:25). In 6:34 Mark proclaims Jesus on the background provided by these passages: he is the one appointed by God to be the leader of the people in their exodus into the wilderness; he is God’s servant David who provides rest for the people in the wilderness. These theological notes are not extraneous to Mark’s telling of the story. They provide the indispensable background for understanding the feeding narrative that follows. The multitude that pursues Jesus and the disciples are representative of Israel once more in the wilderness. There they experience the compassion of the Messiah, who teaches them “at length” concerning the Kingdom of God.

They experience all this when they rest.

Reflections. As ever Pheme Perkins [601-2] offers food for thought.

This passage begins with Jesus expressing compassion for the crowd. Teaching and feeding show that Jesus is the shepherd. The combination represents a variant of the teaching and healing that have been characteristic of all of Jesus’ ministry. People today find it difficult to balance those two aspects of Christian responsibility. Some think that the social ministries of the church are all that is necessary to make Christ present in the world. Others think that the church should have nothing to do with feeding and healing except when it is necessary to help someone in the local community. The church’s ministry, so the argument goes, is to preach the gospel and provide for public worship.

Both sides are wrong. There is no Christianity without proclaiming the gospel. Teaching and learning the Word of God are as essential to faith as are prayer and belonging to a Christian community. A community that has the same compassion for the suffering that Jesus exhibited cannot be content with only preaching the gospel to the already converted. Christians must also attempt to meet the pressing social and material needs of others, even if few of those who receive such services ever become members of the church.


Mark 6:34 pity: The withdrawal of Jesus with his disciples to a desert place to rest attracts a great number of people to follow them. Toward this people of the new exodus Jesus is moved with pity (esplanchniste); he satisfies their spiritual hunger by teaching them many things, thus gradually showing himself the faithful shepherd of a new Israel. Jesus was often moved to act out of his compassion (1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 20:34; Luke 7:13). like sheep without a shepherd: The comparison evokes a well-established metaphor. Moses prays that the people will have a leader so that they will not find themselves “like sheep without a shepherd” (Num 27:17). The prophets condemned kings for failing to act as shepherds (1 Kgs 22:17). Ezekiel promises a new age in which God will shepherd the people (Ezek 34:5–6). Jesus responds to the plight of the people by teaching the crowd “many things” (v. 34). Thus he presents himself as their shepherd. Some interpreters include the “green grass” on which the crowd is told to recline (v. 39) in the shepherd image, claiming Jesus’ actions reenact Ps 23:2


  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
  • Alan Cole, Mark: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 178-79
  • John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina v.2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer / Liturgical Press, 2001) 203-11
  • Wilfred Harrington, Mark, The New Testament Message, v.4 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Press, 1979)
  • William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974) 223-26
  • David Lose, …In the Meantime,
  • Philip Van Linden, C.M., “Mark” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, ed. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 917
  • Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994) 600-602
  • Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Social-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001) 217-20
  • David Turner and Darrell L. Bock, Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Vol 11: Matthew and Mark (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005) 453-54
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at


  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)
  • The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).

Scripture – The New American Bible available on-line at

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