This coming Sunday is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B. The admonition “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” always catches my attention and I think to myself, “I need to do that.” As always I try to offer a context for the gospel we are about to read. After all Mark is writing a story and so it is good to remind ourselves where we are in the narrative. Consider the sequence of passages assigned to these summer Sundays (in juxtaposition with all the verses of Mark):
Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms the storm on the waters (12th Sunday)
Mark 5:1-20, Jesus casts out the Gerasene demoniac (only used in 4th Week, Monday)
Mark 5:21-43, Jairus and the woman with a hemorrhage (13th Sunday)
Mark 6:1-6, Jesus rejected in his own home town (14th Sunday)
Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out the missioners (15th Sunday)
Mark 6:14-29, questions about Jesus and execution of John (4th Week, Friday)
Mark 6:30-34, The missioners returns and Jesus takes them to rest (16th Sunday)
Mark 6:35-44, Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000
John 6:1-15, miraculous feeding of the people (17th Sunday thru 21st Sunday)
Given the length of Mark’s narrative – the shortest of the four canonical gospels – when Mark arrives at the miraculous feeding (6:35-44; note: there is a second miracle in 8:1-10), the sequence of Sunday gospels shifts over to the Johannine account which offers a richer consideration of the only miracle that appears in all four gospels.
From above, you’ll notice that Mark has constructed a sequence from 6:1 through v.34 that seems cohesive, but then not really. The narrative with Herod and the death of John the Baptist almost seems out of place. And then we have our vv.30-34 that is positioned between all that comes and goes from this chapter. This section has bedeviled scholars who continue to debate how to understand the Markan intent. Lane  writes:
The decision to divide Ch. 6:30–44 at verse 34 is one of convenience, which permits a consideration of the return of the disciples and the withdrawal to a wilderness-place before attention is concentrated upon the feeding of the multitude. The degree of variation displayed in modern treatments of this question indicates the relative difficulty of discerning the evangelist’s intention. The division adopted presupposes that Mark has prefaced the feeding miracle by two small introductory passages which are thematically united. The first describes the return of the disciples and their rest in a wilderness-place (Ch. 6:30–32), while the second tells of the gathering of the multitudes to the wilderness and Jesus’ compassion upon them (Ch. 6:33–34).
I think Lane nicely titles these two sections of Mark’s gospel as:
- The Provision of Rest in the Wilderness (Mark 6:30-34)
- The Provision of Bread in the Wilderness (Mark 6:35-44)
I think it is this vein that our short passage serves to “round off” the missioning of the Twelve (in 6:7–13). It also prepares Mark’s readers for the rest of chapter 6, which features two closely related and marvelous manifestations of Jesus’ identity as their Lord: first, as the one who feeds his people abundantly (with bread, 6:34–44); secondly, as the one who is with them in the most serious conflicts of their lives (on the raging sea, 6:45–52).