This coming Sunday is the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, a gospel in which Jesus calls to the disciples. “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” As noted in yesterday’s post, it is not just the disciples who answer the call. A multitude of people respond and not just follow Jesus, but anticipate him so that when Jesus and the disciples put ashore, the people are already there in that deserted place. Perhaps the place which Moses and Joshua spoke of looking to a greater “rest” (anapausasthe) the word also used of our eternal reward – truly, the ultimate intention of God. In this way, And so the people are on a second exodus to find rest.
It is easy to imagine the groan that must have gone up from the exhausted disciples, when they saw, long before they had reached the other shore, that the 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 verses, outside our gospel reading, but immediately following. The disciples plead with Jesus “Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 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?” (Mark 6:36-37)
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.(Mark 6:35)
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. For we busy Americans, it sheds a new light on “keeping holy the Lord’s Day”
A final thought from 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.
Pheme Perkins, The Gospel of Mark, vol. 8 of The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abington Press,1994)