Earlier in chapter 6 of Mark, Jesus had sent his disciples out two-by-two on a ‘training mission’ to teach and drive out impure spirits’. As this morning’s gospel (Mark 6:30-34, 53-56) opens, they had returned.
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs to drive out unclean spirits and to preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins. It was the first time that he had given them power to heal and the commission to teach, so they were probably eager to share their experiences with him and with one another.
Their plans were waylaid by people coming to Jesus, interrupting his conversations with his disciples with urgent requests for assistance, perhaps even tugging at his sleeves for attention. The interruptions were so constant that Jesus and his disciples could not even eat let alone talk about their experiences.
The upshot of all the interruptions was that Jesus finally said, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” However rewarding the experiences of healing and teaching had been for his disciples, it was also exhausting. They needed rest.
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
The crowd anticipated where the boat was headed and thwarted their attempt to get away by racing ahead of them to the landing. The crowd’s behavior seems to have been motivated by more than curiosity, more than a desire for bread and even more than for cures of family and friends. They hungered for close contact with Jesus.
Like sheep without a shepherd recalls Moses who, as he approached the end of his life, asked, “May the Lord, the God who gives breath to all living things, appoint someone over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (Numbers 27:16-18) In a real sense, Jesus was the answer to this prayer.
The phrase may also be a thinly veiled comment on the cruel and self-serving king Herod who appeared in last week’s gospel ordering the beheading of John the Baptizer. As a shepherd of the flock of Israel he was worse than nothing.
Rather than express his frustration at their interruption, Jesus had compassion on them. Compassion literally means “suffering with”. It is unconditional solidarity with those for whom one feels it. It differs from pity, which is something managed from a distance.
The Jewish biblical scholar, Abraham Heschel, has written, “God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience. He is moved and affected by what happens in the world… God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: his willingness to be intimately involved in the history of humanity.” While Heschel wrote this of a prophet, Jesus personifies them.
The gospel continues, So he began teaching them many things…. The people following Jesus transitioned from being a clamouring crowd to becoming pupils. Jesus understood their requests for intimacy with him and signalled for them to listen.
His compassion expressed itself by teaching them many things. Mark doesn’t tell us what those things were, but they apparently spoke to the heart of what the crowd needed. Their fundamental hunger was to be so close to Jesus that they shared his thoughts and his way of seeing the world and everything in it. The crowd may not have been able to express this yearning, but Jesus recognized it and addressed it.
The gospel reading for this Sunday skips Mark’s version of the feeding of the multitude with five loaves and two fish after he had taught them. It also omits the story of Jesus sending the disciples off in a boat, while he went up a mountain, alone, to pray, then reappeared walking on the water.
This gap explains the awkward continuation of the gospel that we hear on July 18th that leaps from Jesus teaching people to getting out of a boat.
As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
A few weeks ago we heard the gospel about Jesus teaching in the synagogue in Nazareth, and although the local people were amazed, they took offense at him.
Jesus’ reputation as teacher, “feeder”, exorcist and healer was such that people ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And …They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
This summary account of Jesus’ many cures expands on he had compassion on them. While the first expression of that compassion may have been teaching many things about relationship with God his Father, he followed that up with physical healing of, apparently, many sick people in towns, villages or countryside.