Pentecost 8: 22 July Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Mark proceeds from the account of Herod Antipas’ birthday party to the feeding of the 5000. The Lectionary handles the feeding miracle next week, using the version found in John 6, so that we are given just the few verses which precede the feeding and then the summary of activities which follows both the feeding and the walking on the water.
It is important to see that 6:30-34 is not simply the introduction to the feeding of the 5000. It begins with the return of the twelve. In 6:7-13 they had been sent out. Here they return. In between is the account of John the Baptist’s murder, which, as Mark notes, happened some time earlier. This casts a sombre shadow over the disciples’ mission: following Jesus means carrying a cross, but that is in the structure rather than in anything said directly in 6:30-31. On the contrary, these verses assume success. The disciples have been carrying out their mission of healing, exorcism and teaching.
Jesus’ response is to call them aside to have a rest. ‘For many were coming and going and they had no time to eat.’ With little effort modern hearers will identify with the busy life, the throng of demands, the ongoing needs and many will identify with the dangers – even about not eating properly or at all. The point is so simple as to be almost trivial. Yet it is worth its weight and deserves elucidation. Perhaps the important aspect in contemporary discussion is to press a little further to find out why we choose not to rest. It is salutary to recognise that Jesus was encouraging the disciples to desist, to care for themselves, not to feel they must respond to every cry. They are not God. They are not the saviours of the world. They are limited human beings who need to rest. When Jesus was in Capernaum, he was not in Tiberius. His own ministry helped many, but left many more unhelped. This is part of human reality. It is also part of human reality that in the end Jesus’ strategy is unsuccessful; very soon the disciples will be busy carrying bread and fish to thousands!
Mark introduces the comment that they had no time to eat as part of his use of the food metaphor through the next two chapters. John’s gospel takes the metaphor even further, as we shall see in the coming weeks. Mark pictures Jesus looking out on the assembled crowd and seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. The metaphor of Israel as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ derives from Hebrew scripture (eg. Nu 27:17). Israel needs a shepherd. Shepherd was a common image for a ruler, a king and probably hints at Jesus as Messiah. Rulers, governments, have a responsibility of care. Already in ancient Egypt we find the image in this sense in relation to pharaohs. In our passage the image of David, the shepherd king, may play a role and possibly the mention of ‘green grass’ in 6:39 alludes to the ‘green pastures’ of Psalm 23.
Certainly Mark emphasises Jesus’ compassion. Jesus expressed it by offering the leadership of teaching. In Mark we are rarely told what Jesus taught and even then it is mostly teaching about how his teaching is received, as in Mark 4:1-34. Mark would doubtless have us assume that it was teaching about ‘the kingdom of God’, the vision of hope and justice for all. That vision was also Jesus’ agenda for ministry. It was good news for the poor. What many longed for through battle, the defeat of the oppressors, Jesus also proclaimed and lived: building a transformed and transforming community. Arranging the crowd into army formation (6:40) reflects this messianic intention. It intends change, but not through violence.
Mark 6:53-56 describes in summary the impact of Jesus’ ministry. It recalls similar summaries in 1:32-34 and 3:7-12. Details of the summary recall events already recounted. Carrying people on pallets recalls 2:1-12; touching the hem of his garment recalls the action of the woman in 5:25-34. The ‘hem’ appears to allude to the tassel which pious Jews wore to indicate their commitment to divine law. Jesus was not someone who despised his own religious heritage. He gave expression to this commitment through his acts of compassion for people. The rich man who later came to him confident of his obedience to the Law failed on this score. There are different ways of approaching the Law, the scripture. For Jesus, it was not keeping commandments, but living their meaning and espousing the hope and vision which the tradition generates. Mark’s summaries, here and in 7:31-37, are a way of indicating that in Jesus the hopes expressed in passages like Isa 29:18 and 61:1 are beginning to be realised.
The mission is so successful that one could be left wondering where it will end. Mark’s hearers then and now know that this is not the whole story, but it does not change the nature of the mission: to offer leadership in teaching and in acts of compassion that bring healing and set people free from what oppresses them. Demons and oppressors will generate a backlash! Hearing Mark read as a whole, we would still sense the foreboding which John the Baptist’s fate introduced into the story. It returns immediately in 7:1 where religious authorities appear obsessed with asserting their control.
Epistle: Pentecost 8: 22 July Ephesians 2:11-22