Commentary on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
The Disciples Return from the Mission (Mark 6:30-31)
Mark reported the re-gathering of Jesus’ “apostles” (6:30) from a successful mission (cf. 6:7-13) after depicting the death and burial of John.
As John’s mission came to an end, the apostles’ mission had just begun. The only other time Mark used the term “apostles” for Jesus’ disciples was in 3:14. [It could be argued that “disciples” was the term Mark used for the broader group of followers, which included the twelve; cf. 4:10.] While closely associating the two missions (John’s and Jesus’), Mark also clearly delineated between the two leaders and their bands in the story. Jesus’ immediate reaction was to secure a private place for his disciples to rest.
The “wilderness,” which had provided Jesus with relief earlier (cf. 1:35), seemed like a logical choice (cf. 1:3-4, 12-13, 35, 45; 6:31, 32, 35). This is a place of “rest” and “restoration” in the Markan narrative (1:35; 6:31, 32), but is also a location on the periphery (cf. 1:45). Locating a place to eat leisurely was becoming increasingly difficult (cf. 3:20). The reference to food again expressed how Jesus’ mission was directly tied to basic economic realities. Food and eating were two prominent themes of the narrative (cf. 1:6; 2:16, 26; 3:30; 5:43; 7:2-5, 28; 11:14; 14:12-24) and received specific attention in the two “feeding” narratives (cf. 6:34-44; 8:1-9).
While the success of Jesus’ “apostles” loomed large for the future of the mission, the death of John at the hands of Herod(ias) loomed larger. The mission may not be completely defeated, but drastic persecutions would be part-and-parcel of the operation. The message was clear: do not expect to take on the ruling authorities and not suffer the consequences. That was the message for the Markan community. That was the warning for all future followers.
One final note about the literary structure of this section is in order. It is difficult to determine where this section breaks. There is no clear division here, because verse 33 follows verse 32 neatly. The New Revised Standard Version editors prefer a “significant” break between 6:29 and 6:30. But this separation ignores Mark’s intercalation, disconnecting the disciples’ return (verse 30) from their departure in 6:7-13.
For Mark, 6:30-31 seemed to function as an inclusion with 6:7-13, whereas 6:32 — and its repetitive language — apparently started the next section. Overall, whatever literary structure was intended, the theme of constant “disturbance” on/of the mission continued.
“Sheep without a Shepherd” (Mark 6:32-34)
This short summary showed just how large Jesus’ following had become. Not only was the mission expanding — as the work of the apostles had shown (6:30) — but many regularly attempted to track down Jesus. In this passage, Mark described them (“many” from polloi in 6:33) as running faster on foot than those traveling by boat. They were intent on locating Jesus. Yet, when Jesus saw them, he viewed them as “sheep without a shepherd,” an image of their vulnerability. [“Compassion” (from splagchnizomai in 6:34) was one of Jesus’ more common emotions expressed in the Markan narrative (e.g., 8:2; 9:22; cf. some manuscripts at 1:41).]
All references to this phrase (“sheep without a shepherd”) in the Hebrew Bible support this idea: it was used in scenes in which God stands over against abusive shepherds who no longer care for their sheep (e.g., Ezekiel 34:2-5 and Zechariah 11:4-17); and, Moses requested that the people not be left as “sheep without a shepherd” in light of his own failing (Numbers 27:17), to which the Lord responds by suggesting Joshua “in whom is the spirit” (Numbers 27:18).
At this stage in the Markan narrative, Jesus’ reaction must be a critique of Herod in the previous scene. Herod held feasts for the “leaders of Galilee,” but Jesus fed common people. Mark’s juxtaposition of these two “shepherds” and their activities centered on issues of food and associations in the first century. Here was one instance of how, for Mark, Jesus “shepherded” the “sheep” of Israel. Jesus’ feeding was a reminder of how Moses provided food for the people of Israel in the ancient wilderness (cf Numbers 27). The importance of food and community cannot be overstated as a primary function of first century life in the Mediterranean life.
The Constant Presence of the Crowds (Mark 6:53-56)
Summary statements, as in 6:53-56, were significant asides. On the one hand, they provided transitions in the overall story. On the other hand, the narrator often provided insight into the flow and development of the plot of the story in these narrative asides. Repetition would have been a key feature in such summaries, because they reminded listeners (in an aural environment) of several key features of the overall story. In a fine study on summary statements, Charles Hedrick concludes that summary statements generally “summarize some new aspect of the ministry of Jesus . . . and seem to function as narrative devices that broaden, expand and intensify the ministry of Jesus and its effect.”1
Such was the case in this instance. In comparison to earlier summaries, 6:53-56 reminded its audience of the impossibility of Jesus entering towns unnoticed (6:54-55). Also, this summary statement addresses the idea of touching Jesus again. The desire to touch him, in an earlier summary statement (3:9-10), has now shifted to a desire to touch his garments (6:56). In between these two summary statements, readers witnessed a successful healing story through only a touch of his garments (cf. 5:28-29).
1“The Role of ‘Summary Statements’ in the Composition of the Gospel of Mark: A Dialog with Karl Schmidt and Norman Perrin” NovT 26 (1984), 289-311 .