Commentary on Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
This Gospel reading begins with an account of the disciples’ return after they had been previously sent out by Jesus in Mark 6:6-13, and follows the unpleasantness of John’s beheading described in Mark 6:14-29.
Verses 30-34 are the introduction to the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” account in Mark 6:35-44 and the incident when Jesus walked on the water in Mark 6:45-52. However, we skip over those two great stories. (I imagine these texts are omitted because they are included in Year A when Matthew 14:13-21 and 14:22-33 are read.)
Instead, we get verses 53-56 which provide a brief account of Jesus’ healing ministry, before the purity controversy begins in Mark 7:1. All in all, there is not much substance with which to work in these verses. Still, I found three points which interested me. You will have to find your own poem.
Give It a Rest
In a Gospel which is so fast-paced and where so many things happen “immediately,” it is a striking shift in verse 31 when Jesus tells the disciples to get away by themselves to rest. No doubt you could say something about the importance of rest and maybe even tie it into a Sabbath concept.
Unfortunately though, such messages often sound more like good advice than the Good News. Besides, we find out in verses 33-34 that Jesus and the disciples never get their little vacation. (For Jesus, after presumably three years of ministry, he would have to die to get three days of rest in the tomb!)
It may be a small point, but we do see that the success of the disciples in their ministry is not measured simply by how much they accomplish. Having been out on their own, now they are called back to Jesus. It is the same with the Gospel. It’s not a matter of how much we accomplish, but a matter of our relationship with the Lord.
What to Do for Sheep without a Shepherd
Mark 6:34 is one of my favorite passages in the Bible. It reads, “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
We’ve seen similar scenes in Mark. This time the large crowd impinges upon Jesus and the disciples’ plan for a little rest, but still Jesus has compassion. (The Greek used here is splagchnizomai, a great word denoting sympathy, mercy, and loving concern.)
Why does Jesus have compassion on them? “Because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” That is such a poignant and powerful image, and I suspect many of us often feel like we are in that position.
In chapter 10 of the Gospel of John, this image will be elaborated with the reflection on what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. For John, it ties in with Jesus being the one who knows and is known by the sheep. Most importantly, the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
If that is the case, then what would it look like for Jesus to show compassion to these “shepherdless” sheep in Mark? You might be anticipating something like how Jesus healed their sick and took the children into his arms. But that’s not what the text says here.
What does Jesus do? “And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Okay, it’s true, my calling is to be a teacher in the Church, so you can see why I like this verse! But it really is a remarkable way of thinking about ministry. In fact, I’ve worked with Christian educators to help them understand education as an expression of compassionate evangelism.
Yes, there are all sorts of ways we can express compassion by attending to the pressing physical needs people have, but it is just as important for us to be educating them by clearly and faithfully speaking the Gospel. (By the way, I so like this verse that when we offered an evening worship service that focused on Bible study, we set the time for it at 6:34!)
In verse 53, Mark states that Jesus and the disciples landed at Gennesaret on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (also known as the Lake of Gennesaret). It could well be that Jesus had previously passed through this area while travelling between Nazareth (twenty miles or so to the southwest) and Capernaum (a few miles further along the shoreline to the north). Still, this is the first mention of Gennesaret in Mark.
What happens after they step ashore? “People immediately recognized [Jesus]” (Mark 6:54).
How did they recognize him? Had he walked a few yards on the water while getting to shore? Had they seen pictures of him posted in the marketplace? Or is the scene more like that in Mark 1:16-20 when Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James, and John? Without any apparent previous knowledge of Jesus, they left everything immediately and followed him. What had they recognized in Jesus?
It is remarkable that none of the gospels provide a physical description of Jesus. We will never be able to pin him down by virtue of his appearance. Rather, we will always have to recognize Jesus for who he is and what he does.
It is more than the miracles and healings Jesus performed or the things he taught. It may actually take the gift of faith to recognize the one who died on the cross as the Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
So, there are my three points. But if you do still want a poem, Marty Haugen’s wonderful song, “Healer of Our Every Ill” works well with this text. In the fourth verse, we sing, “You who know each thought and feeling, teach us all your way of healing; Spirit of compassion, fill each heart.”1
1Evangelical Lutheran Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), #612.