In the Gospel reading for the sixteenth Sunday in ordinary time (also, 8th Sunday after Pentecost in the RCL), Jesus regroups with the Apostles after he had “sent” them into the towns to preach repentance and the Kingdom of God. But the Apostles and Jesus have little time to rest, as they are met by a crowd of followers.
Rest A While
This is the fourth time (Mk 1:12; 1:35; 1:45) in Mark’s gospel that we are told that Jesus and/or his disciples try to rest or go into the wilderness for a respite. In Mark 1:35, Jesus sought a quiet place, and there he prayed. Here Jesus invites the apostles to do the same; come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while. Jesus tries to establish a precedent for contemplative prayer in between the activity of ministry. Ministry isn’t all about activity and work. A minister needs to time to speak to God, in solitude, as well.
The Crowds Keep Coming
Notwithstanding this ideal, we see that the demands on Jesus and the apostles is such that the public will follow them into the wilderness in order to listen to Jesus preach. Mark’s Gospel, in particular, emphasizes the great lengths to which the crowds will go in order to gain an audience with Jesus. As Mark was an associate of the apostle Peter, one wonders whether we see the memory of Peter at work here, who may have keenly recalled the extent and frequency of the crowds, whose demands at times must have appeared overwhelming to the Apostles.
In Mark 1:28, the Evangelist tells us that Jesus’ fame spread everywhere. In Mark 1:37, when Jesus retires to a lonely place to pray, Peter finds Jesus and says everyone is looking for you. Mark closes chapter one by observing, that people came to him from every quarter.
In chapter 2, this theme continues. While Jesus is at home, Mark tells us that many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them. Mark chapter 3 also begins and ends with an account where we are told that Jesus is pressed by a crowd. By chapter 4, this story line becomes predictable. Chapter 4 begins, again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him. Mark uses the motif of “the crowd” (the many – polloi; the crowd – ochlos) to demonstrate that the ministry of Jesus is of great interest to the general populace in Galilee and Judah. The Greek term for crowd, ochlos (Strong’s 3793) occurs thirteen times in the first six chapters of Mark, and 175 times in the New Testament, of which 80% of those occurences are in the Gospels. For Mark, the fact that the ministry of Jesus is regularly attended by crowds, even when Jesus tries to seek some privacy, is itself testimony that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
Sheep without a Shepherd
When Jesus retires with the Apostles to a quiet place on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they soon find that they have visitors. The Evangelist tells us that he was moved with pity, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This quote is Matthean (9:36). Parenthetically, the image of Christ the shepherd is present in Mark, Matthew and John, but it is not to be found in Luke! Christ the shepherd is also not a Pauline image, though it is mentioned in Hebrews and 1 Peter.
The Matthean phrase sheep without a shepherd hearkens back to the prophets of Israel, whom Matthew (and Mark, who relies upon Matthew) quotes liberally. Ezekiel uses this analogy. Consider Ezekiel 34:8,
My sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep.
By quoting the prophet Ezekiel, Matthew and Mark are implying that Jesus is the shepherd being sought by the people. This is no coincidence, since the prophet Ezekiel predicts (34:15) that a time will come when God himself will shepherd his sheep. In Mark’s Gospel, we are told that Jesus abandons the original plans to rest a while with the apostles, and decides to teach the crowd many things. Note the implied theological counterpoint to Ezekiel 34, where the shepherds have not fed my sheep. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus and the Apostles do the opposite: they interrupt their own rest to shepherd the flock.
The use of the phrase sheep without a shepherd is used in a similar context in Matthew, where Jesus then observes that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. This passage in Mark, and the parallel passage in Matthew, tell us that the demands of the flock are great, and that Jesus and the Apostles barely have time to rest. Such is the reality of ministry.
Gospel – Mark 6:30-34
The apostles gathered together with Jesus
and reported all they had done and taught.
He said to them,
“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.”
People were coming and going in great numbers,
and they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
People saw them leaving and many came to know about it.
They hastened there on foot from all the towns
and arrived at the place before them.
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.