Between Mark and our lectionary we have gotten the 6th chapter in what probably feels like a random selection. Especially today when we have a bit from the middle and a bit from the end of the chapter, so let me give you a brief overview of this chapter.
We began three weeks ago with Jesus in Nazareth where he tried to teach and perform signs from the people, but they quickly rejected him, questioning his authority based on their prior knowledge of him, so he moves on to other towns in the region. He then sends the 12 apostles out in 6 groups of two to cover more area and he gives them the power and authority to do everything he has been doing and we hear that things are going well.
Mark then interrupts with a newsflash, a “by the way” – John the Baptist has been killed.
Today as we pick up the gospel story, the apostles have returned to check in with Jesus and Jesus does a little de-briefing. He then recommends a short vacation with him so that they can relax and spend some time together. Their workload has been overwhelming and they have not been taking breaks for meals.
Jesus suggests they take a boat and go to a deserted spot on the other side of the lake. But they are spotted and the crowd desperately desiring what Jesus has to offer runs on foot around the edge of the lake. This sounds easier than it was. There is no beach on the Galilee, its shoreline is lava rock.
When Jesus sees the crowd we are told he takes compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Marks audience would be familiar with this phrase. First, in Numbers 27:17 as God is telling Moses that he will not live to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, Moses asks God to “appoint someone over the congregation who shall go out before them and bring them in, so the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd.” God appoints Joshua.
The Israelites were shepherds. Abraham was a very successful shepherd. When Jacob aka Israel came to Egypt with his family they were sent to the land of Goshen because they were shepherds and Egyptians thought shepherds were unclean. The Israelites understood the role of shepherd and sheep.
David was a shepherd before he became a king. The beautiful Psalm 23 attributed to him declares “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.”
When Ezekiel speaks his oracles condemning his contemporary leaders in Israel he accuses them of being false shepherds. They pretend to watch after and lead the sheep, but instead he says they shear them for clothing – they “fleece” them as we would understand that term and they devour them for dinner. He says they “rule with force and harshness scattering the sheep.” (Ez 34:1-6) Ezekiel then offers a positive oracle for the people speaking for God he says, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down…I will seek the lost and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured and I will strengthen the weak.” (Ez 34: 15-16a)
What our lectionary now skips over, to save for another day is the feeding of the 5000. Mark is using imagery from the Old Testament to boldly claim that Jesus is the new Joshua (which happens to be a different translation of the same name as Jesus) who will lead the new Israel into the New Promised Land. This Joshua is not just a prophet, this Joshua is God fulfilling the prophecy made by Ezekiel that God would shepherd his sheep himself. Jesus is God, the Good Shepherd, the one and the same declared by David. Just in case Mark was too subtle, John has Jesus specifically say twice, “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10: 11, 14) This is not a random good shepherd, this is the fulfillment of the biblical good shepherd, exemplified first by Moses and Joshua, then by David, the shepherd king, and ultimately by God though the person of Jesus.
The second point Mark is making is that we are called to be assistant “good shepherds.” Jesus sends the 12 out to do exactly what he has been doing. Then despite being tired and in need of a vacation, Jesus calls the 12 again to assist him in seating the crowd in groups on the grass. “He causes me to lie down in green pastures.” And, Jesus has them help him feed the people. After the crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus appeared to Peter and three times asked Peter if he loved him, and each time that Peter affirmed that he loved him, Jesus told him to “feed my sheep.” Other biblical descriptions of good shepherds include knowing the sheep by name. Seeking out the lost sheep. Lying down at the gate to protect the sheep from wolves. And ultimately, Christ, the Good Shepherd, laid down his own life to save his sheep.
Our final piece of the lectionary today re-emphasizes the healing ministry of Jesus and reminds us that not only did the people seek Jesus, Jesus sought out those who were in need. Our lectionary skips over Jesus walking on the water to bring us to another story of Jesus stepping out of the boat in Gennesaret, an area known for its warm mineral springs which attracted people who were seeking to be healed. The people rushed to Jesus hoping to even touch the fringe on his cloak that they might be healed.
Sadly, we no longer have large crowds of desperate people chasing us down in the street or banging on the church doors seeking to find Jesus. Instead I think the 19th century author Henry David Thoreau was correct when he said “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” (in Walden).
This desperation is not so new. In the 6th century Blaise Pascal described what we now call that “God-sized hole in our hearts.” Saying, “What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Pensées VII(425)
The language in the quotes is dated, but the universality of the statements cross gender lines.
Jesus went to the synagogues to find people, but more frequently he was found out on the streets mingling with the people and listening to the people’s stories. Frequently he went places he knew people would be like the docks or the hot springs or the marketplace. We need to do the same. The church building is a convenient place to gather, but it is not the church. The church exists wherever people gather seeking Jesus.
As you leave today, imagine you are one of the 12 and you have been sent into the world to represent Christ, for that is exactly what it means to be a Christian.