The Gospel for this Sunday is Mark 6:30-34 (Protestant lectionary adds vv. 53-56):
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. 31He 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. 32So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. 33People 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. 34When 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.
Mark 6:30-34 highlights Jesus’ compassion for the frailty and difficulties of the human condition, despite the overwhelming need that threatens to suffocate it. Such compassion appears nowhere else in Scripture so distinctively, and it shapes the entirety of Jesus’ approach to ministry.
The brief episode of 6:30-34 resumes the narrative from 6:7-13, where Jesus sent out “the twelve” in pairs to proclaim the good news, giving them authority over both unclean spirits and illnesses (vv. 7, 12-13). The separate passages of 6:7-13 and 6:30-34 form corresponding bookends—part of a literary technique called a “Markan sandwich” (see, e.g., 3:20–35; 4:1–20; 5:21–43; 11:12–21; 14:1–11; 14:17–31; 14:53–72; 15:40–16:8)—around 6:14-29, a narrative section surrounding Herod Antipas, both his reaction to Jesus’ ministry (6:14-16) and a flashback to Antipas’s beheading of John the Baptizer (6:17-29).
The real focus of Mark 6:30-34 is Jesus’ compassion (“his heart was moved with pity for them,” v. 34) in view of overwhelming need. The passage begins with fatigued disciples, who have just returned from journeys of apostolic witness. Apparently upon observing their condition, Jesus insists that they retreat and rest a while, since crowds regularly swamped them “and they had no opportunity even to eat” (v. 31). Like elsewhere in the Gospel, Mark characterizes Jesus’—and in turn his followers’—experience as one of being hounded by prevalent and pervasive need (1:32-34, 35-37; 3:7-10, 20-21, 31-35; 4:1; 6:45-46). Mark 6:30-34 describes this need in greatest detail, devoting most of its four verses to depicting how relentlessly the destitute crowds sought Jesus out. For instance, despite Jesus’ attempt to sail away to a deserted location, the crowds even so “hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them” (v. 33). In short, no matter how hard Jesus tries, he simply cannot escape the pressing pleas and overwhelming needs of the crowds.
Jesus’ compassion shines most brilliantly precisely in the face of overwhelming need. Despite his and his followers’ exhaustion, “his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). This is not the only time that Jesus responds with such compassion (esplangchnisthē) in Mark’s Gospel (1:41; 8:2; in 9:22 the plea of compassion is presumably granted), but it is a representative instance. The language used here (splangchnizomai, “feel compassion, have pity, feel sympathy”) reflects a deeply-felt reaction of emotion, and it is used in the New Testament only to describe Jesus’ response to situations of need (see also Matt 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Luke 7:13; 15:20) as well as the ideal human response to the same (Luke 10:33; see also 15:20). Jesus’ compassion alters his course of action, and he resumes his ministry to the crowds (abandoning his retreat plans for his disciples) by starting once again to teach them.
Certainly, Mark 6:30-34 is no model for healthy boundaries in pastoral ministry and Christian service. However, accurate exegesis must bear in mind that the bearer of compassion here is Jesus, who alone in Scripture may be said to have exhibited compassion without faltering. Far more than any other human agent in Scripture, Jesus meets God’s expectations for just and compassionate shepherding of God’s people (see Jer 23:1-6; Psalm 23). While Jeremiah’s words envision a just ruler after the manner of King David (23:5-6) and the twenty-third Psalm aims only to describe God’s direct care for those who trust him, Jesus’ example nonetheless reflects their aims and ideals in ways unparalleled anywhere else in Scripture—or in human history, for that matter. Despite the overwhelming needs that surrounds him, and the limitations placed upon him by space, time, and the condition of being human, Jesus still acts out of pure compassion at each turn, and in so doing reflects God’s pure mercy in ways untainted by the broken condition of the world and those who live in it.
Jesus’ example stands in stark contrast to two other specific Scriptural examples. First, the leaders of ancient Israel, as described in the assigned Old Testament lesson of Jeremiah 23:1-6: “shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture. . . . You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them” (vv. 1-2). Here God denounces the unfaithfulness of Israel’s leaders, since out of greed and lack of concern they have fallen pitifully short of God’s intentions (see elsewhere Ezekiel 34:1-30, esp. 11-16; Isaiah 40:11; Psalm 23; 95:7; 100:3). Second, Jesus’ compassion stands in stark contrast to Herod Antipas, featured in the preceding section of Mark’s Gospel (6:14-29). This “King Herod” was Herod Antipas, a son of King Herod the Great (featured in Matt 2:1-19). Antipas was simply the tetrarch of Galilee between 4 B.C.E. (BC) and 39 C.E. (AD), when he was banished to Gaul (Josephus, Ant. 18.7.2). While Antipas entertains a bit of respect for the Baptizer’s authority and message (Mark 6:20), he ultimately capitulates to peer pressure and orders that John be beheaded (vv. 21-28). Both Antipas and Jesus act in response to the wishes of others, but for radically different motivations: Antipas generates cruelty for the sake of saving face, whereas Jesus alters his plans to assist the needy out of sheer mercy. As a result, the former individual is seen to be a coward, whereas the latter a compassionate servant, and as such a champion of the needy.
Another point of interest here is that Jesus neither ultimately cures nor remedies the problems of the crowds. The focal point in Mark 6:30-34 is Jesus’ response of compassion (“his heart was moved with pity”), not his resulting action (“and he began to teach them many things”). Jesus healed “many” in his day (e.g., 1:34), but certainly not all. This reality speaks to the question often asked today by Christians, “Why doesn’t Jesus heal everyone?” It seems this question was not of great concern to Mark. While healing and exorcising evil was part and parcel of Jesus’ work, it seems not to be the focus. According to Mark, the primary focus of Jesus’ compassion upon the crowds is to “teach” them the message of God’s kingdom (6:34; see also 1:14-15, 38), and to see God’s presence and work through Jesus the Messiah (8:27-33). This focal point does not degrade the value of physical and temporal healing, it merely puts it into proper perspective. In short, physical healing and temporal well-being are passing realities in the eyes of eternity. Seeing God’s presence and understanding God’s activity in our world today is closer to the bull’s eye of Jesus’ aims, since this perspective shift has the potential to change the course of history for the good.
Within the larger scope of Mark’s Gospel, the central contribution of Mark 6:30-34 is that of highlighting Jesus’ internal motivations with respect to the countless crowds to whom he ministered: compassion: “his heart was moved with pity for them” (or “he had compassion on them,” v. 34). Readers and preachers do well to meditate on this focal point with respect to their surrounding contexts and personal challenges, and to be reminded that our Savior comes to us with great compassion for our genuine needs. We, likewise, are called to exhibit that same mercy toward the countless needs that fill our world today, no matter how overwhelming they are in sum total. After all, taking Jesus’ example as a model, the starting point—and greatest achievement—is the response of divinely-inspired mercy. What follows in response to genuine mercy, after all, is less consequential since it cannot but be pleasing in the eyes of God.
The Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben is a pastor at Calvary Lutheran church (ELCA) in Grand Forks, ND, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota.