The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
We transition out of the flashback to John’s beheading to encounter the disciples returning from their first experience “on the way” without Jesus taking the lead. At the beginning of chapter 6, Jesus sent out the twelve two by two. In verse thirty they have returned and gather around Jesus to tell him about their experience. Knowing they are probably a little worn from their travels, Jesus suggests they withdraw into a deserted place for rest and renewal. This pattern of withdrawal has already been established by Jesus as an important part of the rhythm of discipleship. We recall that he withdraw into a deserted place after his first healing in chapter one.
As they attempt to withdraw, the crowds who have followed Jesus notice their leaving, recognize their boat, and beat them to their destination. So much for a little rest and renewal. The place meant for renewal has now become a waiting room for those in need.
The Compassion of Jesus
Mark tells us that Jesus looks upon the crowd with “compassion” and begins to teach them. It could have been a touchy moment for Jesus. Caught between tired disciples and a large crowd, he could have attempted to withdraw again, “yet rather than responding with exasperation, Jesus demonstrates compassion (spagchnizomia, lit., having one’s ‘guts’ be torn apart), and he proceeds to teach them until the late hours (6:34)(Myers, 206).”
Jesus has a gut-wrenching moment. He is moved by the pain, suffering, neediness, the very humanness of the masses he encounters. Instead of moving away, Jesus leans into their need.
Sheep without a Shepherd
Mark tells us that Jesus has compassion for the crowd because they are “like sheep without a shepherd (6:34).” Here we may have another political statement from Mark and an allusion to the prophet Ezekiel.
In the 34th chapter of Ezekiel, the prophet issues a harsh critique of the leadership of Israel.
The word of the Lord came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them—to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them."
Mark could be alluding to this metaphor through the words of Jesus. The leaders of Israel, the scribes and the Pharisees, have been more concerned with their own well-being than with taking care of those in need. Jesus has challenged them on this very practice. Jesus again encounters the needy masses of Israel, his own people, who have been left hungry and needy by the very “shepherds” called to lead them. Jesus moves to action and healing.
Myers writes, “Clearly, linking Jesus - as the one who attends to the hunger of the crowds in the wilderness - with these prophetic traditions is meant as a criticism of the political economy of Palestine and the ruling class who profits from it (Myers, 209).”
The Feeding in the Wilderness - “The Economics of Sharing” (Myers)
The disciples come to Jesus in the waning hours of the day with a reasonable request - let the people go so that they can get something to eat. This seems like a great idea. But Jesus has something else in mind. He turns the request to the disciples - “You give them something to eat (6:37).”
The disciples, who have just returned from a journey where they were told to take “nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts (6:8)” immediately attempt to return to their practice of buying goods. They respond in frustration because they do not think they can gather enough resources. But again, Jesus has something else in mind.
This story of feeding, and the one we will engage in chapter eight, are some of the most famous of Jesus’ miracles. It is hard to imagine how Jesus could have multiplied five small loaves and two fish into enough food to feed such a large crowd. Ched Myers argues for a more practical and concrete method of multiplication, one that fits in with Jesus’ rhythm of ministry and practice of developing community. One that demonstrates the economics of the kingdom of God and the radical equality it brings.
The disciples wonder where they can get enough money to buy bread for the crowd, “but Jesus’ solution has nothing to do with participation in the dominant economic order. Instead he determines the available resources, organizes the consumers into groups (6:39f.), pronounces the blessing (cf. Mark 14:22 - the last supper), and distributes what is at hand (6:41) (Myers, 206).”
What we have is not some supernatural occurrence, but a genuine moment of sharing and community building. Jesus gathered what resources the disciples had - five loaves and two fish, blesses the meager feast, and models the sharing of those resources to the gathered crowd. Jesus organized the large mass into manageable groups, small enough that if any people had packed food, the number to share with did not seem insurmountable.
Jesus moves the crowd from a place of economic and consumer driven engagement, to a place of sharing and community building. Had any of the crowd gone into a marketplace to buy food, may have been less likely to share with their neighbors. Being poor, and with scare resources, one would be less likely to share out of a place of scarcity. But Jesus models the use of resources at hand and the radical generosity of the kingdom of God. The results - “all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish (6:43-44).”
“The only ‘miracle’ here is the triumph of the economics of sharing within a community of consumption over against the economics of autonomous consumption in the anonymous marketplace (Myers, 206).”
Jesus teaches the crowd how to share their resources so that all have enough, instead of participating in the individual economics of their culture where the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer (cf. 4:24-25).” Jesus models the radical equality of the kingdom of God where all are welcome, and have enough.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- How do we remember and practice the pattern of “withdrawal and renewal?”
- How do we model leadership that leans into the needs of others?
- How do we model a culture of sharing and radical equality?