The nature of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 6

The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 7 in Year B appears to be very odd at first, with a split collection of verses in Mark 6.30–34 and 53–56. I think the logic for this is that we are considering the ‘bread’ of another Markan sandwich, and the ‘filling’ is the paired episodes of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on the water. We are about to have a five-week foray into the Fourth Gospel, and will be looking carefully at both these episodes; the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle story which occurs in all four gospels, and the walking on the water comes in Matthew and John as well as Mark. Matthew’s version is, unusually, more detailed than Mark’s, including as it does Peter’s symbolically rich stepping out of the boat, and we looked at that in Trinity 9 last year.

The return of the Twelve to Jesus forms the brief inclusio around the episode about John the Baptist; Mark describes their sending out at the beginning of this narrative unit, and their return in triumph provides a sharp contrast to the poignancy of the previous verse, where the Baptist’s disciples bury his headless corpse. This is the only time in Mark’s narrative description where the Twelve are described as ‘apostles’; both here and at the introduction of the term in Mark 3.14, it is linked with their active ministry both commissioned by and parallel to Jesus and his ministry. It helps to point us to what it means to be part of the [one, holy, catholic and] apostolic church.

Mark does not tell us what Jesus was doing whilst the Twelve went about their ‘mission’—but the Fourth Gospel does! John 3.24 tells us that all the events thus far took place before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 1.14; and John 4.44 correlates with the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth that we read about in Mark 6.1–6. We can therefore assume that the healing at the Pool of Bethesda in John 5 (at the time of an unnamed feast, not one of the three Pilgrim festivals) took place during this time. It is then followed, in Mark and the Fourth Gospel, by the feeding of the 5,000 near the time of Passover.

This short scene-setting introduction to the feeding of the 5,000 is unique to Mark. Jesus’ invitation to ‘Come away by yourselves’ to get some rest and refreshment is characteristic of the narrative: in Mark 4.34 Jesus explains the parable of the sower to the disciples; in Mark 9.2 the Three come away to witness the Transfiguration; in Mark 13.3 the disciples ask about the fall of Jerusalem. All are linked by the expression κατ̓ ἰδίαν, ‘by yourselves’ or ‘by themselves’. According to Mark, times of retreat and refreshment both to rest and to listen to the teaching of Jesus are a vital part of the life of a disciple.

This invitation then sits in stark contrast to the realities of ministry (and of life…?); with all the comings and goings, they could not find the time to eat. In contrast to British culture, where eating is largely functional—though more like the culture in other parts of Europe—meals were times for relaxation, reflection and conversation, not just nutrition.

So far, this gospel has emphasised the pressure of the crowds on Jesus, who have come because the message about him has spread far and wide. So have rest for him and his disciples means going to a ‘deserted place’, and this then explains the setting of the feeding of the 5,000 and why the people cannot get bread for themselves. There is here, for once, a problem with Mark’s geography; they do not ‘cross’ the top of the lake on this occasion, and after the feeding Jesus despatched the disciples to ‘cross over’ to Bethsaida (Mark 6.45). But Luke 9.10 tells us that the feeding happened near Bethsaida, and John 6.5 confirms this as he asks Philip, who came from Bethsaida (John 1.44) about buying bread. ‘Mark’s geography cannot easily be harmonised with Luke’s’ (R T France, NIGTC, p 264).

If the boat had been going along the shore (rather than further out), and powered either by oars or by a slack wind, it would not be difficult both to recognise who was in the boat or to outrun it. Josephus estimates that there were around 200 villages in Galilee, and that would give a population for the region of between 200,000 and 700,000, so a ‘great crowd’ which ended up being 5,000 men plus women and children is not difficult to imagine.

There are two vital things to note about Jesus’ response when he sees the crowd. First, despite both he and the disciples being exhausted, they from their mission and he from his ministry in Jerusalem at the same time, his response is not resentment but compassion. The verb σπλαγχνίζομαι is rare in Mark (occurring only here and Mark 8.2 and 9.22) but in the gospels it is only ever used of Jesus.

Combined with the simile of sheep without a shepherd it presents Jesus as ‘the one who cares’ (France, p 265)

The phrase ‘sheep without a shepherd’ signifies people without leadership, or with failed leadership. It is used in Num 27.17 of the people of Israel in anticipation of Moses’ death, and the problem is solved by the appointment of Joshua. It is used in 1 Kings 22.17 of Ahab’s army after his death in battle. Most notably, it is used of the people whose leaders have failed them in Ezek 34.5–6, a key passage behind Jesus’ teaching ‘I am the good shepherd’ in John 10.11. And it is used of of the people’s helplessness when their (messianic) leader is taken away. Scripture might not use the terminology of ‘leadership’ but it certainly believes in the importance of leadership.

And here we see the second vital thing about Jesus’ response: he teaches them. Leaderless people need teaching so that they understand who God is, what he has done for them, and what he wills for them. Without this, they go hungry and aimless. And it is no accident that this immediately precedes the feeding miracle.

Mark sets out Jesus as the shepherd who feeds his people with true teaching; from his supply there is more than enough to feed all their needs (Ernest Best, The Temptation and the Passion, p 78 cited in France NIGTC p 265).

The people cannot live on bread alone, but need every word that comes from the mouth of God, brought to them in the teaching of Jesus. You cannot separate ‘pastoral’ care from teaching the word, which is probably why they are group so closely together by Paul in the four- or five-fold list in Eph 4.11 (‘pastors and teachers’ or ‘pastor-teachers’).

Having skipped over the episodes we will explore in the Fourth Gospel in the coming weeks, we land again at Mark 6.53. Jesus and the disciples have crossed back over the north of the lake from the north-east shore to the north-west. Despite the various in English translations, the general verb means that they landed and secured the boat, either by tying it to a dock or pulling it up on the beach. I wonder whether the sense of security in landing is a natural contrast to the buffeting they have experienced in the journey across. (The parallel in Matthew 14.34 does not include this detail.)

At this point in the narrative, the Fourth Gospel includes Jesus’ challenge to the people and their reason for seeking him in the discourse about the bread of life (John 6.26f). But Matthew follows Mark in summarising Jesus’ ministry of healing, though once again he omits all of Mark’s ‘unnecessary’, incidental (eyewitness?) detail:

  • Those who recognised Jesus ran around the region, suggesting a sense of urgency or excitement.
  • They brought all the sick lying on their krabbatoi (bed, stretcher, pallet).
  • They brought them to every place ‘they heard he was’, continuing the repeated emphasis on the passing around of the news about Jesus.
  • The ministry of Jesus took place in ‘villages, cities or the countryside’. Unlike Paul, who usually preached in key urban centres on trade routes, Jesus does not appear to have any worked out ‘missional’ strategy, but scatters the seed of the word on every kind of ground.
  • They laid the sick in the market place; this is the natural gathering point in any village or town of the area, and continues to be so in many rural areas around the world today. The healing (and presumably teaching) of Jesus happened in the public square, not merely in the privatised sphere of personal devotion.

The mention of his kraspedon, the fringe of his garment, possibly including the tassels fixed at the corners in accordance with the commandment of Deut 22.12; if so, this would fit with the picture we have throughout the gospels of Jesus as an orthodox, Torah-observant Jew. In narrative terms, it connects back to the mention of the kraspedon in Matthew 9.20 and Luke 8.44 in their accounts of the woman healed with the issue of blood, but it also points forward to the ministries of Peter (Acts 5.15) and Paul (Acts 19.2) who similarly dispensed the healing power of God as they passed by.

And, in contrast to Jesus’ experience in Nazareth, both Mark and Matthew emphasise that his healing is universally effective.

(I trust, dear Reader, that you will be impressed that I managed to find 1,571 words to write about two short, slightly obscure and apparently insignificant passages!)

The image at the top is from the picture by James Tissot.

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12 thoughts on “The nature of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 6”

  1. “Mark describes their sending out at the beginning of this narrative unit, and their return in triumph provides a sharp contrast to the poignancy of the previous verse, where the Baptist’s disciples bury his headless corpse.”

    I think this is a very powerful line. ‘Headless’ is a very striking word.

    Interesting also that this is Mark’s only case of casually saying ‘apostles’ is right after John’s disciples moment of grief.

  2. Last week the “gospel” reading was focused on the execution, the grotesque, grisly and horrible execution of a helpless man; Jesus was not in sight throughout the reading. Did we respond to “This is the Gospel of the Lord” with “Praise to you, O Christ”. In many ways I hope not – if we did it was probably the power of rote-response. Not every short passage should be deemed “gospel”??

    This week we have an idiosyncratically unstitched / restitched reading. Should we be so accepting of our liturgical responses and / or our Lectionary?
    Some of my musings on this passage as I think about preaching:

    I suspect there is more significance in the repeated “deserted place” with its OT connotations. It is interesting that Jesus says “you go away” not “let’s (us) go away”. What does that say about his relationship with the disciples? I’m not sure if it is significant.

    Sheep without a shepherd in the Ancient Near East context are much more in danger than the sheep in our fields, or even on our moors where predators are much less, and food and water generally available. It is a powerful image – defenceless and vulnerable, and presumably lost which is why they are without a shepherd, lost or abandoned. With the Jeremiah 23 reading set, this feels like a likely preaching angle.

    There is also something almost wearisome about the constant demands of the crowds, which is brought more to the fore with the middle passage missing. For those who are “in ministry” this may read rather differently from those who wish that their loved ones or themselves might receive healing. In the recent debates about passengers, or non-fruitful church members, these crowds of needy people find healing without any demand that they then become active. They are recipients of Jesus but not expected to sign up as a result.

    • Is it true that Jesus did not seek a response? Mark’s introduction to Jesus’ ministry has:

      “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15)

      (BTW, note the temporal context).

      Then later in Mark’s account:

      “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)

      I might add in:
      “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matt 28:19-20a

      Anyone who has been baptized could be said to have signed up as a disciple.

        • “Anyone who has been baptized could be said to have signed up as a disciple. “

          And you would see those baptised as infants in that category too? Specific question to Ian and David.

        • Jesus calls on the people to repent, though where does he require repentance from an individual who seeks him out? The rich young man chooses not to respond, but the poor and needy receive their healing.
          Jesus calls on people to deny themselves if they want to be a disciple, but he does not seem to chastise or condemn those who do not make this choice. The disciples are called to make disciples from all nations, but the folk they healed on their “mission” do not seem to have become disciples.
          There is a call to become disciples, but there is also a concern for, compassion for and acceptance of the crowds.
          There are three key groups in Mark, the crowd(s), the disciples and the readers / audience of Mark. We as readers or audience are challenged to become disciples, disciples who will share the good news, Jesus’ healing power, and the call to discipleship with others, the “crowds” who may or may not respond, but are still fed, still healed, and on whom Jesus has compassion, regardless ..

  3. Mark does not tell us what Jesus was doing whilst the Twelve went about their ‘mission’—but the Fourth Gospel does! John 3.24 tells us that all the events thus far took place before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in Mark 1.14.
    I don’t think the first sentence follows from the second. All the events up to John 3:24 could have taken place – and probably did – before Mark 1:14. The latter verse does not say that this was the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry, only that Jesus went into Galilee and proclaimed there the good news of the kingdom of God (‘of the kingdom’ as per the best manuscript tradition in my opinion).

    Jesus is in Judaea while John is active (John 3:22). Mark 1:14 up to the present passage is all set in Galilee and therefore later than 3:22. It marks a new phase, following the preliminary phase of baptising people.

  4. It is true that Jesus never used the word grace in his earthly mission to the Jews— how is it that he preached the good news of the kingdom, the gospel without mentioning grace? Is it or, could it be possible that the nature of the Lord’s ministry to the Jews was that of condemnation and not salvation? And that his healing ministry was a sign given by the Holy Spirit as a testimony of who he is— and now that he came and preached to them, the Jews, closing out that age— salvation is now officially offered to the Gentiles?

    • The reason is that ‘grace’ is a term coined by Paul as he took the gospel of God’s ‘loving faithfulness’ (Hebrew ‘hesed’) and translated it into a Greek culture where the giving of gifts was commonplace. See John Barclay’s writing on this.

      The idea that Jesus showed judgement to the Jews, but forgiveness to Gentiles, is theologically incoherent, but also does not tally with the data of the text of the gospels. Jesus’ message was the same to all: that the time is fulfilled, and God’s promised kingdom, his just and holy rule, was breaking into this age of sin. The response to God’s gracious invitation is to turn from our evil ways and trust in his mercy.

      A central theological claim in the NT is that God is ‘impartial’, making this invitation to Jew and Gentile alike.


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