Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
30 And the apostles gathered to Jesus
and reported to him all the things that they did
and the things that they taught.
31 And he says to them:
You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little,
for those coming and those going were many
and they did not even have time to eat.
32 And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place
33 Many saw them going off
and knew them
and they ran together by foot from all the cities there.
They came there ahead of them.
34 After he got out,
he saw a great crowd.
He was moved for them:
they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.
He began to teach them many things.
54 As they were getting out of the boat,
BANG they recognized him.
55 The whole of that region ran around
and began to carry
those who were in a bad way.
They carried them around wherever they heard that he was.
56 Wherever he went into a village,
or into a city,
or into a field,
in the fields they placed the weak.
They kept calling him
so that they touch even the fringe of his garment.
As many as touched it were rescued.
A Question or Two:
- How did the people in the new place “recognize” Jesus? They had not seen his face on TV, or read about him on Facebook.
- What was the substance of that “recognition.”
Some Longer Reflections:
So what is this about being like “sheep that did not have a shepherd?”
If the image is to be read politically, it is no surprise that they do not have a shepherd. Rome rules the Mediterranean, and thus Rome rules the Jewish homeland. And before Rome there was a parade of foreign rulers all the way back to the Babylonian Conquest. The Jewish people have not had a Jewish leader since 586 B.C.E.
If this is political (and it IS political, but it may be other things as well), the storyteller is telling us that Jesus shares the desire for freedom and autonomy. The storyteller is making it clear that Jesus is a patriot, not a Roman collaborator or a non-partisan religious being who is above it all. That matters.
If the image is to be read religiously, interpreters need to proceed wisely. Preachers sometimes imagine that the point is that Jesus thinks Judaism provides no guidance, no shepherding. When preachers do this, they often make Jesus into a Protestant, usually some kind of “non-denominational” Evangelical.
Jesus was not any kind of Evangelical, denominational or otherwise. Jesus is Jewish.
But the storyteller might be making a comment about the Temple. The Jerusalem Temple was the stable center of the Jewish world, but the Temple as it stood then was the work of Herod the Great, the murderous ruler that the rabbis refuse to recognize as a Jew. And the priests who staffed the Temple had the task of managing the re-balancing of the world and thus were essential to Jewish life. But Rome had suborned the Chief Priests, forcing them to become a Roman “organ of liaison,” the local link through which Rome controlled its conquered peoples. All of this meant that the factors that made the world stable had been undercut, and therefore it was (again) not surprising that the people were like sheep without a shepherd.
Or the storyteller could be making a comment for the contemporary audience. Though Jesus lived in the first 1/3 of the 1st century C.E., the gospel of Mark was written in its current form in the last 1/3 of that century. The story came to its final form, therefore, after Rome had destroyed the Temple. The Temple and its staff of priests, however compromised by Roman actions, had kept the world stable. The storyteller might, therefore, be telling us that the destruction of the Temple had left the people without stability, without safety, and thus like sheep without a shepherd.
And if the image is to be read sociologically, the storyteller is telling us that the people with power were managing the world to preserve their own interests, their own advantages, their own privilege. That means that common people were left vulnerable. This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it uncommon.
The outcome of this twisting of society can be see in Madeleine Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning. “To create tyranny out of the fears and hopes of average people, money is required, and so, too, ambition and twisted ideas. It is the combination that kills.” (Fascism: A Warning, chapter p. 229) Common people are left without protection against the wolves that will hunt them. And sometimes those common people even find themselves supporting the wolves that hunt them. This is very likely what the storyteller means by “sheep without a shepherd.”
So, the question for this week is: why does Jesus respond to this complex situation by “teach[ing] them many things?” What does he teach them?
Think about this carefully. I do not trust the simpler answers. Jesus is called (quite helpfully) a “messiah of peace,” but that does not mean that he is simple or non-political, and it does not mean that he is passive. It may not mean that he is a pacifist, at least not in any usual way. Jesus is also called a true revolutionary, but that does not mean that he can be enlisted in any and every revolution that is recruiting. Jesus is called the “lamb of God” (whatever that means), but reading Revelation makes it clear that Christians did not imagine that Jesus was simply a non-resisting victim.
This is complicated. But if we are to be followers of the Messiah, we have to puzzle out what Messiah might teach us about the political, religious, and sociological meaning of being “without a shepherd.” What are the things that leave people unprotected, aimless, hopeless? What do we do when we learn that we have no protection, no goal, and nothing on which we dare stake ourselves?
Secretary Albright offers us help here. Fascism, in her view arises out of such political, religious, and sociological vulnerability. It arises, she suggests, because it tells people whom to fear and whom to resent. (Fascism, p. 8) What did Jesus teach that would counteract the message of fear and resentment?