This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on July 19, 2015.
These two sets of verses in Mark present summarized statements about the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Verse 30 sums up the disciples’ ministry activity and calls for a reader to recall an earlier commissioning of the disciples in Mark 6:7-13. In these earlier verses, the disciples are sent into villages to proclaim the message of repentance (v. 12). This message imitates the core of their teacher’s proclamation also, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14). Not only did they testify to the good news, they also healed and performed exorcisms. For this reason, only here in the Gospel does Mark use the title apostles for the disciples. They demonstrated both in word and deeds that they were sent out and empowered, as representatives of their teacher, with the message of the kingdom.
Easily overlooked is that 6:30 along with an earlier commission to ministry in 6:7-13 form a bookend or sandwich around the previous story of the beheading of John the Baptist (6:14-29). As is typical of Mark and this technique of juxtaposing stories, each story helps interpret the other. While the returning disciples/apostles of Jesus may celebrate all “that they had done and taught” (v. 30), the mission and ministry of the disciples are always shadowed by suffering and the possibility of martyrdom.
After the arrival of his disciples/apostles, part of Jesus’ strategy was to go away to a “deserted place,” a phrase used twice (vv. 30 and 31). While the reason for going away was rest, Mark indicates resting was not option because the people from various towns and villages recognized Jesus and scurried along the coast line to seek him. At this point, Mark briefly summarizes two key aspects of Jesus and his interactions with the “great crowd”: compassion and his teaching (v. 34).
For the ancients, compassion originated within one’s bowels or guts. It was an internalized feeling, the tumbling in the pit of the stomach, one gets when empathizing with another. The empathy Jesus demonstrates by way of compassion is underscored with the metaphor describing the crowd, “like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). Even those today not raised in a sheep-farming context, understand the metaphor of individuals lost, confused, and in chaos. Jesus’ empathic response of compassion finds its fulfillment in his action of teaching. While often actions of compassion are conceived as rendering physical help and assistance, Jesus’ act of compassion is to instruct.
Mark, more than any other Gospel, highlights Jesus as teacher. Teaching is at the heart of Jesus’ identity. Even when the disciples were trapped within the storm on the Sea of Galilee, they cry out to Jesus as “Teacher” (Mark 4:38). In contrast in the other Gospels, the cries for rescue evoke Jesus as Lord (Matt. 8:25) or Master (Luke 8:24). Jesus is portrayed in Mark as teaching by his words, such as the parables in chapter 4, and by his actions of feeding the hungry (6:32-44). If teaching is Jesus’ mode of rendering compassion, the implication is that the crowd is a group willing to learn. Instruction brings wholeness and guidance to the lost and bewildered.
Verses 53-56 present another summary of Jesus’ activities. If in the previous verses, he is a teacher, these verses reveal his other great vocation, healer. In the ancient world, sickness and disease were constant threats, not just a person’s well being but also for the community. To be sick was to be cut off from the social network of friends and families. To be healed was to be made whole not only physically but also socially; one was brought back into community. For this reason, “they were healed” (v. 56) can also be translated as “they were saved” (v. 56).
One repeated word connects 6:30-34 with 6:53-56: recognized. The crowds recognized Jesus and his disciples (v.33 and v. 54) and pursued them for teaching and healing. Recognition is a recurring motif in Mark. Typically the unnamed and the marginalized recognize Jesus as bringer of something new into their midst. On the other hand, others in Mark’s Gospel, the supposedly insightful ones, such as Jesus’ disciples, do not truly recognize who Jesus is and can raise the question, “who then is this . . . ?” (Mark 4:41).
Mark’s summary of Jesus’ deeds in verses 53-56 captures well Jesus’ résumé as an activist going “into villages, or cities, or farms” (v.56). His actions take him into the very center of political and economic life, the marketplace (v.56). With subtlety Mark presents Jesus’ power as a challenge to the political and economic structure of that day. If Jesus can break the power of illness and disease, he is able to challenge any powers.
As a minister reflects upon these verses, he or she might focus upon the role of Jesus as teacher. Often churches highlight the role of Jesus as Savior, and who does not want a Savior to pull them out of trouble? To accept Jesus as teacher, however, asks more of followers. Teachers expect their students to be listeners and engaged. They have expectations of students related to assignments, work, and progress. What would it mean to encourage individuals to accept Jesus as their “Personal Teacher?” How might this redefine discipleship and expectations?
These verses might also help remind congregations about the need for developing and nurturing a sense of empathy for others. Jesus was able to see others and connect with their loss, fragility, and fear. To empathize is the first step toward acts of care for others and for the common good.
Dr. David M. May
Professor of New Testament
Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Shawnee, KS
Tags: Jesus, healing, teaching, teacher, empathy, recognition