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Our lesson this week involves three different stories -- and two stories that are skipped over.
The Return of the Twelve (vv. 30-32)
Like Sheep without a Shepherd (vv. 33-34)
[Jesus Feeds Five Thousand (vv. 30-44)]
[Jesus Walks on Water (vv. 45-52]
Miracles in Gennesaret (vv. 53-56)
The two omitted stories: Jesus feeding the 5000 and walking on water [vv. 35-52] are in next week's lesson from John [6:1-21]. Since they are part of Mark's narrative that includes our verses, I will be making brief references to them.
These verses complete the "sending out" that occurred in vv. 7-13. In v. 13 we were told of their "success" in casting out demons and curing the sick. Then there was the insertion of the execution of John the Baptist. Now the "apostles" have gathered together with Jesus and report everything that they did and taught. However, we are not told anything more about what they did or taught. Perhaps it is better that the specifics are not stated. We, who continue the apostolic mission, need to determine what we need to do and teach in our time and places. That is, how do we make use of the authority Jesus has given us "over unclean spirits" (Mk 6:7)? We can't simply repeat what the original disciples said and did. We need to discover how we can best spread the gospel in our time and place with our words and deeds.
What might happen if we began each church meeting with each person reporting to the group what he/she had done and taught in the name of Jesus since the last meeting?
The noun "apostle" occurs (possibly) twice in Mark. Mark calls the twelve by this title in 6:30 and also in 3:14, where the phrase is in [square brackets] in my Greek text and is footnoted in the NRSV which indicates some uncertainty about its inclusion in the original text of Mark.
I think that for Mark, "apostle" is not primarily a technical term -- i.e., "The Twelve Apostles," as a title, but a descriptive term. It is related to the verb, apostello, which means, "to send out (with a message)." The noun then refers to "people who are sent out (with a message)." The two words are used together in 3:14: "And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message." The verb is used in 6:7 when Jesus sends out the twelve two by two; and the noun in 6:30 when the twelve have returned from having been sent out. As a descriptive term, it is one that also applies to us. Like the first twelve, we are also "ones who are sent out with a message." It wasn't just an activity (or a title) for the first twelve.
I think that we have made a mistake by referring to the "apostolic tradition" primarily as doctrine or theology or teachings. While these are very important, the word "apostolic" would imply the necessity of being sent out.
Douglas John Hall in Why Christian? has a chapter called "Why Church?". As part of his answer to the question, he writes:
Christianity does have a mission to the world, and that mission is the most basic reason for the existence of the church. There are religions (some would claim that Judaism is one of them) that do not have a missionary impulse in them; but Christianity has been pushed out into the world from the beginning, like a little fledgling bird nudged out of its cozy nest by its parents. That is in fact a good simile, because what drives Christianity (as distinct from Christendom) towards the world is not personal eagerness for exposure to the public sphere, nor a desire to become big and powerful, nor a sense of its superiority over every other faith. No, it is "sent out" (that is what the word apostolic means), usually against its will, by the God who has called it into being, because of love for ... the world. [p. 138]
the mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable "fellowship" would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament. [p. 139]
If we are to be apostolic, as we confess, that requires a "sent-out-ness" to our being -- a spreading of the message, rather than just having (for ourselves) the correct message.
Some contrasts are presented in v. 31 -- which may be quite appropriate for us to examine in our own lives.
"all by themselves" and "deserted place" vs. surrounded by "many" (polloi)
eremos most literally refers to an uninhabited place in contrast to polis = "a populated place," "city," "town." While sparseness of people and vegetation often go together in the Middle East, e.g., a desert region; this word centers more on the lack of population than the lack of vegetation. Note that in v. 39 the crowd sits down on the green grass.
Aren't there times when we need to get away from the crowds?
"rest a while" vs. "coming and going" and "having no leisure to eat"
The meaning of the word translated "rest" (anapauo), like "sabbath," conveys the sense: "to stop." The middle, imperative form of the verb, as used here, would suggest: "Stop yourself from doing so much." Other meanings of the verb deal with anticipated results from the stoppage: "to rest," "to be (physically) refreshed," "to sleep," and "to die." (These last two are probably not appropriate meanings for our text.) The only other instance of the word in Mark is 14:41 where Jesus says to the disciples: "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners." There is a time to rest and a time not to rest.
Aren't there times when we need to get out of the "rat race"? To stop doing what we are doing? To find rest and be refreshed? (Not only do we need to get out of the "rat race," but we also need to learn how to be the human beings God created us to be rather than rats. A rat at rest is still a rat!)
Verse 32 ends with Jesus and his disciples finding their place of solitude and rest; but it doesn't last long.
Many people from all the towns recognize Jesus and the disciples and run to where they are going. This same popular "recognition" occurs in the second part of our lesson (v. 54). This Greek word, epiginosko, usually means "thorough knowledge about." That is, the prefix epi- implies a more detailed knowledge than ginosko by itself. However, I don't believe that their knowledge about Jesus and the disciples was entirely correct. Perhaps if they had been more astute, they would have realized that Jesus and his disciples are seeking a time and a place of rest -- an eremos -- a place away from the crowds. The arrival of the crowds thwarts Jesus' intended purpose for going away in the boat.
The crowds follow Jesus -- (actually they go ahead of him in v. 33!), but are they followers of Jesus?
What do they expect from Jesus? What do they "recognize" or think they "know" about him that leads them to go to where he is going? What motivates people to drop everything and seek Jesus today? What a contrast to the struggle most of us have to get people to attend church! And woe to the pastor who lets the service run too long.
We aren't told anything about the crowd's motives; but we are told about Jesus'. He has compassion on them. (I'm not sure that I would be so compassionate if a group of people had ruined my vacation plans or my time of rest.)
Why does Jesus have compassion on them? "They are like sheep who don't have a shepherd."
The sheep/shepherd is a familiar image in the OT. It is certainly part of the topical OT Lesson and Psalm (Jer 23:1-6 & Psalm 23), where God is pictured as the good shepherd. It is also part of the sequential OT Lesson and Psalm (2 Samuel 7:1-14a & Psalm 89:20-37), which emphasize David, whom we know was a shepherd boy. Beyond these, the phrase "sheep without a shepherd" is found in Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; cf. Ezekiel 34:5; which leads to scattered and unprotected sheep. This is also stated in the only other place in Mark where sheep/shepherd (probata/poimen) is used is 14:27, which is a quote from Zechariah 13:7: And Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'"
This presents an interesting contrast. In our text Jesus presents himself as the shepherd of the shepherd-less sheep. In the above quote, the sheep who have a shepherd will become shepherdless. This contrast might suggest that the sheep need a change in leadership.
One might explore what sheep without a shepherd might be like; e.g., free to wander off on their own and do whatever they want to do and probably ending up being a meal for some large carnivore.
One might find it more fruitful to explore what sheep with a shepherd might be like. I find many parallels with Psalm 23 and the larger context of our text.
The first thing that Jesus does with these shepherdless people is to teach them many things [v. 34]. I would think that his teaching would help "lead them in right paths."
The second thing that Jesus does with these shepherdless people is to feed all them [vv. 35-40]. Frequently Psalm 23 deals with food and drink: "He makes me lie down in green pastures." (Note that the people are asked to sit on green grass [v. 39].) "He leads me beside still waters." "You spread a table before me."
The third and fourth things that Jesus does (with only the disciples, not the whole crowd) are to direct them across the lake and then to come to them and protect them from the storm [vv. 45-52]. "Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me."
This connection between shepherds, Jesus, food, and protection reminds me of Maslow's hierarchy of emotional needs:
need for self-actualization
belongingness and love needs
According to Maslow's theory, the lower needs -- at the bottom of the list -- have to be met before one can move up the hierarchy. People, who don't have food, spend all their time trying to fill their empty stomachs. They don't have the energy to be too concerned their self-esteem. They are hungry. They need food. That's what's important.
People who have enough to eat, but are always afraid, who don't feel safe, will have a difficult time moving up the chart. Abusive parents or spouses stunt emotional growth. The fear of bullies at school or at work can stunt emotional growth. (Could the fear of bullies at church stunt a pastor's and congregation's growth?)
There is a strange paradox. In order to keep the sheep safe, shepherds impose boundaries around them. They don't want them wandering off on their own. Could we say that boundaries in the form of rules and morals and laws help keep us safe? That they are signs of having a good shepherd?
Jesus has compassion on the crowd. He loves them. He loves us. That leads us to the next level. The church has to proclaim the love of Jesus for the world. When we know that we are loved by the Other; then we may be able to love ourselves -- our esteem needs. I've known people who would readily confess, "I know that Jesus loves me," but they couldn't love themselves. Self-esteem has to come from the self; but, I think, it begins by recognizing that we our truly loved by others. If God has declared such great love for us, how can we not love ourselves?
The "Butterfly Song" has as part of its refrain: "I just thank you Father for making me me." When we reach that confession, we can be ourselves. We don't need to become what others want us to be -- or what we think they want us to be -- or continually chastising ourselves for not being perfect. We thank God for making me me -- "warts and all" as they say.
Peter Steinke in How Your Church Family Works refers to a statement by Bowen: "... a self is always more attractive than a nonself. A self who stays focused on one's own beliefs and acts on them lives to the max and is attractive to many. A nonself focuses on others: what they will think, how they will react, what they will expect. Action is based on others' reactions, not one's own definition and truth" [p. 110].
God did not create us to be nonselves, but to be ourselves -- beloved sheep in God's great flock.
Although I have partially psychologized our text, I think that it fits in well with this summary statement by Perkins (Mark, New Interpreter's Bible):
This passage begins with Jesus expressing compassion for the crowd. Teaching and feeding show that Jesus is the shepherd. The combination represents a variant of the teaching and healing that have been characteristic of all of Jesus' ministry. People today find it difficult to balance those two aspects of Christian responsibility. Some think that the social ministries of the church are all that is necessary to make Christ present in the world. Others think that the church should have nothing to do with feeding and healing except when it is necessary to help someone in the local community. The church's ministry, so the argument goes, is to preach the gospel and provide for public worship.
Both sides are wrong. There is no Christianity without proclaiming the gospel. Teaching and learning the Word of God are as essential to faith as are prayer and belonging to a Christian community. A community that has the same compassion for the suffering that Jesus exhibited cannot be content with only preaching the gospel to the already converted. Christians must also attempt to meet the pressing social and material needs of others, even if few of those who receive such services ever become members of the church. [pp. 601-2]
In verse 45, Jesus has made the disciples get into the boat to go on ahead to the other side, to the Bethsaida. However, they end up at Gennesaret. Perhaps the storm at sea forced them to go where they didn't intend to go, but where they were needed. Whatever the impediments to his exercise of powers in Nazareth, there are none in the land of Gennesaret. All who come to him are healed/saved.
Numbers 15:37-40 talks about the "fringe":
The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God.
A symbolic approach to this section might suggest that "salvation" or "restoration" (meanings of sozo) for "sheep without a shepherd" is to return to the commandments of the LORD -- represented by the fringe on Jesus' cloak, which, as I suggested earlier, is like putting safety or security boundaries around the sheep. Or, perhaps to put it in more graceful terms, Jesus, as the shepherd brings structure to chaos; wholeness to brokenness; "food" to the physically, mentally, and spiritually hungry.
By suggesting this symbolic approach, I don't mean to deny the power of Jesus to miraculously heal the sick, but I struggle with how to preach his miraculous healing touch to people who do not experience such wonders in their own lives or in the lives of their friends and relatives. Many times I have wished and hoped that anointing with oil and prayers would bring quick healings. They seldom do, but we continue to anoint, lay on hands, and pray for healing. However, "being made whole" can mean more than physical healing. It can mean being thankful that God made me me. It can mean being an authentic self -- reaching the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I'm sure that many others, like myself, have witnessed people suffer and even die, but who were "whole" and complete in their self-understanding.
How do we preach these miracles without increasing frustration and guilt in people who believe that Jesus has abandoned them because they haven't been healed? Who may easily believe that they just don't have enough faith? Who may blame (and despise) themselves for their continued sickness?
Even if all the miracles that Jesus did happened today. I imagine that crowds would exhibit the same reactions as they did in Jesus' presence. Immediately following Jesus' great success in vv. 53-56; we have the Pharisees complaining to Jesus [7:1-23] -- (portions of this section are the reading for Proper 17 B). Perhaps the greatest miracle we can hope for is not the healing of the sick or even the raising of the dead, but an end to complaining in the church.
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