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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 6

The Flock and Its Shepherds (6:7-8:26)

In compiling this section of his book, Mark again used a collection of materials so diverse that it is almost impossible to discern a common theme, an unbroken thread of action, or a continuing intention. The title we have rather arbitrarily chosen is suggested by 6:34. The choice will seem less arbitrary when we notice the central emphasis upon the two feedings of the flock (Mark 6:33-44; Mark 8:1-21), and when we realize how flexible are the biblical ways of referring to the flock. Elsewhere in the Bible the needs of the sheep are variously seen as hunger, danger, lostness, sickness, and suffering from derelict shepherds. Elsewhere, too, their salvation depends wholly on God’s provision of shepherds, whose authority and teaching, whose compassion and care, will meet their diverse needs. Mark inherited an extensive vocabulary concerning shepherds and their flocks, and he applied it freely to Jesus as the True Shepherd, to the Apostles as his undershepherds, and to the false shepherds who contested the right of leadership. We will understand this vocabulary more clearly if we first read other key biblical passages (Psalms 23; Psalms 77; Psalms 78; Psalms 80; Jeremiah 23; Ezekiel 34; Zechariah 7-14; Luke 15; John 10; John 21; 1 Peter 5).

Verses 1-6

The Unbelief of the Believing (6:1-6)

The reverse is also true. The Master frequently found unbelief where others might expect to find faith. The story of Jesus’ homecoming in Nazareth remained a vivid example of this. The Messiah came to his own synagogue on the Sabbath Day. Those who joined him in worship were of his own house and kin. They knew the mighty works which he had done, of which the preceding chapters are reminders. They recognized that his teaching spelled out a wisdom most surprising. They did not deny that amazing things had been happening. Their trouble came from another direction: they knew him too well. They knew his mother, his sisters, his brothers; there was nothing unusual about them. They knew his trade; nothing striking there. They could not fathom how a man from their own village had been given such wisdom and power. They could not believe in him as God’s anointed prophet. They could honor him as a fellow citizen, but not as a prophet with the power of the New Age. They were offended by the claim that one of themselves could have received divine work to do. No more than the Pharisees could they explain his words or acts as authorized by God rather than by Beelzebul. It was at their unbelief that Jesus marveled, in contrast to the marvelous faith of the unclean woman (vs. 6; Mark 5:34) .

We should not leave this anecdote without commenting on the report it gives concerning the household in Nazareth of which Jesus was a member. A modem reader is grateful for the names of Jesus’ brothers. But he is even more surprised that nothing more is said about them. Mark was not interested in them as persons, nor in their impressions of Jesus, nor in the life of this particular household. They are viewed only as background for this scene. They are mentioned only to show that Jesus was too ordinary a man for people to expect marvels from him. There is irony in the question — which we cannot overlook. Even so, the irony carries valuable incidental information.

"Is not this the carpenter . . . ?" Here is the only clue in Scripture to Jesus’ occupation. And even this was dropped out of some manuscripts, presumably because copyists thought such a reference beneath the dignity of their Lord. Other manuscripts, perhaps for the same reason, change the form of the question: "Is not this the carpenter’s son?" The very reason which made later Christians hesitate to think of the Lord as a carpenter had been present, in reverse logic, among the people of Nazareth. They were not ready to think of this carpenter as the Lord. In other words, both believers and unbelievers have found it extremely difficult to understand how Jesus could be at once fully man and fully God.

What more is said about Jesus’ kin? If we read "carpenter’s son," we should assume that Joseph was alive. If we read "the carpenter," we would naturally infer that Joseph had died before Jesus’ prophetic career. It is possible, of course, to argue that Mark does not mention Joseph lest he contradict the story of the Virgin Birth. This argument does not convince many readers, in part because these words were spoken by Nazareth residents who would not have known, and in part because they speak of the brothers and sisters without any suggestion that as such they were not fully and normally related to Jesus. Mark’s lack of interest in these brothers and sisters is characteristic of the Church of his day. None of the sisters and only one of the brothers appears later in the New Testament. This one is James, who became a follower of Jesus much later, perhaps after the Resurrection, and who for a while was considered an Apostle and a leader in the Christian community in Jerusalem (see 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 2:9-12; Acts 15:13-29). The sisters of Jesus get no further mention in the New Testament. To Mark it was enough to know that Jesus was rejected by his family, that his townsmen looked down on him because of his humble connections, and that Jesus himself had chosen a new set of mothers, sisters, and brothers (Mark 3:35).

Verses 7-32

The Appointment of Shepherds (6:7-32)

"He called to him the twelve." By this carefully accented number, Jesus emphasized their work as the new patriarchs of the flock of Israel; like Jacob of old he was establishing them and their tribes to receive his blessing and to continue his Covenant (see Genesis 49). "He . . . began to send them out." Earlier Jesus had called them to be "with him" (Mark 3:14); now he did what he had intended from the beginning — he sent them out as his messengers to continue and to extend his own work. They went out "two by two," rather than as a group, in order to reach more villages. They went out in pairs rather than singly, because in Jewish custom every promise needed two witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6), and these messengers were to give testimony not only to the word of God but also to the response of the towns (vs. 11). They carried Jesus’ own authority over sickness and over demons (vss. 7, 13).

The urgency of their journey was implied in the command to travel light. They should not tarry long in any town. Only one thing were they allowed to carry: "a staff." Was this staff a walking stick, to symbolize pilgrimage? More likely, it was a rod or crook, symbol of the shepherd’s work (see Revelation 2:27; Revelation 12:5; Revelation 19:15). The same word, however, was used for the king’s scepter, the mace which gave him power to govern (Hebrews 1:8). The shepherd and the king — these were the two basic symbols of Israel’s government, since the days of David. The scepter and the staff — these belonged to the shepherd-king. It was the authority and the compassion of Jesus which the Apostles exercised.

They were to take "no bread, no bag, no money." The Master was insistent on this (see Matthew 10:9-10; Luke 10:4). They were not to take thought for the morrow, what they should eat or wear (Matthew 6:25-34). They would need no insurance for the future; baggage would only hamper their movements. They had much to give and therefore appeared as penniless suppliants, dependent on whatever hospitality might be offered, for the character of their wealth would be made more conspicuous by their poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9). Their claims on men’s hospitality must reside wholly in their preaching and healing (Mark 6:12-13).

In our culture, where abundance is the rule and penury the exception, this luggage of the disciples seems curious indeed. What instructions could be more damaging to public relations? Yet we must take this picture as accurate not only for this single journey of the Twelve, but also for the regular practice of Jesus (who had "nowhere to lay his head"), and for the traveling evangelists of Mark’s day. It is likely that Mark and Peter had gone together on their trips with precisely this kind of equipment. The Apostles knew that such weakness and poverty were effective means of proclaiming that men should repent (1 Corinthians 2:3-5). The reader who wishes immediately to see what happened on the Apostles’ trip is rudely interrupted by a strange story about John the Baptist, a story which fits better after Mark 5:43. Let us look then at this story. It was introduced by discussions concerning Jesus. Who was this newscaster? Three possibilities were given: John the Baptizer, Elijah, another of the ancient prophets. (We shall comment on these a bit later when these three are mentioned again in Mark 8:27-30.) Is Jesus to be thought of as John? If so, then he is John "raised from the dead," for John had already been executed at Herod’s command. This mention of John prompts Mark to include at this point a popular tradition concerning his martyrdom. The text gives the story so fully that we need add very little. Why should Mark have included this bit of gruesome material in his message concerning Jesus? A certain answer is not available, but we may suggest a few possibilities. For example, we note several tantalizing parallels. Jesus had begun his active work only after John had been jailed (Mark 1:14); now his Apostles begin their active work only after John’s death. In both cases the reference to John gives a preview of the fate of the others. Jesus had just bestowed the gift of his Kingdom and his power, to the end that men might be healed. King Herod bestows a similar gift (vs. 23), and it is used in spiteful vengeance to secure a prophet’s death. The banquet of King Herod in the palace offers the sharpest contrast to the banquet of King Jesus in the wilderness (vss. 39-44), Because of the link between the ministry of John and Jesus (Mark 9:11-13; Mark 11:30), the rejection of John runs parallel to the rejection of Jesus (Mark 6:1-6). More significantly, this "passion story" of John shares many traits in common with the later Passion of Jesus. King Herod and King Pilate fill similar roles. Both are hesitant to do the deed. Both want to evade responsibility. Both consent to issue the death warrant only in order to please others. Both assign the unwelcome task to soldiers. In both stories there is interest in the burial; in both there is report of resurrection; in both the recollection of Elijah is prominent. Whether or not Mark was conscious of these parallels, he believed that both John and Jesus had served the same gospel, and that the work of both would be established in God’s Kingdom.

Verses 33-56

Shepherdless Sheep (6:33-56)

When the Shepherd had begun his ministry, the public clamor aroused by his teaching and healing had forced him to withdraw to the desert for prayer and rest, and for a renewed understanding of his mission (Mark 1:35-39). Now after the undershepherds had been pursuing the same task of teaching and healing, and had aroused similar excitements, they too needed the desert, and the reminder of their central purpose (Mark 6:30-32). On this occasion, however, the crowds anticipated their "retreat" and waited for them in the desert. The sheep were there, without a shepherd. Who would help them?

Obviously Mark and his readers knew the answer. Jesus was the Shepherd who had compassion, and he showed this compassion first of all by teaching the throngs about God and his Kingdom. This teaching was essential to the shepherding of Israel. Then came the hunger and the need for food. At this point the story takes a surprising turn, for now Jesus expected his disciples to provide the food. Had he not appointed them to teach and to heal? Had they not been able to do many things by his authority, by the scepter of his Kingdom? "You [who are in training as God’s shepherds] give them something to eat." That sounded like a plausible request. But had Jesus, and had the disciples, forgotten his earlier commands? He had just ordered them to take no money and no bread (Mark 6:8). They must have been fully justified, therefore, in protesting that they themselves could not be expected to raise "forty dollars," or to have enough food in their bags. How could Jesus rightly ask such things of them? Certainly he must have known that they had too little food even for themselves (vs. 38). The expectation of Jesus was manifestly unfair unless from the first the story had been couched in figurative language. It was not unfair if Jesus had in mind "the bread of life," "the food which endures to eternal life," if he thought of food as the act of accomplishing God’s work (John 6:27-28; John 6:35). It was not unfair if Jesus wanted to show how Israel can truly be fed not from bulging granaries but from loving concern (John 21).

Almost all interpreters of this story find its values not on the surface but beneath it. There one finds important linkages to many other biblical episodes and teachings. The story echoes the account of God’s gift of manna to Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16). It runs parallel to stories of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 4:42-44). It is shaped according to expectations of the great banquet which would be celebrated in the Messianic Age. It is associated with the Eucharistic meals in the churches of Mark’s day, and the account of the Last Supper (Mark 14:17-25). It is a fulfillment of Psalms 23 (the shepherd, green pastures, still waters, the table, the enemies), and of the petition for bread in the Lord’s Prayer. When we read the narratives with these associations in mind we will glimpse the multiple meanings of many key phrases : "he looked up to heaven" (the home of the Shepherd-God, the one from whom Jesus had been sent, and to whom he will return); "he . . . blessed, and broke the loaves" (thanksgiving, sanctification, fellowship, Covenant vows, suffering); "he . . . gave them to the disciples to set before the people" (the Apostles are deacons of the Church, who must receive the power from Jesus before they can feed the sheep); "twelve baskets full" (the disciples who began with almost no resources ended with a vast surplus for each; to feed God’s flock, God would provide whatever was needed).

In summary we may confess that the story staggers us with its wealth of meanings. It can itself feed five thousand and yet leave much of its reservoir untapped. We do great injustice to such a story if we reduce its purpose to a single point or a single doctrine. No notice is given in the story itself to any special amazement over what had happened. "And they all ate and were satisfied." Nothing is said to indicate that anyone marveled at this. In fact, later comments prove that the mere production of bushels of food was not the point of the story in Mark’s mind (Mark 6:52; Mark 8:14-21). He was much more aware of the truth that before Jesus’ death the Apostles had been unable to feed God’s flock, the truth that this ability had in fact come to them after Jesus’ death, and the truth that this later capacity had resulted from Jesus’ act, when he had blessed the bread and had broken it (Mark 6:41; Mark 14:22). Mark knew that this breaking of the bread had been accomplished in the breaking of Jesus’ body, and that the broken body must be eaten by those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6). Thus this text, like many others, draws its ultimate glory from the disclosure of God’s grace in the death of his Son.

After the supper together in the wilderness, Jesus sent his disciples away, for obviously they needed further experience before they could become shepherds. He dismissed the crowds, an act of blessing and benediction similar to the closing word after the observance of the Supper in the Church. Then he went to the mountain again for prayer. He and the Twelve were separated, he on the mountain and they in the boat on the lake (the Church in a hostile world). He could see them, and know their distress; they did not dream of his presence, for even when he came near, they thought they were seeing a phantom. He found no obstacle in wind or waves; they were unable to make headway. When they saw him, the disciples were at first more terrified by this apparition than by the storms, until he commanded, "Take heart." But when he had joined them in the boat the winds and the fears were stilled.

The episode surprises us with its ending: "they did not understand about the loaves." Presumably Mark is saying that if the Twelve had understood the loaves they would not have been bewildered by Jesus’ coming to their boat. The two stories, therefore, are linked together. If the meaning of one is grasped, the other should be clear. "But their hearts were hardened" — this phrase in the New Testament refers to a particular kind of spiritual blindness. Men are thus afflicted who are unable to see God’s glory or to receive his freedom (2 Corinthians 3:14). So also are those who in hearing the gospel are blinded to its truth (John 12:40). Another example is the Pharisee who in loyalty to the Sabbath rejected Jesus’ emancipating power (Mark 3:5). In this passage the Twelve are blind to the presence of God and to his care for men. This suggests that his appearance to them in the storm center was really the manifestation of God’s saving power. (The phrase "It is I" is the same phrase as the distinctive name of God in Exodus 3:14.) The encountering of storms by the Apostles (and later on, by the Church) is thus seen to be a part of God’s plan when he commands the Church to take to the boats in order to prove his presence to them in the crises of their journey. This "lesson," then, is the same as that taught by the story of the wilderness supper. The loaves prove the power of the Lord (Psalms 23) to sustain and to nourish his people in all situations. But the disciples did not understand this, nor did they understand that the Messiah was seeking to use the wilderness and the tempest to teach them how to feed his sheep and to triumph over their adversities. Such a lesson must have been as reassuring to Roman Christians after Nero’s purge as to the Twelve in Galilee. "It is I; have no fear." But such a word could not penetrate hardened hearts.

What happened when they landed provided a stark contrast. The sick people rushed to be healed because they "recognized him," whereas the Twelve had been terrified by his presence in the storm. As he had fed his sheep, as he had saved them from the deeps, so now he heals them. That is his work. But the Twelve are still blinded to the full glory of the revelation of God "in the face of Christ"(2 Corinthians 4:6).

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 6". "Layman's Bible Commentary".