What’s in, and what’s out (Mark 6; Pentecost 8B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary strays away from choosing the Gospel readings from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark. Next week, we will launch into a series of five weeks of readings drawn from John 6. That chapter revolves around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). Because of this looming focus, the Gospel passage provided by the lectionary for this Sunday is curiously shaped. It takes two separate sections of Mark’s Gospel, and omits a large section that sits in between these two passages.

The story of the feeding of the crowd of “about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) which we will read next Sunday replicates the story omitted from this Sunday’s reading, where the Jesus was able to feed a crowd comprising “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The lectionary provides the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) and omits the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). It also omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33). Thus, we have a curiously disrupted passage for consideration.

We need, then, to consider, both what’s in, and what’s out, in this week’s lectionary selection.

What’s in: three key terms

The selection offered by the lectionary includes reference to Jesus taking his followers aside, to rest (6:31). We know well the words that Jesus spoke, offering rest to his followers (Matt 11:28–30). But we perhaps give little thought to the need that Jesus had, along with this followers, to rest from the bustling business that he engaged in. Mark states it well: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31).

Jesus moves away to a deserted place with his followers. He goes into the wilderness. The Greek word used here, eremon, is significant. This is where Jesus goes when he is tested by God (1:12), immediately after he had been completely immersed in the water by John the baptiser, resident in that wilderness (1:3, 4).

It was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. It was, likewise, in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his mission in life, and where he came to know his identity as the Son of God, chosen for that mission. So it is fitting that he moves to a deserted place, seeking respite from the crowds.

Yet the crowds will not let the healer and his followers rest; they continue to press on Jesus, and as they saw him, with his followers, in the boat, they hurried on foot to that deserted place, “and arrived ahead of them” (6:33).

The response of Jesus is instructive. Here we find a second significant term. He “had compassion for them”, the NRSV reports (6:34). The distinctive Greek term used (esplangnisthē) appears here, and in the parallel of Matt 14:14 (as well as an editorial comment at Matt 9:36).

The term refers to that deep-seated churning in the gut that takes place when an emotional cord is struck. It is a profound and penetrating feeling. The same term is found in the paired story of the feeding of the 4,000, where Jesus tells his followers, “I have compassion on the crowd” (Mark 8:2, par Matt 15:32).

Such compassion is characteristic of Jesus on many occasions. The term has already appeared in Mark’s report of the leper who came to Jesus, seeking to be made clean, where it describes the way that Jesus responds to him (“moved with pity” in the NRSV, reflecting a textual variant in Mark 1:41, par Matt 10:6). It’s also used to characterise the way Jesus deals with two blind men near Jericho (“Jesus in pity touched their eyes”, NRSV Matt 20:34).

Other places where the word appears are in the story of the mute boy who suffers convulsions (Mark 9:14–29). The father of the boy begs Jesus to cast out the spirit which possesses the boy, imploring him, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (9:22). Jesus responds by rebuking the spirit, which leaves the boy (9:25–27).

In the orderly account which we attribute to Luke, the compassion of Jesus is noted when he interacts with a widow who is mourning her dead son (Luke 7:13), and is also found within two of the parables told by Jesus, reported only in this Gospel. The Samaritan has compassion (Luke 10:33), as does the father when he sees his prodigal son returning home (Luke 15:20).

A third important idea is found when the author implicitly draws an analogy between Jesus, and a shepherd (6:34). In the book of signs, Jesus explicitly calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18). This evokes the scriptural imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4). The phrase also alludes to the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

People who are “sheep without a shepherd” recall the description of Israel in Hebrew Scriptures (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17, par 2 Chron 18:16; and Judith 11:19). The narrator’s reference in Mark 6:34 contains these deep scriptural resonances. The compassion demonstrated by Jesus fits with his role as shepherd of the sheep.

A third key idea is contained in the brief statement that the compassion of Jesus is expressed as “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The teaching activity of Jesus runs through this Gospel. Jesus teaches beside the sea (4:1), in the synagogue (1:21–27; 6:2), beside the lake (2:13; 4:1–2; 6:34), in the villages (6:6), and as he and his followers walk along the way towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31).

When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he is said to be teaching the crowd in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–18). A little later, some Pharisees and Herodians approach him, observing that “you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (12:14). “Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching”, he says to the armed crowd sent from the Jewish authorities to arrest him (14:43–49).

The same emphasis on his teaching is found on the other Synoptics (Matt 4:23; 7:28–29; 9:35; 21:23; 22:33; 26:55; Luke 4:31–32; 5:17; 6:6; 10:39; 13:10; 13:22; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 23:5).

What’s out: two substantial scenes

So much for what’s in this week’s selection. What about what’s out?

First, the Gospel offering provided by the lectionary includes the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) but omits what it surrounds—the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). That feeding story is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14).

The scene is reminiscent also of the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”. (Luke omits this story.)

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36). This prefigures the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

So Mark recounts the scene: “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:41–44).

And the resonances with the central Christian ritual, the remembrance of the last supper, are surely strong and deep.

Second, the lectionary omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52) which plays an important role in Mark’s account. By omitting this, the lectionary has excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).

In this earliest Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52).

This maritime movement makes an important symbolic point for the the author: the ministry of Jesus incorporated not only territories in Jewish areas (to 4:41, then 5:21 to 6:44) as well as the Gentile territories. Jesus firstly crosses into the Decapolis (5:1–20), where he cast out multiple demons from the tomb-dwelling man, sending them into the nearby pigs. (This story is also omitted by the lectionary during this particular year.)

One of the striking aspects in this story is that this man, possessed by an unclean spirit, fettered in chains, dwelling beside tombs, self-harming and acting inappropriately (5:2–6), becomes the first active missionary in this Gospel; after the encounter with Jesus, “he began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marvelled” (5:20). A pity we missed that this year.

Jesus is active on “the other side” again from Mark 6:53, when he enters the regions of Gennesaret (6:53). Subsequently, Jesus is located at Tyre and Sidon (7:24), and then “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), before returning to Bethsaida (8:22) and Caesarea Philippi (8:27), in Jewish territory.

These geographical references are treated variably in the later accounts which used Mark as a source. Matthew retains Genessaret (Matt 14:34) and Tyre and Sidon (15:21), but removes the reference to the Decapolis (15:29). The geographical references from Caesarea Philippi onwards then appear in his ongoing narrative. Luke omits the whole section containing these earlier references (Mark 6:53–8:26), removing the clear indication that Jesus spent quite some time on Gentile soil.

Omitting the “crossing over” movement in the narrative lessens the significance of this observation: much of what takes place in the ensuing four chapters, takes place on Gentile soil. This is very important for our understanding of the stories that Mark reports. We need to hear that in mind as we read the later stories in this section of the Gospel: Jesus is “on the other side”, moving amongst the Gentiles of the Decapolis.