I wonder how Jesus was feeling at the start of this story.
Jesus had been experiencing some of the joys and struggles of ministry. He had seen people’s lives changed as they encountered God’s goodness through his teaching, miracles and healings. He had also been rejected by the people of his own village (6:1-6), and when John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin and partner in ministry, had been arrested and murdered by King Herod (6:14-29). This happened just after Jesus had sent his disciples out in pairs on their first missionary journey (6:7-13), giving them authority to cast out evil spirits.
Now, at the start of v30, Mark tells us that Jesus’ disciples had returned to him and they were about to tell Jesus all about what had happened. However, there were so many people coming and going that they couldn’t even find time to eat, let alone debrief about the events of their missionary tour. So they headed off in a boat to try to find some time alone together. People worked out what was going on and they arrived at their destination ahead of Jesus and his disciples. When they got there, the place was already full of people waiting for Jesus.
If that was you, what would you have done? Would you turn the boat around and look for another quiet place to be alone with your friends? Would you tell the crowds to go away and give you some time for yourself? Or would you lie down in the boat, pull a tarpaulin up over your head and hide until everyone went away?
I am constantly in awe of what Jesus did next. He didn’t run away to find some precious ‘me’ time. He didn’t get angry at the crowds, or hide and hope they would go away. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the huge crowd, ‘he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Then he started teaching them (v34 NLT).
The English word ‘compassion’ doesn’t really do justice to Jesus’ reaction when he saw the crowds on the shore. The Greek word splagchnizomai describes something moving in the inner organs of Jesus’ body. A more modern English equivalent could be that Jesus’ ‘stomach turned’ at the scene in front of him, or it was a ‘gut-wrenching’ experience for him, or possibly even that Jesus’ heart broke (The Message) for the people he saw. However we might try to describe it, when Jesus saw the crowd of people, something moved deep inside him that made him want to help them.
A lot has changed in the world in two thousand years, but the human condition is still pretty much the same. Most people are searching for something in our lives. We have problems or challenges that can make each day difficult. We might be experiencing physical or mental illnesses, relationship breakdowns, or financial difficulties. We might be struggling with questions about who we are, where we belong in the world, or what our purpose in life might be. Most of us have something we’re struggling with in life, and we tend to tell ourselves that we’ll be fine if we just try a bit harder, do a bit more, or work a bit smarter. The great myths of our post-modern culture is that if we could just find our way through the mess, or if we could just be mindful of where we are, then we’ll be OK.
That sounds a lot like sheep without a shepherd to me. We are all doing our own thing, going our own ways, looking for greener grass to somehow make life better, more complete, more peaceful, or more of something than it is right now.
I wonder if Jesus still looks at us, sees us in our existential wandering like sheep without a shepherd, and if his stomach still turns with compassion for us.
What surprises me about this story is what Jesus did to help the people he saw. When people are moved with compassion, we might expect them to make a financial donation to a worthy charity, cook someone a meal, or do something else just as practical. Jesus didn’t do any of these. Instead, moved with compassion towards this crowd of people, he began to teach them.
I would love to know exactly what Jesus said to the crowd that day. All we can really do is guess, based on what Jesus had already been teaching in Mark’s gospel. Maybe he taught them about the Kingdom of God which comes to us in the most unexpected of ways, making the first last and the last first. Maybe Jesus taught about the presence of God, not with the rich or the powerful or the beautiful, but with the humble, the poor, the impoverished and the needy. Maybe he taught them to find grace and peace and rest in his presence with them, instead of the constant pursuit of doing more, doing better, or doing anything. Maybe he taught them that heaven isn’t just a nice place we go when we die, but it is the reality we live in now through faith in a truly present and perfectly loving God. Maybe Jesus taught them that the Kingdom of God isn’t ‘out there’ somewhere, but it’s here, made real in all the flaws and imperfections and struggles and shortcomings of a community of believers who are gathered by the Holy Spirit as the living, breathing body of the living Christ in the world. And maybe he taught them to turn away from trying to work things out for ourselves, and to turn to him, to trust in him, as the One who has everything we need for life in this world and the next…
What if Jesus wants to teach us this new way of life, the way that he taught that crowd all those years ago? Because listening to the teachings of Jesus, and trusting them to the point where we live like they’re true, can really make a difference to our lives.
At the end of a long day or a busy week, it’s easy to see people who want more from us as a nuisance or a bother. Our natural reaction can be to tell people to leave us alone, to look for some ‘me’ time, or to want to hide until it all goes away. What if we were able to see each other as Jesus sees us, as sheep without a shepherd, as people who have good intentions but really no clear idea of where we’re going or what we’re doing, and to find compassion for each other?
Whatever is happening in our lives, this story tells me that Jesus looks at each of us with gut-wrenching compassion, and he teaches us a better way of life. Maybe we need to stop for a bit, recognize that for our best of efforts, we’re all a little lost, and listen with fresh ears to the teachings of Jesus.