Life in mission: context

eremos30 The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. 32 So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. 33 People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. 34 When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (Mark 6:30–34)

Context. The sequence of Gospel texts in this part of Ordinary Time serves as a reminder we are not simply moving from chapter to chapter, story to story in the Gospel according to Mark. Consider the sequence of passages assigned to these summer Sundays (in juxtaposition with all the verses of Mark):

12th Sunday Mark 4:35-41, Jesus calms the storm on the waters
Mark 5:1-20, Jesus casts out the Gerasene demoniac
(only used in 4th Week, Monday)
13th Sunday Mark 5:21-43, Jairus and the woman with a hemorrhage
14th Sunday Mark 6:1-6, Jesus rejected in his own home town
15th Sunday Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out the missioners
Mark 6:14-29, Herod’s questions about Jesus and execution of John the Baptist
(only used in 4th Week, Friday)
16th Sunday Mark 6:30-34, The missioners return and Jesus takes them to rest
Mark 6:35-44, Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000
17th Sunday John 6:1-15, miraculous feeding of the people
(the readings from John continue through the 21st Sunday)

Given the length of Mark’s narrative – the shortest of the four canonical gospels – when Mark arrives at the miraculous feeding (6:35-44; note: there is a second miracle in 8:1-10), the sequence of Sunday gospels shifts over to the Johannine account which offers a richer consideration of the only miracle that appears in all four gospels.

From above, you’ll notice that Mark has constructed a sequence from 6:1 through v.34 that seems cohesive, but then not really. The pericope with Herod and the death of John the Baptist almost seems out-of-place. And then we have our vv.30-34 that is positioned between all that comes and goes from this chapter. This section has bedeviled scholars who continue to debate how to understand the Markan intent. Lane [224] writes:

The decision to divide Ch. 6:30–44 at verse 34 is one of convenience, which permits a consideration of the return of the disciples and the withdrawal to a wilderness-place before attention is concentrated upon the feeding of the multitude. The degree of variation displayed in modern treatments of this question indicates the relative difficulty of discerning the evangelist’s intention. The division adopted presupposes that Mark has prefaced the feeding miracle by two small introductory passages which are thematically united. The first describes the return of the disciples and their rest in a wilderness-place (Ch. 6:30–32), while the second tells of the gathering of the multitudes to the wilderness and Jesus’ compassion upon them (Ch. 6:33–34).

I think Lane nicely titles these two sections of Mark’s gospel as:

  • The Provision of Rest in the Wilderness (Mark 6:30-34)
  • The Provision of Bread in the Wilderness (Mark 6:35-44)

I think it is this vein that our short passage serves to “round off” the missioning of the Twelve (in 6:7–13). It also prepares Mark’s readers for the rest of chapter 6, which features two closely related and marvelous manifestations of Jesus’ identity as their Lord: first, as the one who feeds his people abundantly (with bread, 6:34–44); secondly, as the one who is with them in the most serious conflicts of their lives (on the raging sea, 6:45–52).

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