Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mark 6:30-34 – NRSV).
Most immediately, this incident flows naturally from the account of John the Baptist’s execution – see 6:17-29 – which would have been deeply troubling to both Jesus and his disciples. However, it also provides something of a transition from the mission of the twelve to the feeding of the five thousand. One commentary notes: “these verses both retrospectively provide an inclusio with the sending out of the disciples (6:6b–13) and offer a smooth transition to the feeding narrative, highlighted by the mention of the ‘desolate’ place (6:31, 32, 35) and the concern with eating (6:31, 36, 37)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 208).
apostles: This is the only time Mark clearly refers to the disciples as “apostles”. (There is a dispute as to whether the word applies in 3:14.)
gathered around Jesus: We have here a symbol of the Church. The Greek verb is synagō, meaning “gather” or “assemble” – from syn meaning “together” and agō meaning “bring” or “lead”. The noun is synagōgē. Thus the synagogue is the place where the people are brought together for worship. This same Greek word – synagōgē – is sometimes used to translate the word qāhāl in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, the Septuagint mostly uses the word ekklēsia for qāhāl. See for example, the assembly at Horeb – see Deuteronomy 4:10 – and in the promised land – see Joshua 8:35 and Judges 20:2. In 1 Chronicles 28:8 and Nehemiah 8:2 it is also used to describe the liturgical assembly of Israel. This is typical during the time of the kings or after the Exile. When the Greek word ekklēsia is used in the Septuagint it is always translating qāhāl. The disciples of Jesus are later to use this word – ekklēsia – to describe the gathering of Jesus’ followers. Whilst, in the world of the first century, the word ekklēsia was normally used to name the gathering of the demos – the people – the Christian use of that word actually has its roots in the qāhāl Yahweh.
told him all that they had done and taught: The disciples have just been doing what Jesus has been doing. One commentary sums it up: “This verse repeats the essence of discipleship for Mark: being with Jesus and doing the things of Jesus: teaching and works of power (see 1:16–20; 3:7–12)” (J R Donahue, & D J Harrington, op cit, 204).
Come away to a deserted place: This statement prompts us to remember the First Exodus and God’s calling the people into the desert – see Exodus 3:18. Come …. away …. where? …. into the mid.bār – the wilderness. The Hebrew word dabar – meaning “word” – is etymologically linked with mid.bār. The original title of the Book of Numbers is Wayyadabar meaning “And He spoke” but it is also sometimes called Bemidbar meaning “In the wilderness”. Thus the Prophet Hosea writes: “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (2:14). The link between the wilderness and God’s word to Israel runs deep. Thus we are reminded of the wilderness where John the Baptist announced the call to metanoia (1:3-5) and where Jesus’ temptations occurred (1:12–13). It is also where Jesus himself is accustomed to go to pray (1:35, 45).
rest a while: One commentary notes the multiple connections in this reference, especially to Psalm 23: “The verb for ‘rest’ (anapausasthe) may allude to the Greek text of Ps 23:2 (22:2 lxx) where the shepherd cares for the psalmist by restful waters (lit. ‘water of rest [anapauseōs]’). Other possible allusions to this psalm are the green grass (Ps 23:2 [22:2]; Mark 6:39) and the provision of a meal by the shepherd (Ps 23:5 [22:5]; Mark 6:41–42). ‘Rest’ is also used for the land promised to the people after the wilderness wandering (Exod 33:1–14; Deut 12:9–10; Josh 1:13; Jer 31:2). In Matt 11:28–29 Jesus promises rest to all who are weary, and in Heb 4:9–11 eschatological rest from toils and persecution is promised to God’s people.” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 204).
leisure: The Greek word is eukaireō, meaning “to have opportunity” or “to have time”. Interestingly enough, the Latin root for our English word “leisure” is licere meaning “to permit” or “to allow”. This suggests that Jesus placed some importance in taking time apart, giving yourself permission to be still, to go to the wilderness to once again hear God speak.
he had compassion for them: Our English word “compassion” does not carry the visceral force of Jesus’ experience here: “‘Compassion’ (see also 1:41; 8:2; 9:22) translates the Greek esplanchnisthē, the verbal form of the noun splanchnon/a, used for the inner parts of the body (‘guts’) and for the seat of the emotions as well as for the heart. The term is a virtual synonym for oiktrimoi (Hebrew raḥûm and raḥămîm, ‘merciful love’), which in the ot is a quality of God (Isa 54:7–8, ‘with everlasting love I will have compassion on you’; Pss 86:15; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8). ‘Compassion’ is the bridge from sympathy to action (see Luke 10:33; 15:20)” (J R Donahue & D J Harrington, op cit, 205).
What draws people to Jesus? What draws you to him? Today’s Gospel – Mark 6:30-34 – might have some clues. The Gospel opens with the following statement: “The apostles gathered around Jesus”. Yes, they have tasted some “success” on the mission. It probably seemed to them that they were on a winning team with Jesus. His popularity would have suggested that. But would it not be reasonable to believe that there is more to it than that?
Perhaps there is something about him, his presence, the way he faces them, speaks with them, cares about them? Mark has already indicated that Jesus has something in his bearing and presence that gives him “authority” – he is “not like the scribes” (1:22).
Jesus’ response to the apostles is revealing: “‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat”. Mark has already indicated that Jesus bears witness to this advice in his own very busy life: “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). What sort of person does that? Even as he shows care for these big-hearted fishermen, he is starting to teach them how to respond to the reign of evil. The demands of their mission will require both rest and solitude. Why? So they can be faithful disciples, people in whom God can be God.
The place of isolation and distance from “people coming and going” suddenly becomes a place with many people coming but not going. What is Jesus’ response? “He had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things”. The English word “compassion” does not capture the full force of the Greek word esplanchnisthē from splanchnon meaning “viscera” or “guts”. Jesus’ whole bodily being is moved by the plight of the people. We have here an attempt – a very inadequate attempt – to describe God’s love manifest in the flesh. The ultimate manifestation of that love is not found in words but in the body on the cross.
This is a loveable human being! Have you met him? St Paul said it was like “being taken hold of” (Philippians 3:12). Or do you only know him by hearsay? Perhaps you “know” him because you have been told what he (supposedly) wants you to do? Maybe he is a distant figure with a (harsh) moral program? Perhaps he will punish you if you do not measure up?
Sit down with this Gospel. Read it slowly and thoughtfully. Re-read it, listening for any awakening within you. Take your time. You are not reading for information but formation. The Bible is always a place of encounter – expect to encounter the Word Himself as you dwell on the words of Mark.
Follow the advice of the poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, as he describes a man engaged in slowed down and thoughtful reading: “He does not always remain bent over his pages; he often leans back and closes his eyes over a line he has been reading again, and its meaning spreads through his blood” [Cited in Charles Cummings, Monastic Practices, Cistercian Publications, 1986, 9].