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 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).
The opening words of today’s Gospel are both beautiful and ordinary: “The apostles gathered around Jesus” (Mark 6:30). They are eager to share their experience of being on mission: “They told him all that they had done and taught”. There is an easy intimacy there. Jesus responds: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (6:31). The “deserted place” has the obvious implication of not having people pressing for attention. But it also carries echoes of the Exodus and the Covenant. When the Lord took the people from Egypt, that was the first step of a journey into love and freedom. The next step – and this scandalizes the modern Western mindset – was to gather with them in the wilderness.
In Hebrew, the word for “wilderness” – midbar – shares its roots with the word for “word” – dabar. The wilderness is the place par excellence where God speaks. Perhaps because distractions are stripped away. There is no place to hide. The fiction of control is dismantled. For precisely these reasons, the wilderness can be a place of madness. For most of us, a world without noise, without distractions and – most importantly of all – without the illusion that we are in control, is simply intolerable. “Come!” Jesus says to his disciples. “Come away from …… what?”
We are not likely to “Come away from this and that” – illusory and even damaging as the “this and that” may be – unless we have some confidence that the “this and that” will be replaced, not with a death-dealing “nothing” but with a life-giving “something” – or Someone. Being driven by fear or sheer will-power only gets us so far, but leaves us harsh and resentful or beaten. Being drawn by delight is a much better option.
Spiritual growth is a journey into freedom and love. The more you taste the more you want. “He had compassion for them” (6:34). Every moment of every day Jesus is with us and he keeps saying: “Will you let me show my compassion? To you? Through you?”
Sadly, our English word “compassion” just does not carry the deep visceral force of the Greek word it translates. The Greek word is esplanchnisthē, from splanchnon which literally means “guts”. We could paraphrase what the Gospel is saying: “His guts shook for them”. Can you imagine someone having that kind of feeling for you? That kind of care? That kind of overwhelming desire to protect you, look after you and see that you come to no harm?
Do you want to grow in the Christian life? First of all, listen, pay attention to what is happening with you. Face the truth of what and how you experience your daily life. In particular, ask yourself, “What do I do with my pain?” And listen. Do not let your head answer! Let your guts speak. That is where you are most likely to meet Jesus – he is truth. He waits for you in your pain. “Come!”