Mark 6:30–44 opens with Jesus inviting his disciples to come away to a deserted place, a poignant image. The reader is at once reminded of Jesus being tempted for 40 days by Satan in the wilderness but also of Old Testament stories like the 40-year journey of the people of Israel. Mark presents Jesus as a new Moses, gathering his people and feeding them through divine means.
Out in that desert-place, the people are hungry—hungry for a good word from God. There is a gnawing deep in their hearts, but soon also in their bellies. It is late and they need food. Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, there is bread and fish. Jesus offers a blessing and “manna” rains down. And there is enough—more than enough. Every person has been fed in body and in spirit, for Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Jesus as shepherd is a popular Christian motif. In religious art Jesus is frequently depicted as the shepherd in Psalm 23 or the good shepherd in John 10. In the Gospels, Jesus is presented as a figurative shepherd leader much like the literal shepherds—Moses and David—who were chosen to lead Israel.
It was also common, however, for kings, priests, scribes, and even Roman emperors to be identified as shepherds. And there were good and bad leaders in the bunch. Some cared for their people, while others betrayed them for the benefit of the elite.
For a comparison of these types of shepherds, one need only read the story that immediately precedes this outdoor banquet. In Mark 6:14–29, the reader is given an intentional flashback to the events following John the Baptist’s arrest at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. During King Herod’s birthday celebrations, his daughter dances, pleasing his guests. Herod then offers the girl whatever she wishes. She asks her mother’s advice and since her mother has a grudge against John the Baptist, she tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. The king is “deeply grieved” but feels he needs to keep his promise to his daughter and wishes to maintain the respect of his guests, so he has John killed.
Herod is a shepherd who holds a banquet for himself surrounded by the ruling elite. And in his grand halls of power he sees fit to sacrifice one of his sheep to satisfy the grudge of his wife.
Jesus is a shepherd who, having sought a place of rest cannot turn away from those who need his care. Surrounded by common people he is filled with compassion and so he feeds them spiritually and physically. In placing these two feeding stories side by side, Mark makes it plain that Jesus is a very different kind of shepherd.
- What about Jesus’ character makes you want to follow him?
- How do you think these characteristics shape the realm that Jesus came to bring about on earth?
God, you can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. Food enough for everyone seems like an impossible dream, yet through Jesus you show us that you can do the impossible. You are our shepherd. Show us the way toward a world where all are valued and have enough. Amen.
The Bible studies in 2021 come from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia. Each month, Messenger is publishing two of the Bible essays that help teachers prepare. This one was written by Carrie Martens.