Sheep Without a Shepherd

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Jesus’ move to yet one more spot along the Sea of Galilee brought about more drama. This time, at what appears to be the height of his public ministry, five thousand men, plus what we might expect are thousands of women and children, press in to connect with him. The word “overwhelming” must surely come to mind. Consider the account from Mark 6:30-44:

The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place 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 desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.

Two important background pieces are worth mentioning. First, this is likely the largest of the crowds with which Jesus deals. It is the climactic moment in his public ministry. From this point onward, though there are big crowds still to come, the bulk of the time we will see him in more intimate settings with his disciples and a few other key players in the unfolding drama of his earthly life. Secondly, this is the only miracle, aside from the Resurrection, that is recorded in all four gospel accounts in the New Testament. That says something about the unique power of this particular event.

The passage is richly layered, but four life-altering take-a-ways stand out. To begin with, we must note the beauty of Jesus’ tender heart. It is powerful. Mark 6:34 tells us that when he stepped upon the shore and took in the crowd he had “compassion.” That word in the ancient language speaks to a very deep movement within his gut, a sensation that would ultimately drive him to offer selfless care to those around him. This was no religious activity; Jesus was not going through the motions. His care for the crowd was due to a genuine sense of pity for those about him. Coming on the heels of what would have been deep grief (because of John the Baptist’s death) and general weariness (see Mark 6:30-31), this compassion is all the more remarkable.

Secondly, we must note that Jesus hungers for justice just like we do. The crowd was betraying the manner in which the shepherds of the land had treated them. They were like sheep without a shepherd. Ezekiel 34:1 and following describes the way in which the shepherds of Israel choose self-absorption over and above genuine care for the flock of people whom God loved. Surely this intense Old Testament passage, accusing Israel’s leaders of mismanaging their responsibility, was on Jesus’ mind as he soaked in the magnitude of what was before him in the crowd. In the face of their brokenness and need, he acted to care. We should do no less.

Thirdly, we must note the way in which Jesus stretches his disciples to their limit. “You give them something to eat,” he tells them in Mark 6:37. Their hearts were generally hardened (see Mark 6:52) and they did not appreciate the opportunity to care for those before them. To be fair, they were tired and hungry (see Mark 6:30-32). But Jesus chose to take them to the extremes, likely to see just how willing they might be to trust him to take care of them and the crowd, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. He likes doing this with us disciples.

Lastly, we have to acknowledge the Passover/Wilderness allusions embedded so well within the account. Having the people sit on the green grass in fifties and hundreds instantly draws us back to the wilderness in which Moses ordered the Israelites into ranks of fifties and hundreds (see Exodus 18:21, for instance). There God fed them manna and quail, and gave them water to drink. He nurtured the hungry and needy people in the wilderness. When Moses’ time was up God raised up one to follow Moses—Joshua, son of Nun (see Numbers 27:12 and following), who would lead the people so they would not be “as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17). Perhaps to strengthen the manner in which this foreshadows Jesus caring for another group in the wilderness by getting them organized and feeding them, Joshua’s name is the Hebrew version of . . . Jesus. This reminds us that Jesus’ life and ministry is the fulfillment of the great yearning of the ages—God has arrived to care for his people and take them to a place of promise.

 

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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding material is from the message “Sheep Without a Shepherd,” part six of the sermon series entitled, “Piercing the Darkness,” presented on the weekend of November 10, 2013, at Bethel Church.

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