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. Mark 6:32-34.
The “they” in the first sentence of this morning’s reading refers to Jesus and his disciples. The demands on all of them had become so great that “they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6.31), so Jesus has proposed a time of rest in an unpopulated area near Bethsaida on the eastern shore of Galilee. But, as the reading tells us, the crowds outflanked them and were waiting for Jesus and his disciples when they arrived.
We are not told what the disciples’ reaction was when they saw the multitude. Anger? Frustration? Despair? (Later, they tell Jesus: “Send them away” — Mark 6.36.) But we are told what Jesus felt. Compassion. And why did he feel compassion? Because, to Jesus, the crowds “were like sheep without a shepherd.”
Although all five evangelists record this story, only Mark gives us this particular insight into the heart and mind of Jesus as he viewed the noisy, expectant crowds of men, women and children who were milling around on the shore, awaiting his arrival. (Matthew records Jesus as having this thought on an earlier occasion — Matthew 9.36 — but not here.) By recording that insight here, however, Mark is actually handing us the key for our understanding of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand that follows.
Israel had long been seen as God’s flock. Even before they entered the Promised Land, Moses was concerned that the Lord should appoint someone “who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd” (Numbers 27.17). Centuries later, there was an occasion when the prophet Micaiah was asked to say what he saw concerning Israel and he replied: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd” (1 Kings 22.17).
But the great passage that identifies as Israel as sheep without a shepherd is Ezekiel 34. There, through Ezekiel, God castigates those who should be looking after his sheep but are not. “Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them” (Ezekiel 34.2-6).
But this great denunciation ends with a promise. “And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34.23). David, had of course, died 400 years before so when Ezekiel talks of “my servant David” he is talking of “great David’s greater son” — the Messiah. It was a role that Jesus clearly saw himself as fulfilling. Casting himself as a shepherd he asks: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost'” (Luke 15.4-6). Before getting rid of a demon from a Canaanite woman’s daughter, he makes it clear to her that his primary role while here in the flesh was to be that Messianic shepherd: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15.24). And within just a few months of his crucifixion, he makes that great pronouncement to the Jews in Jerusalem: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10.11) … but then adds words that would have gladdened the heart of that Canaanite woman, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10.16).
So here, on the eastern shore of Galilee, it is as the Messianic shepherd that Jesus looks out upon the crowds, and it is as that Messianic shepherd that he feeds the sheep. This morning, I look to him as my shepherd to feed me. I take it as a promise that, because he is my shepherd, I shall not want. That he will indeed make me lie down in green pastures … lead me beside still waters … and restore my soul — Psalm 23.
And so through all the length of days
Thy goodness faileth never;
Good Shepherd, may I sing Thy praise
within Thy house for ever!