Jesus is a compassionate shepherd (Mark 6:31–44)

Suppose you’re having one of those days when you’ve been working hard all morning and all afternoon and have worn yourself out. Finally, the day is coming to a close; you collapse in a chair on your front porch. At least, that’s the plan…but you’re interrupted by your kids or the neighbor’s dog or someone else who quickly becomes a nuisance. Does this sound like anything you’ve gone through recently?

Welcome to Jesus’ world.

The thing is, Jesus doesn’t look at other people as nuisances. When his disciples return from their “missionary trip,” it’s important to him that they get some R&R.  He tells them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” They get in a boat on the Sea of Galilee and try to escape the crowds that seem to surround Jesus perpetually. However, the crowd figures out what’s going on, and by the time Jesus and his disciples get to the other side of the lake, they find their vacation plans will have to be scrapped for now. There’s no escaping the crowds. How frustrating!

Well, that’s what I’d think, anyway. But not Jesus. Mark tells us his first gut feeling: compassion. He felt so sorry for them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” These people are confused and helpless; they need someone to lead them and take care of them. Even though he’s worn out, Jesus simply can’t help himself—he can’t ignore their neediness. As he so often does in Mark, he begins “to teach them many things.” More than anything, they need to hear the good news about God’s coming kingdom.

Evening draws near, and Jesus’ disciples start getting antsy. They realize that hardly anyone has brought along food. Maybe it’s because it’s an all-male gathering (depending on how you translate Matthew 14:21), and we men aren’t real smart about packing our own lunches. So here they are, out in the middle of nowhere, and everyone is already tired and now they’re getting weak from hunger. It’s time to send people away so they can feed themselves—if there is any food to be had in the area.

When they offer their reasonable plan to Jesus, he responds with an irrational demand: You give them something to eat.” Wow, great idea! Why didn’t we think of that before, Jesus? Oh yeah—because it would be ridiculously expensive, that’s why. Two hundred denarii—more than six months’ wages for a laborer! Who knows whether the disciples even have that kind of money. And Jesus wants them to feed this crowd they never asked to entertain. You’ll have to forgive them for being incredulous.

Still, Jesus hits on a pretty simple solution they seemed to have overlooked. “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” It’s like he’s saying, “Guys, you’re making this way too complicated. There’s a simpler solution to this problem. Let’s just take the food we already have and distribute it.” Apparently, the disciples haven’t bothered to collect all the food they had available; they already know it won’t do any good. But Jesus is their rabbi, and he told them to do it, so they’ll jump through this silly hoop for his sake. All they find is five loaves of bread and two fish.

What happens next is pretty hilarious, the way Mark describes it, though it doesn’t come out too well in English translations. Jesus has the disciples organize the crowd into little banqueting parties on the grass. They are sorted into neat rows, as though this were Jesus’ garden plot, sprouting colorful people plants. Jesus has them sit down on the “green grass” as the Good Shepherd would do to feed his sheep (Psalm 23:2). Then he says grace, divides the loaves and fish among the disciples, and has them distribute the meager rations to the entire crowd. Mysteriously, everyone has something to eat and is satisfied. And when each of the twelve disciples picks up the leftovers, he fills his basket!

Then Mark hits us with the punchline: this was a crowd of 5,000 men. No way could this have been anything but a miracle. Most guys could down a whole pizza after running around a lake and going most of the day without food. But their hunger can’t match Jesus’ generosity, and his little picnic leaves everyone stuffed.

Now, at certain points in this story, there are little hints that this is not your typical Jesus flash mob. The many people “coming and going,” the fact that Mark emphasizes the number of males in the crowd, and the reference to “sheep without a shepherd”—often referring to a leaderless military in the Old Testament—indicates that there is a revolutionary undertone to this gathering. The people wanted Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman oppressors. But while this is prominent in John’s account (John 6:15), Mark downplays it. He isn’t really interested in the politics of the situation. He wants us to see Jesus having compassion on his disciples and then on the crowd. He wants us to see Jesus solving a complex problem with a simple but impossible solution. He wants us to see Jesus taking care of the people God has entrusted to him.

Mark wants us to understand that Jesus is a leader, that he has authority. But he also wants us to understand what kind of leader he is and how he uses his authority. He is a shepherd who cares for his sheep. He doesn’t get annoyed at us but feels compassion for us. So we can say with confidence, “Only goodness and loyal love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will stay in the house of the LORD for the rest of my days” (Ps 23:6).

Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm (Mark 5:1–20)

In any good summer blockbuster movie, our intrepid hero stares down overwhelming opposition in a final showdown. Vastly outnumbered, he relies on his wits and skill to emerge victorious from the battle. We cheer him on because we love to see the good guy win, especially if he’s the underdog.

It’s a little different in Jesus’ case. He’s about to be vastly outnumbered by the enemy, but it doesn’t even faze him. Jesus is not the underdog; he is never the underdog. But he likes to help people who are underdogs.

Immediately following the terrific windstorm from the night before, Jesus and his followers reach land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This region is inhabited by the Gerasenes, who were Gentiles. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. As soon as he steps onto the land, he is confronted by a powerful foe.

A man rushes down the beach to meet him, and he isn’t coming with friendly intent. He is a wild beast of a man, an unclean Gentile, controlled by an unclean spirit, living among unclean tombs. No one can tame him and chain him down; the unclean spirit gives him phenomenal strength to break his bonds. But now we see this monster falling down on the beach before Jesus, shrieking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In other words, he is pleading with Jesus, “Leave me alone!” Why? Because Jesus had begun to confront the spirit controlling the man, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” It’s a showdown between spiritual forces, and there’s no question who is going to win.

Then the big reveal takes place. Jesus ignores the man and confronts the unclean spirit inside him, demanding, “What is your name?” And the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a roman army unit comprised of 6,000 men; it represented a force of astounding size. There were innumerable demons oppressing this man—but they are reduced to begging Jesus for mercy. They beg him to let them stay in the country and enter a herd of (unclean) pigs; Jesus gives them permission. This is an act of defiance on the part of these spirits; they have been embarrassed and want to save face by demonstrating their power. They represent such an overwhelming force that, in their fury, they are able to drown the entire herd of 2,000 pigs into the lake like so many lemmings.

When the pig herdsmen witness this incredible show of force, they run to tell the news to whomever will listen. Those who hear it run to see it for themselves, and there they find Jesus—and the demon-possessed man, sitting there calmly, “clothed and in his right mind.” And then, Mark tells us, “They were afraid.” They know that these spirits have tremendous power; the spirits had turned this man into an untamable beast, and they had just driven a massive herd of pigs to their death. Yet Jesus had dismissed them all with a simple command. These spirits were frightening enough—how much more so the man who mastered them!

But here’s the thing about fear: it doesn’t guarantee faith. As the legion of spirits begged Jesus, so now the people beg him for a favor as well—“to depart from their region.” Why? Because Jesus is a threat to them. When someone with this power shows up, he changes the status quo. That’s great news to people who are outcast or oppressed, like the demon-possessed man. But it’s bad news for people like the herdsmen, who have nothing to gain when the King comes to exercise his authority. If Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm, there is no stopping him. So they plead with him to leave, and Jesus obliges them.

As for the demon-possessed man, he too begs Jesus for a favor. He asks “that he might be with him.” This is what Jesus had asked his disciples to do (3:14). So will he grant the man’s request, just as he had granted the request of the unclean spirits and the request of the man’s Gerasene countrymen? Strangely, he does not. He has a better plan for his new recruit: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

If you’ve been following along for the first four chapters of Mark, this order should surprise you. Jesus has repeatedly tried to hide himself and his message, ordering unclean spirits and a cleansed leper to keep quiet about him, and speaking in parables to conceal the good news of God’s kingdom. As we keep reading in Mark, we will find that he continues to value secrecy. But here, he orders the man to tell everyone about what had happened. Why?

Take a look at what Jesus asks the man to say. “Tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s all. The message the man is to deliver is simply this: the Most High God of the Jews has come to deal kindly with the Gentiles. This demoniac was an unclean man among unclean men. If Jesus feels compassion for him and rescues him, how much more will he do so for his countrymen! The man travels throughout the region, telling how much Jesus has done for him, and everyone marvels over the news.

We saw last week that Jesus had authority over the natural world, and now we see that he has command over the spiritual realm. And once again, he uses that authority with a meekness, a gentleness, a pity for the outcast and the oppressed. A madman in agony, loneliness, and despair—now clothed and in his right mind and jubilant with news of a great Savior.

An unwilling celebrity (Mark 1:32–45)

Here in the U.S. of A., we love our celebrities. Since our nation was founded on the rejection of any sort of monarchy, we don’t have any royal family to obsess over. Fortunately, in an act of supreme benevolence, a parade of actors, actresses, musicians, and models has filled this gap in the American psyche. Ah, the superior lives of the beautiful people!

The problem is, just like any European royal family, many of these celebrities have done little to earn the adulation they receive. For some, their only ticket to stardom has been their good looks. Somehow, they have drawn to themselves crowds of followers, to the point where they are unable to go out in public without attracting far too much attention.

So it seems odd and irreverent to say this, but Jesus was a genuine first-century celebrity—at least at the beginning of his ministry. He generated incredible interest and attracted many followers, but unlike many modern celebrities, he actually deserved the attention. In Mark 1:32–45, we find the beginning of Jesus’ position as a Galilean celebrity, but we also see Jesus’ unusual response to all this attention.

Not a day has passed at Capernaum since Jesus drove an unclean spirit out of a man in the synagogue. Between this and his healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, Jesus has demonstrated an ability to rescue people from both demons and disease. By the time evening rolls around, practically the entire town has surrounded the house. Hope for healing and freedom has been kindled by this preacher from Nazareth. This flame is stoked into a blazing furnace when Jesus responds to their cries for help by healing those who are sick and casting out the demons. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that news will be spreading very fast about this man. What’s strange, though, is that we’re beginning to get the idea that Jesus doesn’t seem to be embracing this publicity. The demons that he is casting out know who he is—that he is more than just another man—yet he won’t let them tell anyone.

Then, long before the sun rises the next morning, Jesus disappears from Simon’s house. The whole town goes looking for him, and Simon and his friends finally find him out in “a desolate place,” far outside of town. He has been spending hours in prayer to God. “Everyone is looking for you,” they appeal to him. Why did Jesus leave? He’s become incredibly popular in Capernaum! What is he doing out in the wilderness?

In the wilderness, Jesus has been praying, talking with God. Here his mind is free from the noise of the crowds; he can rest, and can spend time with his heavenly Father. However, that is not the only reason he has left Capernaum. He tells his disciples, “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” Once again, his preaching ministry is his highest priority; although he is glad to perform miracles, he won’t stay in a town that becomes fixated on his miraculous abilities.

While on a journey between towns, Jesus is approached by a leper pleading to be healed. According to the law of Moses, anyone who had leprosy was pronounced unclean. Since his disease was contagious, he was placed under quarantine for as long as he had leprosy. He had to leave town, live alone in the wilderness, and announce to anyone who came near that he was unclean (Leviticus 13:45–46). This law was necessary to prevent an outbreak of leprosy, but it doomed the leprous person to a cruel and lonely existence. No one wanted to have anything to do with a revolting leper.

For this man, Jesus represents not only a chance to be healed, but a chance to rejoin society again. And Jesus feels such gut-wrenching compassion for him that he reaches out toward him. For the first time since leprosy broke out on his skin, the man feels another human being touch him. And at once, he is healed.

That touch becomes the pivot point of Mark’s account. Up until this time, Jesus could enjoy the company of his followers in town, and he can travel to the wilderness to spend time abiding with God. Not any more. Although he warns the man not to tell anyone how he has been healed, the man is so excited—can you blame him?—that he spreads the news to anyone who will listen. Before long, Jesus can’t enter town anymore, and even the wilderness is no longer a refuge from the crowds. They surround him all the time now, pleading for help. There is no escape from the celebrity status he has been trying to avoid. The irony is that when he touched this leper (an act that should have made him unclean, according to the law), Jesus offered the man a chance to rejoin society again, to leave the wilderness, to live again among other people, to enjoy their company. As for Jesus, he can no longer enjoy the company of his followers but has been driven out into the wilderness by the crowds. He takes the leper’s place.

Mark seems to describe Jesus as being pulled in two directions. On the one hand, he has a mission to accomplish, followers to train, and good news to preach. On the other hand, his compassion for other people is so intense that he feels compelled to help them, even if it means attracting an inconvenient and sometimes dangerous crowd.

I suppose at this point we could turn this story into a moral example for us. We could start feeling ashamed because we don’t love people as much as Jesus did; we could resolve to do a better job of following Jesus’ example. It wouldn’t be inappropriate.

For now, though, let’s not do that. Let’s simply sit for a while and watch Jesus as Mark’s story unfolds. How he longs to spend time alone with his Father; how he wants to pour himself and his teaching into his followers. But he is simply so compassionate that he can’t turn away anyone who pleads with him for help. No one is a nuisance to him. Not even you.