8 Pentecost July 18, 2021 by Suzanne G. Bowles, Ph.D.
“…he had compassion for them for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus, we are told, is going with his disciples for a rest. They had been so busy they hadn’t even had time to eat. He tells them they need to take a rest and they think they are going to a deserted place where no one will find them. Well, they’re in for a surprise. There are crowds following them everywhere and they can’t keep their whereabouts a secret. When they get to the so-called deserted place there’s already a huge crowd waiting for them. Why? Mainly, so it appears from this passage, for the healings. Not only are crowds following Jesus, but they’re bringing their sick family members and friends. Even people who could not manage it on their own – the sick on mats -- are being brought to him. Obviously, his reputation has preceded him. And Jesus’s view of all these people? He has compassion on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd.
There are a couple of interesting things here. One is the “sheep without a shepherd” analogy. This same expression is used in Matthew 9:36 with a bit more explanation than Mark uses. Matthew’s version of this same event tells us that the crowds were “weary and scattered.” But the analogy is not confined solely to the New Testament gospels. The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” appears both in Jeremiah 50:6 and Ezekiel 34:2-10 in the context of God condemning the leaders of Israel for abandoning their people. Ezekiel particularly spells this out in detail in 34:2-10. The shepherds have neglected two specific duties. They have not fed the sheep and they have not protected them against the elements and against predators. This is why Matthew’s using the word “scattered” is significant. He is taking that directly from Ezekiel. The sheep wander off and are killed by wild beasts. God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel says ”My flock became a prey and my flock became food for every beast of the field, because there was no shepherd.” It is in this context that Jesus uses the phrase “sheep without a shepherd.” In other words, this is not a good situation. But we are told (in both Mark and Matthew) that Jesus had compassion on them. How? He does two things. He feeds them and he heals them. You’ll notice that this gospel lesson jumps from v. 34 to v. 53. What’s left out is the feeding of the 5000. Presumably the lectionary mavens wanted to make that a separate lesson. That’s fine, but leaving it out gives an incomplete account of what is happening here. Jesus also heals them – all these sick people that have been brought to him.
The other interesting thing is the reference to at least some of the sick people who are healed simply by touching the fringe of his cloak. This relates to the story we heard several weeks ago of the woman with the issue of blood who was healed simply by touching his clothes. That story must have gotten around, too, as many people in today’s gospel seem to want to do the same thing. Now, do Jesus’s clothes have magical powers? Of course not. His powers are not magical in any case. This is about the Lord God himself in the human form of Jesus, healing his own creation. Where the clothes come in is as a sign of the people’s faith in him. “If only I could touch the hem of his garment, I’ll be healed.” Jesus commends the woman for her faith, not in his clothes but in him. So it would be with these crowds in Mark 6. They have such great faith and are so desperate that they believe touching the hem of his garment will heal them, and so it does. “All who touched it were healed.”
What do we learn here? We learn of Jesus’s great compassion and love for us, all his people. Without him we are sheep without a shepherd. We’re vulnerable, maybe even afraid, wandering aimlessly. But Jesus sees that and knows we need rescuing. He accomplishes it on the Cross once for all. We are reunited with our shepherd and we are healed. If you are lost, or aimless, or ailing in any way, call on him. He is ready and able to rescue and heal all of us. Amen.