By: The Rev. Anna Shine
To give some context to our Gospel passage from today, it is helpful to note what has happened leading up to our part of the narrative. Jesus has been rejected in his hometown of Nazareth, and so he leaves and continues his ministry of teaching elsewhere. He then sends out his twelve disciples in pairs to cast out unclean spirits and to heal the sick. From there Mark inserts a vignette about the death of John the Baptist, which has happened at some point in the past, but is being recounted now. Immediately following this vignette is where our passage begins, with the twelve apostles returning from their being sent out and reporting back to Jesus what they have done and taught. Although the vignette about John’s death is not included in our passage for today’s reflection, it bears mentioning that its placement between Jesus’ disciples being sent out and then returning is a common rhetorical device used in Mark’s writing of the Gospel, suggesting that there is an important connection to consider with those stories.
But for today, our story begins with the apostles returning from their mission and updating Jesus on what they have done. And Jesus’ response is such an important one. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while’ (Mk 6:31). We often forget that fourth commandment to remember and keep holy the Sabbath day (Ex 20:8). It bridges the three commandments before it that pertain to our relationship with God, and the six that follow it that concern relationship between human creation. The meeting of the vertical (relationship with God) with the horizontal (relationship with others) – the crux of the cross. A whole sermon could be preached just on this verse and the implications of a command to rest. What might it mean to take that commandment seriously? Especially within the consumeristic and workaholic culture we find ourselves in these days. And how has rest shown up or disappeared in your life during this pandemic? Where are our deserted places, etc.?
Continuing with the narrative, the disciples get in a boat and go to a deserted place, whereupon they find it not deserted, but filled with a crowd that hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them (Mk 6:33). So perhaps the boat served as the deserted place for the disciples since they were greeted by a crowd on shore. Jesus, upon seeing this great crowd had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:34). I love the Greek word for “to have compassion for.” Splagnizomai. It literally means “to be moved in the inward parts,”  which depicts a visceral and physical component to the emotion Jesus feels. There is discomfort, a discomfort that moves a person to action. And that makes sense. Because the translation, “compassion,” means “to suffer with.” Jesus is moved in his innermost being, he feels the suffering with the people he is among, and he acts by beginning to teach them.
What normally would follow is the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand – where Jesus, having fed the crowd with his teachings, then provides a meal of bread and fish to sustain that learning. Next comes the story of Jesus walking on the water. But all of this is missing from today’s Gospel selection, leading from Jesus’ compassion for the crowd of people in the deserted place, to the healing of the crowds that followed him wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms (Mk 6:56). While I do not know why the lectionary chooses to leave out these portions of Mark’s Gospel, perhaps one reason is to emphasize the elements of the story that are less spectacular in their miracles, giving them the opportunity to be studied more closely. What we are left with is a command to rest a while, a display of compassion moving Jesus to action, and the gift of Jesus’ healing touch.
Of note is the word used for “touch.” And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed. The Greek word, haptomai, means to touch, but in a way that involves modification. It is a kind of touch that influences and/or alters. Through touching Jesus, people are healed.
Perhaps, by leaving out the stories of the feeding and the walking on water, we are able to see a different connection that would be hard to discover with all the action in Mark’s Gospel. Because, in a way, the compassion Jesus feels for the crowd is an inward kind of touch – a way of being touched – that leads to his being altered, changed, moved. Moved to action. And the crowd, having witnessed Jesus’ compassion through his teaching and healing, are moved in return to reach out towards him, to the act of touching him. To be altered, changed, moved by him. And through that they are healed. How marvelous and miraculous is that!
Questions for further thought might be:
What causes you to have compassion? What gifts might you have that can be used as the action compassion moves you toward? Are you a good listener? Storyteller? Craftsperson? Musician? Gardener? Cook? We all have gifts and skills that can help to alleviate suffering in the world – reflect upon yours, recalling that, as the Body of Christ, we need a diversity of gifts, and none are greater than the others. In what ways do you reach out to touch Jesus, allow yourself to be touched by him, and find healing in those acts?