Come Apart Into the Wilderness
Ordinary 16 Year B
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
Mark 6: 30 — 34
In the last two meditations we have focussed on the relationship of our Lord’s words, (i.e. His teaching), to His actions and healing. When one is restricted, the other is reduced.
The twelve had been sent out as an extension of Jesus’ teaching and healing. In this short text they return. We see not only the results, but the purpose it all fulfilled.
Typically in Mark, the text is extremely concise, but there is a pattern:
• Verse 30 — Introduction
• Verses 31 / 32 — Jesus and disciples in a desert place;
• Verses 33 / 34 — Disciples and people in a desert place.
Some Reflections On the Text
The apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had
done and taught.
After carrying out their preaching assignment, the twelve apostles (hoi apostoloi — the sent) returned to Jesus, gathered around Him, and reported back how it had gone. It seems our Lord draws out of each pair what it is they wish to tell Him. The verse implies Jesus listened to every description of every action carried out. It was not just a short, superficial summary He called for, but a thorough debriefing.
Verses 31 and 32
He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and
rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and
they had no opportunity even to eat.
So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place.
When the Apostles had completed their reports, our Lord issued a very clear and perceptive command to them. He had observed, while they were talking, people coming and going, often trying to speak to Him or them. It was so hectic, they couldn’t even find a moment to eat. He was prepared to go without food and rest Himself, but He was not prepared to let them go without.
He therefore was quite direct with them, saying literally, “Come away by yourselves to a private, isolated spot”. (in Greek, eremos, i.e. deserted or solitary place) There was no argument about that. They all climbed into a boat and set off to one of their favourite places of retreat. This is an appropriate time to recall that when St. Mark uses a word or phrase meaning “alone”, it is always associated with a wilderness place (a desert or mountain) and it is a place of restful retreat or special revelation (sometimes both). This is a common theme throughout the Gospel account of St. Mark.
Our Lord’s command (not just a suggestion), to withdraw to a solitary or wilderness place is not merely to give rest for their tiredness. What St. Mark emphasises is “rest in the wilderness”. The solitude is emphasised, but it is not complete isolation, as we shall see. St. Mark is deliberately picking up the Old Testament theme of rest for the wilderness people led by Moses and Joshua, and promised in perfection by Isaiah and Jeremiah. The ancient hope of rest within the wilderness is to be fulfilled as Jesus (the new Joshua) gathers the new people of God to prepare for the new Exodus. (Lane and Stock)
Verses 33 and 34
People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They
hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was
moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a
shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Many of the local inhabitants who saw them leaving in a boat, recognised them. Word got around fast and before long a crowd gathered from everywhere, and took off round the lake and arrived before the boat.
One of the obvious reasons for their enthusiasm was the recent mission activity of the twelve. As people gathered they recognised their visiting preachers. The interest and response of the people was the very reason our Lord sent the twelve to preach and heal. But there were also genuine spiritual reasons behind the gathering of the people in the wilderness.
Following the introductory verse 30, each verse thereafter is loaded with very strong links to prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah and the power and presence of God in the midst of the people.
The first link, as we saw above, was to the “desert”, the place of solitude, stillness and silence. It was not that they should live in a desert as such. Jesus uses the image to state clearly the need for God’s people to learn to live simply and not be preoccupied with distractions.
We are then told how, when Jesus got out of the boat carrying Him, He saw the vast crowd and “His heart was moved with pity for them”.
What moved Jesus so profoundly? We are given the answer:
“….. they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
These words were taken by St. Mark from Numbers 27: 17 — 18 when Moses, with death approaching, prays to God that He will not leave His people without a leader but appoint one to shepherd the flock:
“….. who shall act as their leader in all things, to guide them in all their
actions; that the LORD’S community may not be like sheep without
And the LORD replied to Moses, “Take Joshua, son of Nun, a man of
spirit, and lay your hand upon him. (Numbers 27: 17 — 18)
St. Mark thus identifies Jesus as the One appointed to Shepherd His People.
St. Mark also picks up the all-important theme of shepherds needing to be faithful to their task and do what shepherds are supposed to do! We can therefore identify links also to Jeremiah 23: 1 — 4
Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my
pasture, says the LORD.
Therefore, thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, against the
shepherds who shepherd my people: You have scattered my
sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but
I will take care to punish your evil deeds.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands
to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow;
there they shall increase and multiply.
I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that
they need no longer fear and tremble; and none shall be missing,
says the LORD. (Jeremiah 23: 1—4)
God’s declaration that His officially appointed shepherds have failed in their given task to care spiritually for the people is indeed, a severe warning.
This would be an excellent time to re-read Ezekiel 34: 11 — 16 which talks about how God will shepherd His people and feed them sumptuously.
(See Appendix: The True Shepherd of Israel)
It is a passage we highlight often, and we should know it well.
In this beautiful reading of Ezekiel, the promised Shepherd will lead God’s flock to the high mountains of Israel. In the wilderness they will have the very best food to eat. (Notice the paradox: desert, and lush pasture on the mountains — symbolising the stark reality of life in a world containing a vast range of conditions among which we must learn to conduct our lives.)
Not only that, the Son of David will tend the flock and protect it,
I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my
servant David; he shall pasture them and be their shepherd.
I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall
be prince among them. I, the LORD, have spoken.
(Ezekiel 34: 23 and 24)
St. Mark tells us that Jesus “began to teach them many things”. We will see that this is only the beginning of what the Messiah will reveal to them.
For now, it is sufficient for us to notice that Jesus was very focussed on teaching the people what He believed they needed to know. The observation of St. Mark is that our Lord earnestly taught as intensively as He could, and dared. That really needs to be noted carefully, especially if we are to comprehend the model Jesus revealed in terms of evangelisation — “gospelisation” — spreading His unique message to the whole world, in fact the whole of creation.
This is a very special moment before the great revelation of Jesus in the feeding of the 5000. The people flock to hear the Word of God. It is as though they instinctively know that Jesus is the living Word. They do not realise that Jesus is planning to give them even more — He will give them a foretaste of the Word made flesh. He will give them Himself. He knows that is what will feed their true hunger, and He will give it in super-abundance.
After their missionary labours, the disciples surely needed the
contemplative repose which they would find near their Master:
He alone could give a meaning to their life, substance to their
words, an added dimension to the most ordinary of their actions.
But by not sending away the crowds who besiege them even in
their much-needed place of rest and recovery, Jesus is revealing
to His own the very thing they were looking for from Him. He
does not offer a cosy nest for aesthetes or lovers of rare sensations,
but rather apprenticeship in the tenderness of God for His people,
the discovery that their mission is never less than the full
measure, the overflowing of the love of Christ for the crowds who
have no guide. His love urges on the apostle; like his master he
accepts to be without let-up at the mercy of all. And so, no
holidays for the Apostles and none for Christians? In any event
there can be no holidays from love: the love that is drawn from
our intimacy with Christ will communicate to us His concern for
the crowds. And following the example of Jesus, what are we
going to bring them? Glenstal Bible Missal (Collins)
After reflecting on this and other Gospel passages, we will be able to answer that question.
Appendix — The True Shepherd of Israel
From the Prophecy of Ezekiel Chapter 34
11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my
12 As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his
13 I will lead them out from among the peoples and gather them from
14 In good pastures will I pasture them, and on the mountain heights
15 I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest, says
16 The lost I will seek out, the strayed I will bring back, the injured I
23 I will appoint one shepherd over them to pasture them, my servant
24 I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince
30 Thus they shall know that I, the LORD, am their God, and they are
31 (You, my sheep, you are the sheep of my pasture, and I am your
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
“Proclaim the Gospel to Every Creature”
(Mark 16: 15)
Let us remember God’s Teaching, contained in His Word and in doing so, remain
Come Apart into the Wilderness
Ordinary 16 Year B St. Mark 6: 30 — 34
1. Our reading has been the section just before Jesus feeds the huge crowd of 5,000 men (let alone women and children present). Although only five verses long, it reflects powerfully the vision of the great Prophets from the time of Moses through to John the Baptist. These references were identified and recognised easily by the early Christians, whether of Jewish or Gentile background. The great beauty of the prophetic texts is best appreciated when we situate them in the long stream of God’s interaction with humanity — otherwise referred to as Salvation History. It is then that Jesus Messiah stands out in a kind of three-dimensional perspective and becomes more real and relevant to modern humanity. So let’s take time to go back occasionally through these Reflections and review our knowledge of the Prophets and the powerful message they present. Let’s take time to ponder and imagine how we would answer people’s questions — or even our own.
2. The Christian Church took our Lord’s call to the wilderness (‘eremos‘) very seriously from the beginning. Remember, John the Baptist didn’t preach on street corners or in coffee shops! He lived and taught in the desert — ‘eremos‘. From, the Greek word we get the English ‘eremite‘, or more commonly, ‘hermit‘. John the Baptist was a hermit. Many early Christians followed his example and lived in the wilderness areas in answer to a Call from God to abandon the ordinary pursuits of life, to give themselves totally to preoccupation with the divine. Hermits do NOT isolate themselves from other people! Hermits have always welcomed others either to visit them or to join them. They choose to live in radical simplicity to give testimony to the presence and power of God. They go to places others do not value so that they are free to focus on God. It is a special calling, traces of which can be found in several different kinds of religious communities.
An important aspect of the “eremitical life” — the life of solitude and silence, is that all Christians can benefit from it by incorporating some of the basic elements into their own lives. Very few of us are called by God to forsake all and retire to the wilderness! However, there is a place for solitude and silence in our own life, in whatever way we believe it to be appropriate. There is, in fact, a real need for us to follow our Lord’s example and calling: “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and REST a while”. It may be that once a week we spend half an hour quietly reflecting on some aspect of our spiritual life, or on some Biblical thought. Or, it may be that we try daily to take two or three minutes to turn away from absorption with matters around us, or to be present to God and simply wait upon Him — not worrying about what we think we should say.
This can hardly be betraying our role as a spouse or parent. Let it be a time during which we seek spiritual strength and empowerment to be a better ambassador of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well as a better spouse or parent. Our short article, “Return to the Desert” may help you in this matter.
3. Our reading closes with a very important comment. After our Lord arrived at His chosen “deserted place”, and finding a “vast crowd” awaiting Him and His disciples (the chosen twelve), He changed tack immediately:
“and He began to teach them many things.”
Some linguists believe the words carry the meaning that He taught them as much as He could; not so much in volume, as in opening up what they had learnt of the ancient Scriptures about the Messiah, and God’s Plan for His people. To Jesus, this was both important and urgent!
In our age it is so easy — especially in religious matters — to get carried away with what fascinates or what attracts interest, rather than to concentrate on what Jesus teaches. Crowds flock to the former but only a faithful remnant actually “do their homework” when it comes to studying the “many things” Jesus teaches through His Word and through His appointed teachers.
Fashion and fad are so powerful in contemporary culture that they have taken over as the chief influences throughout Christianity and its fringe movements. What do we do about it? We certainly need to pray very seriously about these trends.
Of equal importance, there is a wonderful solution readily available. We devote ourselves to careful, systematic, disciplined and faithful study and reflection with regard to the Scriptures and testify to our fellow Christians how much this means to us. Thus the “many things” Jesus teaches can be brought within the growing reach of others.
We may need to check if we have, almost unconsciously, formed an opinion that people aren’t interested these days “in that sort of thing”. True, we are confronting anti-theistic influences from all directions; but might there be something in the thought that what we have tried to present in the past may need reviewing or reworking? Just how closely have we followed the teaching of Jesus, and prepared ourselves to pass it on. There is no room for despair, only frank assessment and getting on with the task as best we know how. And it is a task for us all — at all levels, in both prayer and action of some sort. The great joy is to keep in mind the thought that our Lord is especially present to us, within us and in our gatherings when we take up His call, with His zeal and urgency.
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Mark 6: 30 — 34
Ordinary 16 Year B
30 The apostles 14 gathered together with Jesus and
31 15 He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a
32 So they went off in the boat by themselves to a
33 People saw them leaving and many came to know
34 When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his
14  Apostles: here, and in some manuscripts at ⇒ Mark 3:14, Mark calls apostles (i.e., those sent forth) the Twelve whom Jesus sends as his emissaries, empowering them to preach, to expel demons, and to cure the sick (⇒ Mark 6:13). Only after Pentecost is the title used in the technical sense.
15 [31-34] The withdrawal of Jesus with his disciples to a desert place to rest attracts a great number of people to follow them. Toward this people of the new exodus Jesus is moved with pity; he satisfies their spiritual hunger by teaching them many things, thus gradually showing himself the faithful shepherd of a new Israel; cf ⇒ Numbers 27:17; ⇒ Ezekiel 34:15.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised