Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 18, 2021
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 Commentary
“Be specific!” “Show, Don’t Tell!” “Appeal to all Five Senses!”
Recently I completed a three-week mini course online on “The Nuts and Bolts of Preaching” and when I interacted with my students, lines like those above were my common go-to pieces of advice. It is the same in regular seminary courses when I grade student sermons. Generalities, undefined words like “this” or “that,” brief lists that quickly conclude with “and so on” or “et cetera” just don’t cut it. The concrete and the specific always trump the vague and the general.
I guess it’d be presumptuous of me to tell that to Mark.
Mark tells us in 6:34 that Jesus taught them much (in the Greek it’s just the word polla, “much, a lot”). He taught them a whole bunch of stuff, to be colloquial about it. But what kind of stuff? What did Jesus discern these “sheep without a shepherd” needed to learn and to hear most of all? Did he snow them with more parables that they had a tough time making sense of initially? (Mark did say earlier in this gospel that Jesus never taught anything without using parables.) Did he teach them more plainly about the Kingdom of God and about the grace of God that is the true center to the universe? Did he do a Sermon on the Mount-like listing of beatitudes, sketching out in that way the shape of the kingdom-filled life?
We could speculate endlessly on this, and we could make some pretty educated guesses, too, based on the rest of Mark’s gospel. But we’ll never know the precise content. So maybe we can better focus on something else that is rather remarkable here. Jesus saw these large crowds of people and he had compassion on them. They seemed lost. They were like sheep unable to find green pastures, moving through life without a goal, without the security a shepherd could provide. That, after all, is the implication of Mark’s pastoral image here: sheep without a shepherd were vulnerable, were unable to care for themselves, were liable to getting lost and/or injured.
That was how Jesus viewed them and so what does he do? He teaches them a lot of stuff. He teaches them. That’s not typically our response to such a thing in the modern world. We think that the solution to most any problem you could name would be to give people more stuff. What people need is a secure investment portfolio. They need purpose in their lives (and a good bit of that purpose will be to learn how to earn more money and provide material security to the family). We don’t need to teach people lots of stuff we just need to give them lots of stuff—or give them methods by which to get at that stuff—and they will be fine.
People themselves seem impatient with being reduced to students who have to learn. Ads for various technical institutes try to lure students to their hands-on computer repair training by reminding them that all that worthless stuff you learn at liberal arts colleges not only fails to make you any money one day, it just slows down your progress toward a lucrative career. This mentality seeps into the church, too, of course. Sermons need to either be very short or, if they are going to be longer sermons, they need to focus less on content and more on application, on how to get at a better life through tips on childrearing, business practices, marriage enhancement, and the like. Anything in an adult education forum that smacks of a content-heavy lecture is shunned by some.
Yet in Mark 6 when Jesus sees the crowds, he knows just what they need. Eventually they will need bread and fish, true enough, and he’ll provide that, too. But the compassionate vision of Jesus probed deeper and so he knew that the very first thing they would need was to learn a few things about God, creation, and their relation.
The crowds that day apparently lapped it up. But eventually in Mark when the content of the teaching got a little tougher to swallow—all that cross-bearing, death, and sacrifice stuff—they’d fall away. Only those who really understand Jesus’ teaching and learn it over the long haul see the sense of it all and find the joy and the new life of it all. That’s maybe a lesson the contemporary church still needs to hear and above all to learn as well.
If you look at the Greek text of Mark 6:34 in an edition like Nestle-Aland, you’ll note that the phrase “sheep without a shepherd” (literally, “sheep that did not have a shepherd”) is italicized, indicating the editors’ hunch that this was meant to be a kind of quote or an allusion to something else. Commentator Robert Guelich points out that indeed, this phrase was one used often in the Old Testament to describe the people of Israel and, as such, is yet another Old Testament overlay on this event. The feeding miracle that follows is clearly meant to reveal Jesus as the Messianic Great Shepherd of the Sheep in fulfillment of prophecies from Isaiah and Ezekiel even as the later reference to how Jesus made the people to sit down on GREEN grass is evocative of Psalm 23, which is doubtless why that famous Psalm is the one assigned for this same Sunday.
Jesus wants to be our shepherd. What he perceived in the crowds in Mark 6 was first and foremost that they needed someone to shepherd them. And in John’s gospel we know that Jesus delighted in tagging himself as “the Good Shepherd.” That is, of course, a lyric image. Christians have long taken comfort in it, composing scores of hymns on this theme and creating so very many stained-glass window depictions of Jesus as shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? Because the way you get into that shepherd’s strong arms is precisely the path of self-denial Jesus will eventually talk about in Mark (and that won’t prove so popular to the people back then).
We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot find our way. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
You see, what we too easily forget is the truth captured by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship. “When Christ calls a man to follow him,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “he bids that man to come and die.” We sacrifice our sense of self. We don’t stop using the personal pronouns “I” and “me”. But we place our sense of self in the context of who we are in relationship to Jesus.
Sometimes we forget how difficult that self-sacrifice is. But maybe part of the reason is because we fail to live this out in our day-to-day lives. We might do well to ask ourselves how often we reflect on our being owned by Christ, the shepherd of whom we are but the sheep of his pasture.
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