‘Shepherd’ is a familiar Old Testament term for kings and religious rulers; ‘sheep without a shepherd’ was also familiar in Jewish Scripture (the OT). Because it’s helpful to keep the OT usage in view as we reflect on this passage today, I have included a few pf those OT passages.
Prepare to listen. Be still and silent. Pray: Help me, O Lord, receive your words in my heart and hear them with my ears so that I can speak them to others. (from Ezekiel 3:10-11)
Read Mark 6:30-34
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
15Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, 16‘Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint someone over the congregation 17who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the LORD may not be like sheep without a shepherd.’
Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
The disciples return from their busy ‘solo’ mission, tell Jesus all about it, and he then invited them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ Getting away to rest was part of their training and something Jesus often practiced himself (see Mk 1:35). Trouble was this time there was no rest for Jesus or the disciples. They arrived in the ‘deserted’ place and saw a great crowd had beaten them to the other side eagerly waiting Jesus. I suspect my response would have been negative; my planned solitude and rest stolen by a clamoring crowd. How about you? Jesus’s response? He ‘had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ The word compassion literally means “having one’s ‘guts’ be torn apart” (Myers 2015, p. 206). It suggests the depth of Jesus’ feeling for this shepherd-less crowd.
His response is surprising. The expected, indeed the logical thing to do would be to step into the leaderless gap and take over as their shepherd (ruler). That’s what Moses asked God for when he realized his life was nearly over (see Numbers passage above). He begged God to give Israel another leader, so they wouldn’t be ‘sheep without a shepherd.’ Interestingly, there is a similarity between Jesus and Moses as both were in a wilderness area observing the leaderless state of the people.
The phrase ‘sheep without a shepherd’ had strong political connotations for Jews in Jesus’ day. I imagine his disciples expected Jesus to grab the chance to become the leader and lead the people to victory over the oppressive Romans. Jesus did none of that. Instead of taking over and ruling the people, he ‘began to teach them many things.’ In other words, Jesus gave back the power to the people. Teaching, when it’s good, empowers people to take responsibility for their own lives. Good teaching trains people to discern between lies and truth, fake news and real facts; between good ‘shepherds’ and manipulative ones. Teaching, when it’s good, as Jesus’ teaching was, is a powerful, yet non-violent political tool to bring about freedom. This is why oppressive regimes often limit education to the elite and persecute teachers of the oppressed masses. Jesus, the Teacher, was crucified.
We don’t know what Jesus taught, but we do know that his mission was to bring down the oppressors and set the people free to worship God truly through non-violent means.
What do you think Jesus would teach the shepherd-less and the ‘sheep’ of bad ‘shepherds’ today that could empower them to stand against oppression?
Are you content to receive Jesus’ compassion, his ‘guts torn apart’ for you?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
Jesus, I want to be taught by you so that I’m not led astray by false leaders, am able to discern truth from the myriad lies I hear every day. And mostly Lord, I want to be content with your compassion today. Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world with Jesus as your Shepherd and Teacher.