Come Apart Into the Wilderness

Ordinary 16B

Mark 6: 30 34


In the last two meditations we have focussed on the relationship of our Lord's words / teaching, to his actions / 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 Notes On the Text

Verse 30

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 brief, superficial summary he called for, but a thorough debriefing.

Verses 31 and 32

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 is not prepared to let them go without.

He therefore was quite direct with them, saying literally, "You yourselves come in private to an isolated spot". There was no argument about that. They all climbed into a boat and set off to one of their favourite places to retreat. This is an appropriate place to recall that when 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 (or both). This is a common theme throughout the Gospel account of St. Mark.

Our Lord's command to withdraw to a solitary or wilderness place is not just to give rest for their tiredness. What Mark emphasises is "rest in the wilderness". The solitude is emphasised, but it is not isolation, as we shall see. 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)

Verses 33 and 34

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 mission activity of the twelve. As people gathered they recognised their visiting preachers. It is widely acknowledged that this was the very reason for sending out the twelve to preach and heal; to gather a people into the wilderness: there apart from all distraction the true Shepherd would nurture the shepherdess flock.

When Jesus landed he saw the crowd. They had come to listen to their missionaries. It was our Lord however, who did the preaching. His disciples were to rest. Their solitude was lost but he acted to ensure their rest was not! His compassion extended to the apostles and the crowd alike.

He was moved by the plight of the people starving for the living word which only he could provide for them. They were like sheep without a shepherd. It is interesting to note that verse 34 ends with Jesus teaching them "many things". The original text says, literally, "as much as he could". Thus the True Shepherd will pass on everything he possibly can.

St Mark, in this brief introduction to the feeding of the 5000, sees very significant links with Old Testament prophecy.

At this point we read Numbers 27: 17

to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd."

Thus Moses prays God will appoint a leader for his people, prior to his death in the wilderness: "So the Lord's people will not be like sheep without a shepherd".

And now to the next verse Numbers 27: 18

So the LORD said to Moses, "Take Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay your hand on him.

So God appointed Joshua. (Or Jesus in Greek. Recall, it was the Greek Old Testament which Jesus and the early Church quoted rather than the Hebrew).

In Ezechiel 34, the Shepherd promised will lead God's flock to the high mountains of Israel. In the wilderness they will have the very best food to eat. God says (verse 23), "I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them. He will tend them and be their shepherd…" Then in verse 25, "I will make a covenant of peace with them and rid the land of wild beasts so that they may live in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety".


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 or 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)

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