Sheep without a shepherd. 6:30-44


This story is central to the gospel of Mark; it is pure gospel. The episode serves to reveal the person and work of Jesus more overtly than any other gospel story. As Moses, under God, fed the children of Israel in the wilderness, so Jesus similarly feeds "sheep without a shepherd" in a "solitary place." In the feeding of the 5,000 Jesus reveals himself as Israel's faithful shepherd. The disciples, wearied by the Galilean mission, draw aside "to a quiet place", to "rest" in the shepherd's care. Yet, the crowds follow, and so Jesus, having "compassion on them", "began teaching them many things". Thus, in the wilderness they find the sustenance of eternal rest.

The passage

v30. The "apostles" (literally, "the sent ones") return from the Galilean mission and report to Jesus.

v31-32. The disciples' mission has stirred interest and so various groups come looking for them. Jesus draws the disciples into the wilderness. Mark stresses this fact, for the wilderness is where God speaks to his people, and thus, where they may find "rest" (the Sabbath rest, eternity).

v33-34. It is possible that the disciples' mission is to draw out into the wilderness these "sheep without a shepherd." This description of the crowds comes from Num.27:17 and Ezek.34:5. Jesus fulfills prophecy as the Mosaic shepherd who leads God's people through the wilderness to the rest of the promised land.

v35-38. The disciples obviously feel responsible for the crowd which has followed them, but like Moses long ago, they cannot conceive how they should provide for them. "Where shall I find meat to give to all these people?" Num.11:13,22. Mark well describes their lack of understanding, even disrespect toward Jesus. cf. 6:52.

v39-40. Describing the scene, Mark underlines two wilderness images. First, the desert pasture is "green"; the cursed land is transformed in the presence of the true shepherd - the sheep now feed on the fat of the land, cf. Ezek.34:26f. Second, the groups of hundreds and fifties images the Mosaic camp-formation in the wilderness, Ex.18:21. The wilderness blooms before Jesus, the second Moses, and the flock finds a secure rest.

v41. Jesus' thanksgiving for God's provision of food is in line with Jewish custom, although instead of looking down, as was the normal practice, Jesus looks up.

v42-44. The Lord "opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing", Ps.145:16. Indeed, the crowd is satisfied, such that twelve baskets of scraps (most likely uneaten whole pieces) remain. This is simple food, like the manna of long ago, yet the crowd knows little of its origin. Only the disciples see the miracle, but sadly there is little evidence that they understand its significance. Here is the long-awaited shepherd who will soon guide the sheep to their rest, feed and sustain them at the eschatological banquet, but even the disciples fail to make the connection.

"Give them something to eat"

There is an interesting debate going on in the reformed churches throughout the world over whether infant (family) baptism should be restricted to church attenders, or be available to anyone who asks. Those with puritan tendencies want the rite restricted to families that exhibit the fruits of faith, while those with pragmatic tendencies want it open to anyone, and this for evangelistic purposes. In the Anglican/Episcopalian church, for example, those with puritan leanings have created "Naming Ceremonies" where a pseudo baptism service is performed to placate nominal members. Non-church attenders have commented, "Jesus says 'suffer little children to come unto me', but Rev X only suffers good church people to come to him." All very touchy!

A restrictive baptismal policy has value in a Christian community which functions apart from secular society, particularly for believers' baptism where the sign serves as a genuine expression of repentance and therefore, a mark of initiation into full membership of the church. In a national churches, which are by nature "established" (part of, and open to, the wider secular society), a restrictive baptismal policy may actually work against the nature of the institution, even undermining its historic shepherding role.

In a nonconformist church, the individual member invites those "coming and going" to find rest in the wilderness under the Word of the Shepherd. Yet, in an established church, the institution, as well as the individual, invites the lost to find rest for the soul in the "green" pastures of the church's ministrations. For most nominal members, their wilderness experience is limited to baptism, marriage and funerals. Few actually attend church services.

The notion of "sanctified pragmatics" is somewhat disturbing, a kind of "the ends justify the means" approach to church, but then the holy-huddle extracted from the rough and tumble of life is just as difficult to justify. However we design our engagement with lost humanity let it be to "give them something to eat" rather than "send the people away." Let us have "compassion" on "sheep without a shepherd" that in the "teaching" of the Master they may find rest for their soul.


1. Identify how Mark sets the scene in the first 4 verses.

2. List the allusions to Israel's forty year wilderness wanderings

3. In what sense is Jesus the shepherd, and how can we contribute to this role?

4. Consider the issue of infant / family baptism of nominal church members. Debate the principles / pragmatics problem associated with infant / family baptism.

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