The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognised them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognised him and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well. (Mark 6:30–34, 53-56)
Well, what am I supposed to do with this? In their wisdom, the compilers of the lectionary have decided to take two passages some twenty verses apart and shove them together. It’s not as if nothing much is happening in this section of Mark’s gospel. In fact, between the two passages we have the feeding of the five thousand and Christ walking on the water. All rather odd, and I am sitting here typing away feeling rather grumpy about these two passages welded together like a badly-repaired 1970s Ford Cortina.
Anyway, moan over. There’s one image in the first of the two passages which I’d like to spend a little time considering: “he had compassion on them, because they were like a sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34).
To anyone who has come across sheep who have managed to wriggle through a small hole in a hedge the image of sheep without a shepherd might suggest aimless wandering. I often used to drive across a common towards the top of Clee Hill where the sheep roamed free, and they often would find themselves on bizarre ledges or munching within a few feet of the traffic. To a Jew hearing Mark’s gospel, a rather different image would come to mind. Read this from Jeremiah with Mark’s comment about ‘sheep without a shepherd’ in mind:
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD. “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 23:1–6)
Here’s one of those occasions when we can see that the Old Testament is important for understanding the New Testament. There is one story which unfolds across both Old and New Testaments, and to simply read the New Testament is rather like only reading the final chapter of an Agatha Christie mystery and wondering who all these people are.
So back to Jeremiah. Look again, and note who the shepherd is in this case. The people of Israel have been left leaderless, or rather their leaders have proved themselves to be wolves. The people are scattered and neglected. They have been driven into other countries (think the Jews in exile in Babylon, and the northern tribes who were scattered throughout the Assyrian empire two centuries earlier). There is only a remnant left, just a few, and to these a new shepherd comes: God himself. “I will gather the remnant of my flock … and I will bring them back”. Only then, we read, will God “set shepherds over them who will care for them”.
So it is that Jesus the good shepherd is in fact the LORD returning to shepherd his people, those sheep without a shepherd. He is, as Isaiah foresees, the “righteous Branch” of King David. He is the one from the line of David who will reign. He is the one who will bring Salvation to Judah. He is the one who is called “The LORD is our righteousness”.
So it is that Jesus is king and shepherd, another shepherd king like David. So it is also that Jesus is “our righteousness”. When we come to be judged by God, we can trust in Jesus’s righteousness rather than our own. We place our faith in what Jesus has done, not in what we do. It is the LORD who is our righteousness, and not ourselves. This is a fact so marvellous that one Reformer was brought to heights of praise:
This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that, by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness. (John Calvin).
So it is that when we look to the Old as well as the New, that when we read the Scriptures as a whole and not simply a collection of unconnected books, we discover the great plot of salvation. Yes, Jesus is a shepherd but he is also more than a shepherd. He is the great shepherd to which Isaiah (and Ezekiel) looked. The seeds of Christ’s ministry lie throughout the Old Testament and as we read the Bible as a whole we marvel as they grow.
So don’t take two passages and shunt them together, as today’s set reading has attempted. Allow the Bible to be the Bible and you will see in it the tracings of the finger of God.