Mark chapter 6 contains a number of rapid-fire scenes in the ministry of Jesus, each one separated from the others by time, location, and circumstance: the recurring format for how this earliest gospel finally comes together. Yet throughout these scenes and seemingly connecting them is that familiar stream of effect Jesus seems to invoke in his eyewitnesses—astonishment. At every turn, we see the Worker of Miracles either being sincerely adored, completely feared, or outright hated. “And those who heard were astonished… and they took offense at him”(Mk 6:2-4).
But into this familiar stream of scenarios we call “good news”—the rejection of home and family, the commissioning of workers, the death of his cousin, the feeding of the masses, and the rescue of the stranded upon the sea—Mark casts before us the most profound observation: “he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd”(Mk 6:34). The “sheep without a shepherd” comparison should amaze us and yet is somewhat foreshadowed. The One who himself was almost literally born unto shepherds in a make-shift shelter outside of town is himself the compassion of God who comes out of the rocky hills above and down into the rejection of the world to care for those who have no care. The newborn baby in the manger peering up into the eyes of the world’s first ministers.
Something entirely new has come into our midst. A completely different spirit is confounding the familiar. The stream is somehow running uphill or at least gaining ground along this Galilean countryside. Compassion is at work before all eyes, over and above any miracle, parable, or outrageous claim. The mercy of God has taken form and emerged in the likeness of a man. God himself in flesh among men, shepherding men, feeding them, healing them, offering them to the world again as unquenchable light. And all of this bewilders!
A moment later, in another example, we find Jesus on the side of a mountain praying up into what almost seems like an interruption, a desperate scene on the surface of the sea below, a boat is going down (see Mk6:45-52). Again, something almost foreshadowed here or at least big picture: Christ descends into the earth, coming off his holy mountain as it were (or out of the holy trinity) and down into a sea of chaos. An entirely new spirit (ghost) emerges out of the waves as man struggles against the wind.
This is the second entry Mark gives involving a sinking ship in the storm. Perhaps he is pointing at something. For one thing, his account of Jesus in both stories is a compassion-laden reminder that the Anointed of God is always in the boat with us, even when our boat is going down. In fact, by the end of Mark’s gospel Jesus himself is hanging on a cross. A very different kind of boat sure, but still a boat that up against the wind, taking on waves, and inevitably going down.
Here alone should be the most astonishing truth revealed to us in the Christ if we are to take him as our own and give ourselves to him: compassion is decision, and that decision to be compassion is undeniably costly. Jesus is both savior and shepherd. Sure he wants to heal the world of its ills, but he also wants to lead you in the purposes of heaven. His rescue is his righteousness and his leading is his Spirit. If we should cling to the mast of this ship as does the thief who hangs beside him, we will go down with Jesus. Believe it or not, this is good news. This miraculous news. This is the only kind of decision we can make that will allow wretched dead things to live again. “And now I have told you these things so that in me you can have peace. In the world you will have trial and suffering, but take courage for I have overcome this world”(Jn 16:33)