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The Politics of Scripture

Embodying Compassion—Mark 6:30-56

The power of state in both Greco-Roman times as well as today hinges upon a hierarchal power structure. Jesus, however, calls us to compassion in a horizontal social structure.

30The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He 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. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As 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. 35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 37But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” 38And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all.42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

45Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

47When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. 49But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” 51Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

I read this story about Alexander the Great. When he launched his Indian campaign, his teacher, the great philosopher Aristotle, had told him, “When you are coming back, bring a gift to me. I would like to see a Sannyasin (a wise man) from India.” So before his return home, Alexander inquired in the village where he was staying where he could find a Sannyasin.

It so happened that the great well-known mystic Dandamis was in the village at the time. The people told Alexander that he was lucky, for a real Sannyasin was considered a rare find. They told Alexander that he should feel free to visit Dandamis. He laughed and said, “I didn’t come to visit. My soldiers will bring him to me so I can take him home.”

The village elders shook their heads and said, “We don’t think you will be able to take him back.” He laughed at the foolishness of the villagers, and said, “If I want to take the Himalayas, even they will follow me. So just tell me where he is and my soldiers will retrieve him.”

The soldiers found Dandamis, a naked man standing just outside the village by the side of the river. They told Dandamis, “Alexander the Great wants to take you home. You will be his royal guest. Whatsoever you need will be provided, every comfort will be yours. Accept the invitation.”

The naked man started laughing. He said, “First of all, I wonder whether someone calling himself ‘great’ can be all that great. Furthermore, I don’t go anywhere any more. I serve no one. I have come home.” The soldiers said, “If you don’t go as a guest, you will go as a prisoner. The choice is yours. You will have to go, no matter what.” He started laughing again. He said, “I have dropped the very thing that can be imprisoned. Nobody can make me a prisoner. I am freedom.”

When the soldiers returned and told Alexander that the Sannyasin had refused to go, Alexander went to see Dandamis. As he approached, he took his sword out and told the Sannyasin, “If you don’t come with me, this sword here will cut off your head.”

Dandamis said, “You can do that. In fact, I have cut off my head already. If you cut off my head, you will see it falling down on the ground and I will also see it falling on the ground, because I have become a witness.”

It is said that Alexander could not gather the courage to kill Dandamis. He returned to his camp and told his advisers, “I have never encountered a man who doesn’t fight or run in the face of certain death, but calmly says, ‘Go ahead, and cut off my head, because I’ve done that already’.”

As Alexander had to leave India without the Sannyasin he had planned to bring home, it dawned on some people that perhaps there is a sort of power out there that can withstand even an experienced conqueror.

Sunday’s assigned Gospel is part of Mark 6, a chapter in which the writer contrasts the hierarchical power of the state with the horizontal social structure of the Jesus movement.

Right before our text, “Mark” reports that King Herod Antipas had heard of the Jesus movement and that he is afraid that Jesus might be the ghost of John the Baptist—the man his soldiers had beheaded during a sumptuous birthday party.

[Our lectionary disrupts the flow of Mark by jumping from verse 34 to the summary verses of Jesus’ healings at the end, and cutting out the chapter’s heart, the feeding of the five thousand (verses 35-44) and the second crossing to the other side (verses 45-52). I have decided to leave those parts in.]

The contrasts abound: While Herod’s feast occurred at his palace, Jesus’ feast is in a deserted place; while only the elite of Galilee was invited to Herod’s feast, Jesus invites the great crowd that has gathered; while Herod’s feast ended in death, Jesus brings life to those left “like sheep without a shepherd”; While Herod’s motivation was political calculation, Jesus feels and embodies compassion.

“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” (verse 34). The Greek word rendered “compassion” in the NRSV is splanchnizomai, a word that is literally visceral, as it is connected with the bowels; the word means to be moved in one’s guts.

While Herod’s feast is a tale of injustice and murder, Jesus’ feast unfolds as a story of healing, compassion, teaching the way of life, and feeding. Jesus’ feast accepts everybody: the great crowd comes and all are fed. There is food left over. Jesus feeds them, and as he embodies God’s truth, he teaches them.

In the fifty-six verses of Chapter 6, “Mark” gives us a short but powerful lesson on power: how it is wielded by the world and how it becomes completely different when Jesus is involved. First, he tells us how Jesus is rejected by his hometown. Then he reports that Jesus sends his disciples out “two by two” to preach and to heal.

The gruesome episode involving John the Baptist follows immediately, as if to remind disciples of all times that telling the truth to the loveless and hostile world has consequences. But there’s another message in the story of John’s death: that the truth of God’s Reign never loses its power. Even though imperial powers always believe that cutting off the head of a movement will kill the whole of it, John the Baptist and Jesus, and countless others since, have proven them wrong.

To the chagrin of the powers that be, John and Jesus:

  • spoke truth to the powerful,
  • operated from outside the centers of power,
  • proclaimed a vision of the world that was alien to the establishment,
  • and taught people to see the world as it is.

Jesus embodied these teachings when he gathered the crowds. “And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed” (verse 56). The mention of towns, cities, and farms means that the Jesus movement now has the clout to occupy every social space in Galilee. Herod had every reason to be nervous, for Jesus, rather than being a ghost, was quite real.

For us to become effective disciples, we must decide whether we want to operate like Alexander (ego-driven, walking over dead bodies to achieve what we want, only interested in having power over others) or like the Sannyasin (self-denying, loving everyone, sharing power). Only if we choose the way of the Sannyasin can the gut-wrenching compassion Jesus felt become ours; only then will we allow the pain of the world to move us in the core of our being.  

Our current administration proves every day that its policies are inimical to the compassionate vision of Jesus; they are following the way of Alexander. But even though that is true, Gandhi’s words are also true: “When I despair, I remember that throughout history tyrants and dictators have always failed in the end.”

Following the way of the Sannyasin, the way of Jesus, we can operate from outside the centers of power and embody a vision utterly alien to our culture; that way we can resist and repudiate the evils perpetrated by our government. In these days when the standard way the government communicates is to lie, we will commit to God’s truth – the only truth that endures. Yes, we will stick out like a sore thumb, and they will laugh at us and threaten us, but it’s the only way to be true disciples

A Rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day had begun.

‘Could it be,’ asked one of the students, ‘when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it’s a sheep or a dog?’ ‘No,’ answered the Rabbi.

Another asked, ‘Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it’s a fig tree or a peach tree?’ ‘No,’ answered the Rabbi.

‘Then what is it?’ the pupils demanded. ‘It is when you can look on the face of any man or woman and see that it is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot see this, it is still night.’

As we embody compassion and offer advocacy for all our sisters and brothers, may God give us the long breath of faith, and the conviction that God’s truth will never die, no matter how many heads they cut off. One day this night will end, and the day will begin. Amen.

4 thoughts on “Embodying Compassion—Mark 6:30-56

    1. (I haven’t answered
      earlier because the software took six days to deliver your feedback to my inbox)

      Thanks Charles. I appreciate it.

  1. Fritz: This piece is wonderful !


    (mutual friend of Charles, who sent this to me.)

    1. Thanks so much, Tom.

      (I haven’t answered
      earlier because the software took six days to deliver your feedback to my inbox)

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