30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 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. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
In 1961, Noel Stookey of “Peter, Paul, and Mary,” read a little newspaper article about a picnic that went terribly wrong and handed the article to a young singer friend of his.
…on June 19, 1961, Stookey sat in the Gaslight reading the New York Herald Tribune, which contained an article about a Father’s Day boat cruise up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain that had gone awry due to counterfeit tickets and overcrowding. Stookey showed the story to a recent acquaintance, a 20yearold singer named Bobby Dylan who had arrived in New York from Minnesota the previous winter. “I remember handing him an article on the Bear Mountain thing,” Stookey said, “and he brought a song back the next day. Astounding.” The song was “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Disaster Blues,” which Dylan wrote in the style of his idol, Woody Guthrie.
Bob Dylan’s “Talkin’ Bear Mountain Picnic Disaster Blues” is a humorous and quirky song about this event.
I saw it advertised one day
Bear Mountain picnic was comin’ my way
“Come along ’n’ take a trip
We’ll bring you up there on a ship
Bring the wife and kids
Bring the whole family”
Well, I run right down ’n’ bought a ticket
To this Bear Mountain Picnic
But little did I realize
I was in for a picnic surprise
Had nothin’ to do with mountains
I didn’t even come close to a bear
Took the wife ’n’ kids down to the pier
Six thousand people there
Everybody had a ticket for the trip
“Oh well,” I said, “it’s a pretty big ship
Besides, anyway, the more the merrier”
Well, we all got on ’n’ what d’ya think
That big old boat started t’ sink
More people kept a-pilin’ on
That old ship was a-slowly goin’ down
Funny way t’ start a picnic
Well, I soon lost track of m’ kids ’n’ wife
So many people there I never saw in m’ life
That old ship sinkin’ down in the water
Six thousand people tryin’ t’ kill each other
Dogs a-barkin’, cats a-meowin’
Women screamin’, fists a-flyin’, babies cryin’
Cops a-comin’, me a-runnin’
Maybe we just better call off the picnic
I got shoved down ’n’ pushed around
All I could hear there was a screamin’ sound
Don’t remember one thing more
Just remember wakin’ up on a little shore
Head busted, stomach cracked
Feet splintered, I was bald, naked . . .
Quite lucky to be alive though
Feelin’ like I climbed outa m’ casket
I grabbed back hold of m’ picnic basket
Took the wife ’n’ kids ’n’ started home
Wishin’ I’d never got up that morn
Now, I don’t care just what you do
If you wanta have a picnic, that’s up t’ you
But don’t tell me about it, I don’t wanta hear it
’Cause, see, I just lost all m’ picnic spirit
Stay in m’ kitchen, have m’ own picnic . . .
In the bathroom
Now, it don’t seem to me quite so funny
What some people are gonna do f’r money
There’s a bran’ new gimmick every day
Just t’ take somebody’s money away
I think we oughta take some o’ these people
And put ’em on a boat, send ’em up to Bear Mountain . . .
For a picnic
A lot can go wrong when you get six thousand people together for a picnic, be it in 1961 or the year 31. Our text is about a picnic (in a manner of speaking) involving over five thousand folks that could have gone terribly wrong. Instead, Jesus worked one of His most well known miracles and transformed the event into a powerful statement about who He is. It is interesting to note that of all the miracles recorded in the New Testament, “the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle of Jesus recorded by all four Gospels (also Matt 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-14).” This gives us a sense of just how important this event was and is.
Jesus the Compassionate
The feeding of the five thousand was occasioned by Jesus’ compassion for His disciples and then by His compassion for the crowd at large.
30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
When Mark speaks of the apostles “returning” He is speaking of their return from the mission trip on which Jesus had just sent them. These were exhilarating times for the disciples but also exhausting times, so Jesus proposed that they go on a retreat and rest.
Twice in verses 30-32 our text speaks of the place as “a desolate place”: first in Jesus’ original call for the retreat and then in Mark’s description. This is important for it tells us something of the quality of the rest He wished for His disciples to have. They needed to get away from everything and recoup, to have honest and deep rest far away from the hustle and bustle of life. Thomas Merton has passed on a helpful illustration concerning the need for rest from the desert fathers.
Once Abbot Anthony was conversing with some brethren, and a hunter who was after game in the wilderness came upon them. He saw Abbot Anthony and the brothers enjoying themselves, and disapproved. Abbot Anthony said: Put an arrow in your bow and shoot it. This he did. Now shoot another, said the elder. And another, and another. The hunter said: If I bend my bow all the time it will break. Abbot Anthony replied: So it is also in the work of God. If we push ourselves beyond measure, the brethren will soon collapse. It is right, therefore, from time to time, to relax their efforts.
Jesus was compassionate towards His disciples. He did not wish to push them past the point of breaking. Jesus knew too that the bow that is ever bent will one day break. Even so, such was the ministry of Jesus that the crowd watched the trajectory of their journey and raced on foot to beat them there.
33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 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.
The compassion of Christ was not only for His disciples. It was also for the masses. Notice, however, the difference. Upon His own He had the compassion of a friend who was concerned with their efforts for the Kingdom. Upon the masses, however, He was moved not because of their Kingdom work but because of their lostness, because of their being “like sheep without a shepherd.” The disciples had a shepherd. These did not, though Jesus wanted to be that for them.
Thus, though He had come to this place to rest with His disciples, His compassion moved Him to care for the assembled crowds. “And he began to teach them many things.”
When the prophets foretold the coming of Christ, they said, “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel” (Matthew 2:6). The image is used again in Matthew 25:32 in speaking of the final judgment: “Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” In Hebrews 13, the author of Hebrews spoke of Jesus as “the great shepherd.”
20 Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, 21 equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Nor will Christ’s role as our shepherd end when we are in heaven. On the contrary, in Revelation 7:17, we read, “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This means that we will live ever in the compassionate love of Jesus, the great shepherd. He will, for all eternity, grant us rest, restoration, joy, and peace.
Jesus the Empowering
Out of compassion Jesus engages the people. He teaches them many things, and He does so until late in the day.
35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.”
As it was suppertime, the disciples’ minds turn to practical matters. They note that they are in “a desolate place,” the third time this phrase is used in our story. One can imagine the disciples watching the darkening skies and, perhaps, feeling the rumbling of their own stomachs as they approach Jesus. Their proposal is imminently sensible: “Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”
Jesus’ response to this sensible question is, by any human reckoning, anything but: “You give them something to eat.” Mark will tell us in verse 44 that there were five thousand men. That word “men” is not generic. It means literally “men.” That means there were well over five thousand people there because women and children were not included in the counting. Thus, one can see the problem with Jesus’ instructions from the human vantage point. Simply put, how on earth are the twelve disciples to feed so many thousands of people?
And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all.
The question about buying food was rhetorical, for “two hundred denarii worth of bread” “was about ‘eight months of a man’s wages.’” This was an enormous sum of money.
Jesus, however, does something that only heightens the absurdity of this moment: “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
It must have been with some sense of confusion and perhaps exasperation that the disciples went to find out how many loaves of bread were available. Their response is brief and possibly terse: “Five, and two fish.”
Then Jesus, without explanation, asked the people to sit in groups. After they did so, the great miracle happened. Jesus took the loaves and fish, blessed them, broke the loaves and divided the fish, and began to distribute them. And He distributed them…and distributed them…and distributed them.
42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
Absolutely amazing! “And they all ate and were satisfied.” There was enough for all the people and then for the disciples as well. Speaking of the statement, “they…were satisfied,” James Brooks writes that, “Mark probably wanted his readers/hearers to think in terms of something more than physical satisfaction from all that Jesus gives.” This is certainly so! More than the satisfaction of their bellies, their souls were satisfied. Their hearts were satisfied. In some way that they could not quite explain, they knew they were in the presence of something that fulfilled a greater hunger than the mere hunger for food. Something had been satisfied deep within them.
I am struck, though, by the statement that Jesus “broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.” Here we see the empowering Christ, the Jesus who invites His flabbergasted disciples to participate with Him in a ministry they could not understand. Why did Jesus not simply have the disciples sit with the other doubting folk and serve everybody miraculously Himself? He certainly could have.
It is because Jesus desires for His disciples to join with Him in His work even when we do not understand how the work is happening. Jesus is the empowering shepherd who invites us into His great work. He grants us the privilege of stepping into the divine work that we are perhaps gawking at with as much stupefied amazement as the lost world. We may be as stupefied, but we, as the people of God, must learn to trust. This is because we are the body of Christ and are commissioned with continuing the amazing work of Jesus on the earth. So though we do not understand, we must learn to believe and, in believing, work. After all, Jesus said in John 14:12, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
Jesus the Divine
There is also an amazing statement about Jesus in this story that Mark hints at in some of the details. For instance, the threefold reference to “a desolate place” (v.31,32,35) evokes images of the wilderness. James Edwards translates it as, “a deserted or lonely place away from towns and villages.” This terminology suggests the wilderness. We have seen before that Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness for forty days (1:12,13) evoked the exodus, the wilderness wanderings of the Jews. In Mark 1:35, Jesus goes back out to “a desolate place” to pray. In Mark 3:1-6, we saw that the language Mark used to describe Jesus healing the man with the withered hand in the synagogue was the language of Moses before Pharoah.
All of this is to say that there is a great deal of language in Mark that keeps calling us back to God’s deliverance of His people out of Egypt, through the wilderness, and to the promised land. Our text is no different. Consider, for instance, that just like the children of Israel in the wilderness, now we have another example of a miraculous provision of bread. The bread in the feeding of the five thousand brings back memories of manna. We read of manna in Exodus 16.
1 They set out from Elim, and all the congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. 2 And the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, 3 and the people of Israel said to them, “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” 4a Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you…”
The point is clear enough: once again God miraculously rains down bread from heaven upon His people in a desolate place. In Christ, God is continuing the work of the exodus!
Some have pointed to Mark’s reference to “the green grass” in verse 39 as a possible verbal hint that Christ is the promised Messiah. For instance, in Isaiah 35, one of the signs of the coming of the Promised One is the blooming of the desert.
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”
The point here is not that the grass was miraculous, but rather that Mark’s interesting usage of the adjective “green” is calling the prophesied miracle to mind. After all, Mark does not use a lot of vivid adjectives in his relatively short gospel. This is telling because only Mark of all the gospel writers includes this little detail: the green grass. His reference to the green grass may have been intended to evoke the prophecy of the blooming desert, as if to say that now that Jesus is here, the desert blooms for God has come among His people!
Whether that is so or not, the imagery of our story reminds us of a most beloved text. Consider Mark’s terminology: “like sheep without a shepherd” (v.34), “something to eat” (v.36,37), “green grass” (v.39). Does this sound familiar?
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 3 He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23)
Yes, Christ is the divine shepherd, God with us, leading us into a rich and green land. He is the Lord our shepherd! His rod and His staff still comforts us, and He is still preparing a table, a feast, before us!
Behold the Good Shepherd, Jesus the Christ! Come to the Shepherd! Trust in the Shepherd!
 James A. Brooks, Mark. The New American Commentary. Gen. Ed., David S. Dockery. Vol.23 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.90.
 Thomas Merton, The Way of the Desert (New York, NY: New Directions), p.63.
 James A. Brooks, p.109.
 James A. Brooks, p.109.
 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. Gen. Ed., D.A. Carson. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.190.