Imagine your kids and grandkids “need” to move away, such that you no longer get to see them regularly, that you miss seeing them grow up. This is never easy, but at least there is payoff. Often such a move is because of a career choice, making the medicine go down. Grandparents can bear some of the pain because there is a future to this: “At least our sacrifice will be worth it! The grandkids will attend great school because of extra income. And one day family, since the family will be cashed up, will have money to be with us, they will have a big enough house to have us stay!” These are some of the pros and cons a grandparent will be able to weigh up, Christian or not.
But what happens when none of these benefits exist? What happens when everything (apparently) is negative? What happens when Christians travel overseas to dangerous countries (for example) with little hope of any financial reward? “What on earth were they thinking exposing our grandchildren to this? How selfish! How thoughtless!” Or when it comes to our own kids as they enter the prime of life: “I really wanted my kids to follow Jesus. But no way am I going to have them waste such a good education on this. They are too smart for Christian ministry. Let someone else do it—someone with lower earning potential anyway!”
What about following Jesus into the dangerous or unstable? Particularly in the West we say we value life highly. But what this often means is valuing our own lives so highly that it diminishes our view of sacrifice for Christ.
How do Jesus’ kingdom demands impact our expectations of friends and family? This is a huge question, one Mark has been subtly developing, now unpacked in Mark 6. Prior to Mark 6 many of these themes have already been mentioned. We know, for example, from Mark 1:14 that John the Baptist was arrested. That must’ve shaken everyone up. But what happened to him? In Mark 6 we find out, in what Donahue and Harrington in their Sacra Pagina commentary on Mark describe as “one of the great stories in world literature,” the story of John’s beheading:
The cast of characters includes the scorned woman (Herodias), the charming and seductive young dancer (Herodias’ daughter), the powerful and elite members of the Galilean society, the righteous prophet (John), the weak-willed king (Herod Antipas), and that ruthlessly efficient executioner. (p. 201)
Mark 6 is a long chapter. Why would Mark go into such detail here? Mark wants to prod and poke on something we all must stop to ponder, the cost of discipleship. The most brilliantly written parts of Mark, meant to draw us in, focus on the cost of being a disciple.
Mark has been writing about the cost of discipleship since the beginning of his gospel. Craig Blomberg, in his book on the Gospels, reminds us how the gospels as biography work:
Ancient Middle Eastern writers were not as bound by logical, linear thinking as modern Western ones are. The Gospels, like most documents of their day, would have been written to be read aloud… so writing had to include repetition for emphasis and rhetorical markers that would make connections between section clear. The modern commentator always runs the risk therefore, of imposing too much structure or symmetry when trying to outline these books. (p. 115)
Mark is not a scientific journal, covering bullet-points: one, two, three. It is a narrative, rich and free flowing, a narrative with wave after wave of parallel teaching designed to hit us enough times to eventually knock us over. And in Mark 6 we encounter the biggest wave in the set!
This theme, the cost of discipleship, begins right at the start of Mark’s gospel, chapter 1:
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)
This would have been hard, leaving family business with only the hired hands, a huge financial hit to their father as well as a painful personal loss!
Later in the same chapter Jesus is kind to Simon’s mother-in-law who was sick, with the result that the family home of Simon and Andrew is overrun by the crowds and turned into a mobile hospital for sick and demon possessed:
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them. 32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
I wonder how Simon’s father-in-law was feeling (if he was alive and lived there, too)?
This theme reaches its climax at the start of Mark 6, when Jesus goes back to his home town. His disciples follow him (6:1), an echo of the first disciples, when Jesus called them away from their families to follow him; this was a call to go anywhere with him. But a very complicated dynamic faces them here:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. 2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? 3 Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. 4 Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” 5 He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6 He was amazed at their lack of faith.
The people cannot believe in Jesus because of family dynamics! They almost freeze him in time: “Remember ‘little Jesus’ who grew up here? Remember Jesus who was just like his siblings!” Now the locals still see those siblings and cannot believe that Jesus could go beyond the norm they have created in minds.
Such are the deep complexities of family! We can get so tied up within our families–which is not bad in and of itself–and end up limiting our future because of another’s perception. “This is who you are, not that. You are not a missionary; you are not a Christian worker. You are one of us, so stay like one of us!”
How does one navigate pushback if he or she becomes a Christian out of a non-Christian upbringing? How does one cut through expectations? Verses 5 and 6 paint quite a sad picture. The very power of God was restricted because of unbelief. Jesus could not do any miracles (verse 5)! There is really no tying up of this mini narrative. It is simply left hanging.
Next…in a bonanza of vivid stories, the apostles are sent out on mission. The shift in storyline could not be more powerful: the narrative moves from the possible ‘stability’ of ‘home’ to utter instability, exactly the kind of issue that makes it difficult for those closest the called one to understand:
7 And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— 9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them. (Mark 6:7-13)
The history of the day helps understand these instructions. There were wandering philosophers in that day, Cynics (as they were known), who often wore two tunics (contrast above), who carried food, but who otherwise seemed to live much like the description Jesus gives. Yet the Cynics were rather individualistic, anti-social. They tended to turn people off by (among other things) modeling anti-social behavior. They were attempting to deconstruct society, and therefore they stood outside norms.
There is some of this same element here, but Jesus tells his disciples not to take food or too many clothes so that they might be dependent and therefore be forced to stay at a regular person’s house. So, while the gospel in a sense breaks certain societal norms, it also does so in direct connection to that society, infiltrating, breaking in, exploding expectations from the inside.
This was only a short-term mission, not necessarily the norm of how Jesus did things, much less how we should. We know, for example, from 1:29-33 that Jesus sometimes did stay in homes of disciples. Nonetheless, Mark 6 gives the powerful lesson that Christians will at times be on the social outside because of our behavior. Even so, we are still to penetrate into society itself; coming into its very heart, touching people where they are. The Christian message is not one of social deconstruction for deconstruction’s sake, like that of the Cynics, but rather a message of renewal and transformation for society as a whole.
Suddenly, Mark 6 interrupts Jesus’ characterization of Christian mission and sacrifice with a seemingly incongruent story, the death of John the Baptist. John had been imprisoned. We know that (Mark 1:14). But Mark 6 reveals that he was actually caught in a web of social intrigue, jealousy, and hatred towards what he taught, ultimately leading to his death:
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 17 For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests. And the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
We cannot do justice to this rich and extraordinary text in such a short article. So, what can we say?
First, fame is not everything it is cut out to be. We learn at the beginning of this passage that Jesus has become known, the upper classes of society is talking about him. This will end with Herod participating in Jesus’s crucifixion. In verse 17 we get the clue that John had been arrested because he spoke out about Herod’s questionable marriage to Herodias. John had become “famous,” but in ways that led to his imprisonment and death. This does not mean that we avoid all platforms, if the Lord calls us to them, but people who seek platforms for the sake of seeking them, beware! You may not realize what you are getting yourself into!
Second, do not be fooled into thinking that justice will be done when you operate in the upper echelons of the world. The entire death of John was a debacle, filled with parents manipulating children, spouses manipulating spouses, callousness to justice and human life, and more.
Third, notice that even if things look very bad, the ultimate impact is unknown if one is “righteous” and “holy” (verse 20). The sad thing is that Herod actually feared John, not the Lord (verse 20)! But we do see John’s godliness affecting people around him.
What happens when the disciples come back into the picture, after their mission trip? They are wasted. They are worn out. Mark 6 is quite real. Jesus, compassionate towards his disciples, wants to take them aside to give them a holiday, but they are called into action even while taking a break. While the disciples wished to send the crowds away, Jesus has compassion on them and challenges the disciples to join him in his mission:
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. (Mark 6:30-44)
Notice some faint echoes of Psalm 23 here. Jesus looks on the people with care and compassion. He was literally moved in his stomach for them, showing a whole-person emotional response. Jesus had already been thoughtful of his disciples, wanting to give them a break, but now as in Psalm 23, in an echo that even suggests Jesus’s divinity, he is described as being like the Good Shepherd, who has them sit on the “green grass” (verse 39, compare Psalm 23:2).
The overall message is clear. Of course in Christian ministry we must be thoughtful of each other, planning to give rest, and of course (let the reader understand) caring for our own immediate families (1 Timothy 5:8; Ephesians 5:22-6:4). But having said this, when it comes to personal sacrifice, this passage says, “Do it!” It says that we need to stop to help that neighbor when the emergency arises; we need to take time to counsel that person whose problems seem to just keep coming up. We need to open our wallets to help people, and more than that to help them in long-term ways. Here is a challenging passage indeed!
The cost of discipleship, then, is high. It may cost us our lives, as it did with John, or it may cost us our comfort and rest, as it did with the disciples. It may take us, or our children, or our grandchildren, across the sea. Discipleship is hard, messy, and inconvenient. But it is worth it.
Mark 6 closes with this point. First, Mark turns to Jesus walking on water (Mark 6:45-52):
45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:45-52)
What is most provocative in this passage is the last verse. Why is the issue them “not understanding the loaves,” not understanding (I take this to mean) the feeding of the 5000?
Abundance. It was like when God provided manna in the wilderness for the people. They could collect as much as they wanted. This is what is symbolized by them collecting 12 baskets afterward. Abundance! But what is interesting is that clearly the disciples had not lived in that moment themselves and therefore had missed the message. This is so easy to do. We are caught up in the moment; we get caught up in ministry; and we fail to see what we are meant to learn from it too! Jesus is a compassionate king who is our shepherd, who wants us to have abundance!
But they had missed that message. Why weren’t they expecting Jesus to come help them in the boat when they were straining at the oars? They were more inclined to believe he was a ghost than to expect Jesus to help… even though in Mark 4:35-41 that is exactly what Jesus had already done in the storm. Why couldn’t they expect his help, his abundance? They had missed the lesson of the multiplied bread. Make sure you don’t do that when you minister!
What happened the last time Jesus and the disciples crossed the lake? The elements were against them (Mark 4:35-41), and as in Mark 6 Jesus rescued them—even though in both stories they didn’t understand. But in Mark 5, after the demon had been driven out of the man, the locals begged Jesus to go away. Given that, he refused to take the healed man with him, instead sending him to preach (see Mark 5:18-20).
The hidden message behind Mark 6:53-56 is what must have happened next—because clearly the demon possessed man had told people about Jesus (see Mark 5:18-20) and clearly it had had a huge effect. God had been working through him, even though the disciples were unaware of it:
53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore. 54 And when they got out of the boat, the people immediately recognized him 55 and ran about the whole region and began to bring the sick people on their beds to wherever they heard he was. 56 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.
This wonderfully expansive chapter of Mark has many challenging pills to swallow, the call to exhaustion and even death in Christian ministry. But what a neat finish Mark gives! Our labors are not in vain. Even if we do not see all God is doing through others, he is preparing the way. He is making the path straight. And though the labor he calls us to is challenging, the outcome is huge!