By Dr. Ed Miciano
We pastors are often referred to as shepherds of God’s flock. More precisely, we are undershepherds who serve under the leadership of Christ, the Chief Shepherd. As co-laborers in the work of Christ, it is important for each of us to truly understand what it means to have a “shepherd’s heart.” Thankfully, Jesus himself demonstrated this for us on many occasions throughout his earthly ministry. One good example is the time when Christ sent his apostles to various villages to preach the Gospel, heal the sick, and cast out demons. The evangelist Mark recounts this event when he writes:
The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and what they had taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go away from the crowds for a while and rest.” There were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat. They left by boat for a quieter spot. But many people saw them leaving, and people from many towns ran ahead along the shore and met them as they landed. A vast crowd was there as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things. (Mark 6:30-32)
Imagine how frustrated the apostles must have felt at this time. Although they were excited to report their ministry experiences to Jesus, they were also tired and hungry. Furthermore, Jesus invited them to take a break from their work and led them to a quiet place where they could rest and eat. However, when they reached their destination, they were met by a large crowd. To the apostles’ dismay, instead of telling the crowd to leave them alone, Jesus began to teach them. It may have seemed like Jesus had completely forgotten his promise to give the apostles a time of rest.
Readers come to understand, of course, that Jesus was using this time to teach his apostles a very important lesson on compassion. Mark describes Jesus’ response to the crowd as having “compassion,” or “to be moved as to one’s inwards.” Christ had a deep concern for the crowd because he saw them as a people in dire need of guidance and care; they were “sheep without a shepherd.” As such, he took it upon himself to provide the people with the shepherding they needed. This is why Jesus laid down his plans to rest with his apostles, and instead proceeded to feed the crowd the truths of God’s kingdom.
The apostles clearly did not share this same level of compassion. While they may have tolerated Jesus’ actions for a moment, their impatience was unveiled late in the day when one of them finally said, “This is a desolate place, and it is getting late. . . . Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy themselves some food” (Mark 6:35-36). Without reading too much into their recommendation, it is as if the apostles where saying to Jesus, “Enough with this teaching; send these people home so that we can go on to get the rest and refreshments we were promised.” Remarkably, Jesus, knowing the condition of their hearts, responded by saying, “You feed them” (Mark 6:37). With this, Jesus reminded his apostles that caring for a lost and displaced people was their responsibility. Even if they themselves were hungry and weary, it was more important to have compassion for others in need. Jesus implied that ministry involves the willingness to temporarily suspend the gratification of personal needs in order to meet the needs of others. When the apostles finally succumbed to Jesus’ request and fed the crowd despite their limited resources, Jesus taught them yet another important lesson regarding the work of the Kingdom. After the crowd of thousands was miraculously fed with a meager five loaves of bread and two fish, there was still enough food left over. Mark even takes the time to specify how much was left over. We are told that there were twelve basketsful of leftovers—that’s one for each of the twelve apostles! Jesus did not forget them after all. So the apostles eventually got their share of rest and food, but only after they took care of the greater business of God’s Kingdom. This lesson would certainly remain in the hearts of the apostles for years to come as they would soon go to all the corners of the world preaching the Gospel to lost people everywhere. Only this time, they would each do it with the heart of a shepherd.