Historical Culture Context
A Lonely Place
The image of a “lonely” place (Mk 6:31, 32) painted in today’s reading prepares for Mark’s next story, about the feeding of five thousand. But the image is worth pondering for fresh insights it can give into our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith.
In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “lonely” or “deserted” and used with the word “place” basically describes an uninhabited region or one with a very small population. The word can also describe a place of sparse vegetation. Although the two ideas are related, the New Testament usage applies more often to population.
In first-century Palestine, there were fewer than three or four large cities like Jerusalem. Ninety percent of the population lived outside the large cities in hamlets or villages with a small number of residents. The population of Nazareth may not have been more than 150 and could have been as small as 50. Try to imagine “privacy” in a settlement of this size!
These small settlements were not packed densely close to each other. There was a significant distance between them, and this uninhabited space was generally viewed as chaos or “a lonely place.” The modern experience of “a family picnic in the park” simply could and did not occur in the first-century Mediterranean world.
Jesus’ suggestion that he and his disciples, freshly returned from their journey, leave his neighborhood (Nazareth) and go off to a lonely place is well explained by the next sentence: “Many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mk 6:31).
If Jesus is still in his own country (Mk 6:1), then he and his disciples are well known to everybody. In the Middle East, everybody minds everybody else’s business. Privacy is practically nonexistent. Rest is all but impossible. And if anyone is eating, it would be impolite and inconsiderate not to share with others.
Yet the nosey crowds give Jesus and his followers no rest. Mark presents a humorous picture. “Many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them” (Mk 6:33). It is not just that they “saw them,” but some were certainly keeping an eye on them.
Any group going off to a lonely place raised suspicions. What did they have to hide? What are they up to? Why are they being secretive? Who goes off to uninhabited places known to be rife with demons and wild beasts? If nosey people wanted to stay “in the know,” they had to run to get to the boat’s landing place even before the vessel arrived.
Jesus’ response to them is compassion (Mk 6:34) because they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” One of Hebrew derivations for “compassion” means “womb.” In the Middle East, compassion is considered a female value and virtue.
Sheep are basically dumb animals. No one can lead them; they have to be driven. Without a shepherd, sheep simply lie down and don’t move ahead. Jesus perceives that the people have basic needs that are going unmet.
Moved to compassion for them, Jesus teaches the great throng many things sufficiently interesting and engaging to keep them there dangerously late.
Being in an uninhabited place far from kin and without provisions, everyone wondered: what’s next? The story continues in the next weeks.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University