“When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Mark 6:34
When Jesus looked at the crowd, he was deeply moved. The Greek indicates His observation was gut-wrenching. The word “compassion” is a good translation because it literally means to suffer with another. Jesus was suffering with these sheep because they were in need, and they needed a shepherd to provide their needs.
Even though Jesus is exhausted and hungry [v 31], yet being the compassionate Shepherd He must remain and help His sheep when they are in need. And what do they need? They need food! First and foremost they need food for their souls, so immediately after Jesus bemoaned the fact that the people were like sheep without a shepherd, we read: And he began to teach them many things [v 34b]. Can you imagine being fed the Word of God by Jesus Himself! Jesus was feeding them with pure and ultra-nutritional spiritual nourishment. We get a glimpse of this teaching in the Sermon on the Mount [Mt 5-7]. We also observe in the Gospels that such teaching by the Good Shepherd had an element of provocative mystery as Jesus continually taught in parables. These required wrestling and interpretation as they spoke of the King and His Kingdom. After the King died on the cross and rose from the dead, His teaching gained clarity, for His teaching was ultimately about the Shepherd dying and rising to save His Sheep. To His Apostles Jesus revealed the full meaning in His teaching, and then the Apostles—and later the pastors whose office flowed from the Apostolic office—would feed Christ’s sheep. These under-shepherds of Jesus fed and feed Christ’s sheep the same way Jesus fed them: They taught/teach the sheep the Word of Christ.
At times the various acts and miracles of Jesus stood as sort of “living parables,” having an intended deeper meaning behind the actual account itself. In the account of the feeding of the five thousand, Mark the Evangelist hints at this deeper meaning. For example, Mark records that Jesus commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass [v 39]. Why inform his readers that Jesus had them sit in the green grass? A good answer is found in Psalm 23, wherein the Good Shepherd makes His sheep lie down in green pastures [v 2]. The Shepherd in Psalm 23 is none other than the Lord God Himself, and thus Mark is informing us that Jesus, the man, is indeed God in the flesh; He makes me lie down in green pastures and He restores my soul.
The account of the miraculous feeding not only reminds us that God our Shepherd is concerned about and gives us our daily bread, but it also—no doubt purposely—reminds us of the Lord’s Supper. In the feeding of the five thousand Mark records,…he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people [v 41]. When Saint Mark then recorded the institution of the Lord’s Supper we observe parallel wording:…he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them [the Apostles], and said, “Take; this is my body.” [14:22].The powerful words of Jesus spoken on that Passover evening make the Lord’s Supper the continual distribution of His body and blood to eat and to drink. Though the miraculous feeding of the five thousand was no distribution of the Lord’s body and blood, yet the order for distribution is the same: Jesus (the creator of the miracle) gives to His under-shepherds, and they then give to the people. This yet happens today when the sheep gather for the Divine Service. The miraculous meal established by Christ on that Passover evening continues as Christ’s under-shepherds distribute His body (in bread) to His sheep. He keeps making us lie down in green pastures and He keeps restoring our souls. And even as the bread and fish in the feeding of the five thousand were multiplied and not depleted, so it is not surprising that on a higher plane the body and blood of Jesus are given to millions around the world, and the gifts are not depleted.
Jesus is indeed the Good Shepherd, identified as God in both the Old and New Testaments. His teaching and the distribution of His Sacraments find their foundation in the fulfillment of His Good Shepherd prediction: No one takes it [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father [Jn 10:18]. Yes, flowing from the cross and empty tomb the compassionate Shepherd gives us the green pastures of His Word and Sacraments, and here we eat far more than earthly food, we eat the food of immortality for the restoration of our souls.