I grew up in a town that’s almost the exact same size as Bordentown City, in both geography and population. It took me until I was, say, almost eight years old until I knew most of the people in town. This was back when adults could still tell other people’s children what to do; there weren’t any HIPAA laws and I can still remember the first time I knew someone who was being sued by someone else I knew because one kid hurt another kid. It was a different time, if only a little different, but one thing has stayed the same in towns both large and small and has never really changed: everybody knew everything about everybody’s business, and most weren’t even shy about it. There was really no place to hide.
“In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “lonely” or “deserted” and used with “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 (even knowing this) 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.”1
The disciples were none to happy about all of this, and we can speculate that Jesus knew they all needed a rest, but instead of getting testy and disappearing, He had compassion on the crowds. He spent the day with them. He taught them many things. He made sure that those who sought Him found Him, and then, because of His compassion and maybe (just a little bit) to tweak the disciples who were getting a little whiny, Jesus did the impossible thing that we’ve grown to be nonchalant about in feeding five-thousand men, plus women and children, with five loaves of bread and two fish.
What kind of god does such a thing? What kind of god looks upon those who bug him, hound him, harass him even, and responds with wisdom, compassion, and, seriously, food?! ? Our God, thankfully – and what more can I tell you today than our God is a God whom you cannot bother, cannot overburden; our God is a God you can’t pester or drive away; you’re never an obligation to our God, but rather His child, a child He teaches, feeds, and loves.
1John J. Pilch, http://liturgy.slu.edu/16OrdB071915/theword_cultural.html