Following a particularly busy time for the disciples, Jesus attempts to take “time out” with them in Mark's gospel (6:31), by heading off in a boat. But the crowds of people work out where he is headed, and arrive there first. Jesus has compassion on them, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”
This phrase has a rich heritage in the Bible. It crops up for the first time when Moses asks God to appoint somebody to lead the people, so that they won't be like sheep without a shepherd. Joshua is appointed to succeed Moses.
We find it again in 1 Kings 22:17 – an interesting passage. There is one honest prophet of the Lord in Israel (the Northern Kingdom), and the king of Judah, currently working with Israel, is keen to know what he has to say, rather than the opinions of those prophets who aren't of the Lord. He says, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the LORD said, 'These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.'”
Next in Ezekiel 34, the prophet is writing about the “shepherds of Israel”, and says of the sheep of Israel, “They were scattered because there was no shepherd.” But he's not really talking about sheep – the sheep, as we have seen already, are the people of Israel, and the shepherds the leaders of Israel.
So, when the gospel writer says that Jesus looks at the crowds and concludes that they are like sheep without a shepherd, where should we look? To the palace. And in Mark's gospel, what has just happened in the palace? The last prophet (John the Baptist) has just been put to death by the king in an erotic, drunken haze. The people are indeed like sheep without a shepherd.
So what does Jesus do?
He teaches them. He does what the shepherd of Israel was supposed to do – bring the people of Israel to the word of God. And he then backs up what he is doing by feeding them. Miraculously.
And just to get the significance of this feeding, note that Mark writes that the people were directed to sit down “on the green grass”. And they were beside the lake. Does that remind you of something? Which is, of course, what Ezekiel had said would happen after he had condemned the existing shepherds of Israel.