This passage from Mark indicates a sort of transition in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus has sent his disciples out on mission in Galilee and is happy with their reactions when they return. At the same time, they receive news of the murder of John the Baptist at the behest of King Herod. Jesus cannot but be saddened at this tragedy.
So he invites his disciples to withdraw a bit from the pressures of the crowds to a lonely place where they can be alone by themselves. They need to understand what is happening, what their mission implies. They need to trust God more and rely on Him above all.
Jesus would often retire by himself, giving himself into deep communion with God his Father. Often this would be at night, for his days were filled with activities of all kinds. In inviting his disciples to share his solitude, he also reveals to them what the source of their own energy should be – the intimacy of prayer.
The crowds would rarely let the disciples enjoy this solitude for any length of time. Come daybreak, there would be multitudes once again, jostling for attention, importuning Jesus for cures, challenging him with their questions. Mark has a telling comparison: “they were like sheep without a shepherd,” he says, a situation which drew forth the compassion of the Master’s heart.
As a shepherd, Jesus wants to guide them and protect them. He had much to teach them. But he also knew that they were indeed like sheep – timid, foolish and stubborn by turns, always sticking together unthinkingly, and drifting away from the fold. “I know mine, and mine know me,” Jesus said. And again, “the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”