Blogging Towards Sunday, January 29th
This pericope (section of the gospel) seems to be perfect for us as we gather today for worship and our shared ministry work of discernment, discipleship and rededication as a community of faith at our annual congregational meeting. Mark tells this story in juxtaposition with the story of the horrific feast at which the 1% of ancient Palestine gorge themselves at the table of Herod Antipas and punctuate the debauchery with the beheading of John the Baptizer all for a king to avoid shame and his mistress to exact revenge on a too courageous prophet. (Mark 6:14-29)
In the larger scheme of Mark’s retelling of the Jesus story, we see that these two contrasted stories about feasts follow Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to do ministry (Mark 6:6-13). On one hand it’s remarkable that he would dare to do so: the disciples seem so clueless: They were terrified by Jesus’ calming of the story (Mark 5:35-41). They don’t seem to get the parables and basic teachings of Jesus about the Kingdom of God (Mark 4:10). And yet on the other hand, Jesus has redefined family – the principal thing in terms of identity in the ancient world. Family isn’t about your family name, your gender, your tribe; but rather it’s about who you follow and how you follow them in your life. For Jesus, anyone who follows God, seeking to do God’s will in the world, is part of his family. So in the end the disciples might not be 100% clear on what’s going on, but they get the big picture (even if not very clearly). They too seek to know God, to follow God, and to do God’s will in the world. Maybe we ourselves are not all that different than the disciples today?
Mark starts off in v 30 by finishing the story of the sending out of the disciples. They return to their master, telling him what has been done and taught. This great crowd comes to Jesus because of what they have said and done. It’s their witness – the use of their gifts in the world – that gathers, attracts and invites people to come and experience the presence, purpose and power of Jesus for themselves. While Jesus wants his friends to rest and to be renewed, they are all overwhelmed by the physical hunger, spiritual thirst and social needs of the faceless crowds that follow them.
Mark tells his version of the great feast of the 5,000 differently than the other gospel writers (Matthew 14:13-21, Luke 9:10-17 & John 6:5-13). Mark seems to retell the story with the intention of invoking the Exodus story and the wandering of the Israelites in the desert Mark alone describes that this meal happened in a lonely, remote, or deserted place (6:31, 32 & 35), which brings to mind the feeding of Israel in the wilderness in Exodus 16. The reference to Israel being like sheep without a shepherd (v 34) also serves as an intertextual echo to what was said of the generation that wandered in the wilderness after the Exodus (Numbers 27:17 & Ezekiel 34:1-31). Even the way the crowd is organized in groups of 50s and 100s recalls Moses’ organizing of Israel in Exodus 18:21.
Though they’re in a deserted place, it’s not a desert: empty of resources. (v 36 “nearby towns”, 39 “green grass”). There is not enough money to feed the people. Towns are too far. When they gather what they have to eat, it’s only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. [The gospel of John says the lunch belongs to a boy, while here Mark implies that the provisions belong to the disciples.] Curiously, there are no details on the mechanics of how the miracle happens. There is nothing. And then, when the disciples distribute the gifts of food, there is more than enough.
The people are too far from town to go for provisions and return. Were they so entranced by Jesus, so hungry for his words and thirsty for his wisdom that they forgot to think ahead and pack food? That seems a stretch. Were they just selfish, not wanting to share with each other? Or is Mark implying that the people didn’t have anything but their yearning for a different life (a bit like the Israelites thirsting for liberation from their slavery in Egypt)?
What do you think happened? Did Jesus’ blessing somehow multiply and transform a small amount of food into a gigantic beyond-our-imagination (or eschatological) feast? Or, as the 19th century critic H. E. G. Paulus argued, nothing truly supernatural is being described here; some members of the crowd, having secretly brought food with them, were shamed by Jesus’ example of openhearted generosity into sharing it with the others. Whether it’s a miracle of multiplication or of a moving of the heart, there are signs of something unique, pointing back to the Exodus and forwards in time towards the day of the Lord when God’s goodness will overcome the world. 5 loaves + 2 fish = 7 foodstuffs – the number of divine perfection in the Bible. There are 12 baskets of left-overs, as there were 12 tribes of Israel.
I think this miracle story is about living out our faith in a missional community. The disciples don’t not what to do when they are faced by the great need, hunger and thirst in their world. Jesus responds to their plea for guidance (v 36) by inviting them to be part of the solution, an essential part of what God is doing in the world (v 37-38). Jesus couldn’t have multiplied the loaves and fishes for the crowd if the disciples hadn’t first 1) gone out to preach and thus attract new people to Jesus, 2) returned to Jesus as their center and master, 3) sought out the gifts that they had among them as a starting place for how Jesus – and God – could respond to the needs of their world and context. They looked for a quick fix to the problem of no food. Jesus invited them to look deeper – to see how God had already gifted them to join into the good work (the will of God) that God was and is doing in the world.
We often are like the disciples - thinking that God will send someone else, assuming that we don't have anything to offer that can make a difference, envisioning doing mission (or the Will of God) as something we fund for the "professionals" to do as opposed to something that we too can join in and work towards. Maybe we need to change that? Maybe that disempowered way of thinking is what all too often disempowers the church and keeps us from living out our faith in an integrative, passionate and impassioning way?
How are you – and we as a church – gifted?
What hungers, thirsts and needs do you see around us in Berkeley and Oakland?
How is God possibly inviting us to respond with our gifts, passion and creativity to the needs of the world, by joining in to what God is already doing?