03.20.11 Food for the Journey, Mark 6:30-52; 8:1-21
- How the feedings relate to the Older Testament
- What Mark was saying to his first readers
- How we benefit from the feedings today
- A difficult challenge for today’s church goer
According to Mark, Jesus fed two huge crowds of 5K and 4K men, not counting women and children. What is the meaning of these stories, and how do we appreciate them today?
The way Mark tells the story, it’s clear he wants his Jewish readers to relate Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes to God’s providence for biblical Israel through the Wilderness.
- He presents Jesus as The Shepherd for whom Moses, the original shepherd through the Desert, prayed when his time ended.
- That Jesus served bread is a parallel with the “manna” provided by God in the Wilderness.
- The fish Jesus served harkens back to the quail God drove into the Wilderness “from the sea.”
- That Jesus directs the people to sit in groups is reminiscent of the way the ancient Hebrews traveled in encampments.
- The 12 baskets unmistakably point to the Twelve Tribes of Ancient Israel.
- Mark’s specific observation that the grass is green may be intended to contrast the desert climate of the Wilderness, suggesting the dawn of a messianic age in Jesus’ activities.
- Along the same lines, that the disciples pick up 12 baskets full of leftovers perhaps contrasts the “can’t be hoarded” character of the manna.
When Jesus feeds the 5K, he manifests again the history of God’s providence for God’s people. And Mark desires to make this clear by the story that follows. Jesus sends the disciples ahead across the lake. As they struggle against a storm, Jesus comes to them walking on the water. They are terrified, then astounded, Mark tells us, because they “did not understand about the loaves.”
What they did not understand, is that God takes care of his own. They did not recognize the connection between the providence in the desert and the providence on the green grass. They did not realize Jesus had come during the storm to provide for their well being. In this light, we might say, the 12 baskets come to represent the 12 disciples as a new Israel. And Jesus is more fully revealed as the shepherd.
In the second story, where Jesus feeds 4K men, not counting women and children, there were 7 loaves and 7 baskets of leftovers. Seven is a number of completeness, wholeness, even universality; think of the 7th day of Creation when God stopped is labors and rested because everything was “very good.” Jesus says he is concerned, for the people have “come a long distance.” That there are 4K men may refer to the 4 corners of the earth. All of these observations, to some interpreters, suggest that Mark is saying to his audience that not only is Jesus the Shepherd of the flock of Moses, he is also the Shepherd of the lost sheep, that is, Gentiles (non-Jews).
The stories that follow this feeding seem to support this interpretation. Some Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, come to Jesus asking for a sign, despite the fact that he had just imitated God’s providence in the Wilderness for the second time. Then Jesus is again with the disciples in a boat. They have only one loaf with them. Jesus warns them against the “yeast of the Pharisees.” The disciples are confused, Mark says, because they believe Jesus is commenting about the limited amount of bread they have on board.
In early Christianity, the boat was a symbol for the church. The thinking was as Noah’s ark saved God’s chosen from the flood, so the church saves God’s chosen from hell. The disciples are in the boat, with only one loaf, and they don’t believe it is enough. But Jesus reminds them that they picked up 12 baskets after the first feeding, and 7 baskets after the second. The message? The one loaf of bread is sufficient for God’s people of history (ancient Israel) and all those “new” people of God, the Gentiles.
Where do we get this bread today? Mark gives us the answer in a subtle way. The actions of Jesus with the bread during these feedings (take, bless/give thanks, break, and give) should be familiar to us. That these meals occur “late in the day” suggest a relationship with the Last Supper. Mark says Jesus has the groups “recline” on the hillsides—the same word used during the Last Supper. The Greek word used for the broken pieces picked up by the disciples quickly becomes, in early Christian liturgy, a reference to the bread of Communion. That Jesus “looked up to heaven” while handling the bread became a standard practice during Communion in the early church. All these observations point to our celebration of the Lord’s Supper as the place where we receive this food for the journey of our spiritual lives.
I want to close with a word about Christian leadership and Christian discipleship. Much of my time is spent with leaders in ministry—both “professional,” ordained people and volunteers. These are people who work very hard, often for little or no pay. We have various motivations: love, gratitude; duty/obligation, guilt, and fear are the ones I observe. Much of our leadership is “extra” labor, as volunteers or out of necessity—there is always more to be done. Many of the Christian leaders I speak with feel underappreciated, taken for granted, and treated like employees. We often experience feelings of being overwhelmed by the legitimate but endless needs of others. We work in a system that rewards work-aholism, and doesn’t allow for complaining. And the most difficult question we face most often is, Are we making a difference?
Leadership in Christian ministry can lead to a very lonely, remote, and deserted place. Jesus had just welcomed the disciples back from their first ministry experience when he suggested they “come away to a deserted place,” presumably for some rest. All of us in ministry leadership know the necessity of this. And we too often experience what the disciples experienced: instead of rest, they had to serve another 5K+ people.
I think one of the messages here is that wherever Jesus is, there is no such thing as a “deserted place.” Where Jesus is, there is abundance—of bread, fish, wine, power—all things Kingdom related. Jesus feeds us so we can feed others.
But there’s a second message here. Mark isn’t written for leaders of Christian ministry. It isn’t written for ministers, elders, deacons, missionaries, or team leaders. It’s written for disciples. It’s written for all of us. The challenge to find our strength in Christ, and then to serve others with our lives, is for every person in the church. And if everyone rose to that challenge, then perhaps leaders in Christian ministry wouldn’t burnout as often as we do.
Questions for Deeper Reflection
- In what ways is God with you in your Wilderness, as he was with biblical Israel and the disciples?
- If the “one loaf” is enough for any newcomers, should our church be doing more to reach new people?
- When Jesus is finished teaching, he is concerned that people will “faint on the way home.” How does Holy Communion feed you for your journey between worship services?
- In what ways can you step into a greater leadership role in the church, to share the load, to be a more faithful disciple?