Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Feeding the five thousand

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

- Mark 6:30-46

One gets a sense here of tremendous movement, hustle and bustle; business is happening, a buzz is everywhere. Jesus' teaching is by now quite famous, and his apostles (those who have been sent on a mission) have now returned with news of all they have done. Jesus suggests that they go off together to a deserted place, where they can all rest and discuss what has been happening. But there is no rest for the teacher nor for his apostles and disciples. They are followed by the crowds who recognize them and are thirsty and hungry for the good things they have to offer. So great by now is Jesus' reputation that the crowds arrive before he does and greet him as he steps off the boat.

But his compassion is stirred by the crowds - they are described as "sheep without a shepherd." This phrase is an interesting one: these are individuals who need something - as if they are lost and wandering, in deep need of guidance, leadership, someone to care for them properly. And Jesus, of course, is that shepherd. I think it's important to remember, to recall to ourselves, this image of Jesus as shepherd, because we have in Mark's gospel recent passages contrasting images of what it is to be a leader. Yesterday's passage was about Herod Antipas, and we are to understand his conflicted nature, his manipulating environment, his deep cowardice. We also understand the capacity of John the Baptist to speak the truth. Prior to that we see Jesus mocked in his own country by contrast and his response of humility and respect for the nature of spiritual power - he cannot perform great feats merely to convince others of his power and authority. And above all, we have this sense of obligation to feed, to be the shepherd for those who need him and want the guidance he has to offer. In these passages we are given an understanding of what it is to truly lead; the difference between heroism and cowardice.

Jesus' response to the needs of the crowd is to feed them with his teachings: he responds to those who need leadership with guidance. Then the crowds who have followed to this deserted place need something to eat, and Jesus directs his disciples to feed them, just as they have been directed to teach. This incident of feeding the crowds is reported in all four gospels; it is clearly a messianic sign (a replication of the feeding of the Jews with manna in the wilderness), and a prefiguring of the Eucharist itself. Jesus blesses the bread and tells his disciples to distribute the pieces. Everything we have to give is sufficient, via grace. Nothing is wasted. The compassion Jesus has is for those who seek, those who truly hunger and thirst for what he has to offer. All of us participate in that grace, whether we are fed or help with the feeding; this grace confers relatedness among all who participate in it. And there we find another spirit, another notion, of true leadership: it is inclusive and participatory. It shares and distributes its power and grace and what it has to give. It is reflective of care and of service to the Good of all, to the One who is loving Father of all. It seeks not mere personal gain, but rather to act in the spirit of that which is the guiding principle of love and care: he who would be greatest among them is the servant of all.

Finally, Jesus sends off his disciples after he dismisses the crowd which has been fed. After saying farewell, he goes to the mountain, in complete solitude, to pray. We have another lesson here about what it is to lead: Jesus always seeks solitude in order to pray and to find his own guidance for his leadership. Without the Father, without seeking the Father's will, Jesus does nothing. We have here the great example of humility, and what it is to lead in Jesus' terms. It still serves as an example of leadership today. It is a kind of power of grace that is shared as we each participate in this circle of relatedness, and seek Its guidance for whatever job we have to do, for whomever needs our wisdom or grace or help - or leadership, as the case may be, no matter how small our "crowd" is.

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