Saturday, August 1, 2009

Feeding the four thousand

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’ His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?’ He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. Now there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.

- Mark 8:1-10

Yet again we have a feeding of a multitude: this time it is in the region of the Decapolis and includes many Gentiles. So we get a sense all throughout this gospel of Mark that Jesus' healing, teaching, serving capacities - even his clearly messianic actions or signs - are done in both Jewish and Gentile territory. The message is that, so great is this power, this startling reality that is in Jesus, that it cannot be contained. It is there for all people, and makes its presence felt for everyone.

Clearly it is another replication of the Eucharist. Again, it's important to understand that this bread of life goes out to all people. Yesterday's reading referred to the "children's crumbs" that fall also to others. Today's reading denotes a separate miraculous feeding of a multitude which is repeated in Gentile territory. My study bible refers to verses 19 & 20 from Psalm 78: "Can God prepare a table in the wilderness? ... Can He give bread also?" The question of Jesus' disciples in vs. 4 above, "How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?" echoes the questions in the psalm and indicates the fulfillment of its prophecy.

So we are given to understand - in this passage directly after the one about the Syrophoenician woman - that Jesus' messianic signs are given fully and equally to Jews and Gentiles. This messiah is for all people, as are his healing power, his capacity to feed and teach, everything that he is. His compassion is equal for all people.

This particular feeding of those in the wilderness also has special significance because Jesus will refer to it again (later in this same chapter of Mark) and he will do so equally to the first feeding of the five thousand. It is rare that Jesus refers back to a miracle that he has performed.

One thing that strikes me about this passage is the understanding of hospitality, so to speak. Jesus' compassion is sparked by these people who have followed him so assiduously. For three days, we're told, they've followed him and some have come from a great distance. There is something of great significance to me about feeding those with whom you find yourself. These individuals who follow Jesus are yet strangers to him in the sense that he does not know them through relations of work or kinship or other long history. Yet, they are there responding to him, to his teachings. His whole emphasis is on care, on shepherding this flock. He wishes to feed them in every way possible. We are told in this passage that Jesus "gave thanks" before breaking the seven loaves: a clear reference to the Eucharist. At the same time, we understand Jesus to emphasize the relatedness that comes through the love for him, for what he has to offer. He cannot let them go without feeding them, even in this deserted place. It is indeed a model for us to understand how our own impulse to care should be taken in the context of Jesus' conduct: those with whom we find ourselves may also need our compassion, whatever grace we have to offer, if that, indeed, is what they truly desire.

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