Saturday, January 09, 2010

Feeding the Five and Four Thousands

There are three narrative accounts that appear in all four gospels: John the Baptist, the feeding of the five thousand, and the passion and resurrection. Passion Week usually, and rightly so, gets the most attention of these three, but the other two probably don’t get enough. Of all the characters in the Bible, we probably have the most trouble figuring out John the Baptist, and of all the miracles in the New Testament, we probably overlook or underrate the feeding of the five thousand the most. Yet even in Mark, the narrative arc that concerns it goes on for more than three chapters, 6-8.

You can’t read the account in Mark, Matthew, or Luke without making reference to John 6, because it is there that Jesus expounds on the feeding. We also see that the miracle is central to Jesus’ Jewishness (the connection to Messiah), to spiritual understanding, to Psalm 23 and to David and to himself as shepherd-king, to evangelism beyond Judaism into the Gentile community, and legalism of the Pharisees. There’s a lot there in those three chapters. But food and sustenance in the symbol of bread is pivotal.

7:1-23: The opposition is growing, and although we haven’t seen the Pharisees in a few chapters, they have caught up with Jesus (who is really moving around, and geography is key to understanding Mark; close reading shows how often Jesus walks or sails long distances). These Pharisees have come from Jerusalem—either locals who had gone on a trip and gotten the word to pursue their opposition, or more elite Pharisees coming from headquarters. The Pharisees are concerned about diet and rituals surrounding food—washing of hands, done in a special way.

Actually (v. 5) they confront Jesus about “his disciples” (do they watch these people’s every move?). Jesus is loyal; notice that while he will confront and rebuke his disciples, he doesn’t throw them under the bus (what a metaphor in use today!). He turns the question to the real issue, what’s in the heart. In short, he says, “it’s what in your heart and what shows in your treatment of others, not what’s in your stomach.”

I recently read an article about “food is the new sex.” In the past, we as a culture had strict rules about sexual behavior. Now those are thrown off, but everybody (who don’t care who they sleep with) is worried about food—where it comes from, who grew it, what’s been sprayed on it, how it’s cooked, how many grams of nutrients in it. Now, I appreciate stewardship of the body, but I have to wonder about a vegan who is sexually promiscuous. Legalism thrives.

Jesus specifically hones in on a practice of the Pharisees, and their adherents, of ignoring the needs of one’s parents by claiming money was dedicated to the temple, thus violating the Ten Commandments but trying to look good to the religious elite. I think this is one of the most apt applications in the New Testament for people today.

Jesus is not, by the way, saying to throw out the Mosaic dietary laws. I believe he followed them to the letter, just not the Pharisees add-ons.

In v. 24 we encounter an interesting observation: Jesus wanted something but he couldn’t get it. That is one of those verses that cause us to contemplate. Were there other times Jesus wanted something and didn’t get it, for whatever reason? And what does that mean? Jesus didn’t know everything at that time, and he learned—we can’t deny that.

Not only did Jesus have people visiting him from hundreds of miles off, he traveled a great deal for that day, especially into Gentile territory. The woman who approaches him in v. 24-30 is a Gentile with a request, the first mention of a Gentile in Mark. They are up here in Tyre and Sidon, on the Mediterranean. Again the conversation revolves around food. Jesus’ remark is hard to understand without the context. Jews called nonJews “dogs” at that time, so he may have been using the word to see how she would react. He obviously had every intention of helping her, so he’s not calling her a dog. These are little dogs, pets kept in the household, but even so, dogs to Jews were not like dogs to us. This miracle of course shows two things: his power over distance (he is not some local god), and that he excludes no one but the faithless. This incident probably infuriated the Pharisees, but since Jesus and company were in Gentile territory, the Pharisees probably weren’t there.

v. 31: Jesus leaves the coast and travels to a Gentile area on the other side of the Jordan, and the miracle of healing a deaf-mute is recorded. It is interesting that he performs two miracles of healing sensory disabilities in a row, with a reference to spiritual deafness and blindness in between.

In chapter 8 we read of a repeat miracle; the main differences are the number fed, the number of baskets taken up, the “seed” amount of food, and the location. Otherwise, we might wonder why it’s there twice. I think there are a lot of reasons, when you look in the context. First, the disciples didn’t get the whole point the first time and are still struggling in their understanding. Second, the place. The first feeding was done in the Jewish part of Palestine, and the twelve baskets would have been symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel: there’s food for them, in other words. The second feeding was done in Decapolis, a pagan, Gentile area; the number seven there was symbolic of the seven tribes of Canaan who were sent there after Joshua’s conquest. The seven of the second would have been symbolic that there was enough food for the Gentiles, too.

Third reason for two stories: The Pharisees come ask him for a sign I v. 11. Good grief! What do these people want? Jesus sighed, and said, NO, I’m not doing tricks here, folks, just so you can reject them. I’ve done plenty already. In the Bible generation doesn’t always mean a twenty-to-thirty year life span. Generation could mean group of people, ethnic group as well. Jesus didn’t do miracles to show off, but to meet human need and prove his authority, period.

Fourth reason, of course, is for more teaching. They are all back in the boat, and now they get into a fuss over “who forgot to bring lunch?” It’s really a little funny in retrospect, but not at the time. Side light: people back then ate a lot more than we do, and slept a lot more to. They were in constant movement—they had to have more fuel and sleep. Ten hours a day sleeping was not excessive, and 10,000 calories a day was not either. Jesus hears their discussion, of course, and says, v. 8:15, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Leaven in the Bible is symbolic of sin, not because leaven is bad, but because of its attachment to the story of the Passover (the bread was not to be leavened, raised, so the Israelites could get out of Egypt quickly and take the bread with them, so basically they were eating biscuits instead of yeast bread. To wait for the leaven to work would have been sin and meant their destruction.)

I think the leaven of the Pharisees is legalism in all its manifestations (which is not, by the way, whether somebody goes to the movies or not) and the leaven of Herod is the sensuous way Herod lived, as we saw in chapter 6. Other says the reference to Herod is there because there was a Messiah cult built around Herod, which is hard to believe, but we do not have to look very far in our own time for cult figures. Even Michael Jackson was one in his heyday.

The disciples think Jesus is rebuking them for not bringing bread, but that is not his point. He is perfectly capable of turning that loaf into hundreds of them—didn’t they just see that? The question is not physical bread but spiritual sustenance, truth of the Word, which they don’t understand—blindness and deafness is still choking them.

To finish it off, he heals a blind man immediately upon the docking of the boat, and unlike any other miracle, it takes two steps (not tries). The disciples are gradual in their spiritual sight, just like this man is gradual in his physical sight.

So, it is not surprising that the next part of the narrative is a revelation deeper into Jesus’ identity. Now they are ready for understanding what kind of Messiah he is—but that will still take a while. V. 27-38 are really another lesson for another day, but we have the awesome declaration by Peter about who Jesus is, followed by Peter falling on his face. Yes, you are the Messiah, Jesus, but are you sure you get this Messiah-ship thing? seems to be what Peter is saying. It’s time for them to start understanding the future and what they will be facing—opposition—and the rest of the book of Mark focuses on the passion and resurrection.

I am supposed to make an application here—the “so-what and the now-what.” There are many, but these stand out to me:
1. Jesus takes care of the physical and the spiritual sustenance, but don’t get them confused. The physical world will not be around forever, and eventually everything you “own” will belong to someone else anyway. Keep your eyes on the spiritual sustenance.
2. The bread is for everybody—don’t hog it!
3. Jesus is patient as we understand slowly and make setbacks in our understanding, and he doesn’t throw us under the bus.

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