Smarter than us…

Mark 6: 30

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.

The first century audience of Mark’s gospel were smarter than us in that they understood narrative techniques which are now considered the property of highly educated intellectuals, in this case the techniques of magical realism and inter- textuality. The first of these is common to the whole of Mark’s Gospel which narrates events which are improbable or impossible with the greatest realism. The purpose of this is to insist that some so-called ordinary events can change the world.

The second technique is seen in all the gospels when the writers note that something which is narrated of Jesus has links with passages in the Jewish Bible. Here Mark chooses to alert his readers by the use of two of the words I have shown in bold, shepherd and green grass. The great king David had been a shepherd and was known, as were his successors, as shepherd of his people. In the story immediately before this one, King Herod has been shown as unworthy of this title, as he has no care for his people and orders the killing of a prophet. The readers are meant to remember the story of Israel’s kings, and to agree with Jesus that the people are without a true shepherd and are looking for one anointed by God (messiah) to rule them.

But the words, “green grass”, tease the readers also to remember the green pastures of Psalm 23. The Greek word “chloros” is used both here and in the Greek translation of the Hebrew psalm, which would have been familiar to Mark, who wants his readers to have the whole psalm in mind as they read his story: The Lord is my shepherd….I shall lack nothing….(Jesus plays the role of shepherd) he leads me in the right paths (Jesus teaches the people) You have prepared a table before me….(Jesus feeds them) …my cup overflows…(There are 12 baskets of food left over). These similarities encourage the reader to trust that Jesus will also be with them when they walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Of course the Psalm is speaking of God, whereas Mark is speaking about a human being, Jesus, who is playing out on earth the role of God the Shepherd.

That’s why Mark describes a miracle; the presence of God in Jesus means that Israel has its true king, that the way of justice is taught, that the hungry are fed from what is already available. Mark doesn’t mean us to go behind the miracle in search of something more ordinary. He expected his first readers to know that these miracles had happened in their shared lives in the assemblies of believers. He wants them to realise that the source of these miracles is Jesus. How did Jesus bring them about?

Certainly not by any open display of divine power! But rather by the set of linked actions which I have shown in bold. First of all he “takes”. He does not despise what his disciples provide. More generally he does not reject worldly resources. Then he engages with the God who is beyond him and yet with him; he is not superman, he needs help. Out of this encounter he blesses the bread as a gift of God, our daily bread, which is sufficient for the needs of all. Then he breaks it, for it cannot remain whole; it must be shared out. Lastly he gives it through his disciples for the benefit of all, who are no longer a crowd, but little assemblies of people. The resemblance to the story of the last supper is obvious. The miracle is the life of Jesus Messiah, broken, given and shared in the community of brothers and sisters for the benefit of the world. Here the leftovers are enough to feed the 12 tribes of Israel; in the linked story of the feeding of 4000, the leftovers are enough for the 7(x10) nations of non-Jews.

Mark’s magic realism and his mixing his own text with the text of Psalm 23, allows him to communicate these truths so much more beautifully than I have.

1 Comment

  1. This is brilliant, an example of intertextual commentary at its very best and most communicative. How much richer than the traditional emphases on the divinity of Jesus and his miraculous powers. How truly transformative your interpretation is here. And you don’t have to take a back seat to Mark. You have done a masterful job. I’m sorry if I’m overflowing with superlatives, but this is one of the best commentaries on a biblical text I have ever read, and how profoundly you touch the core of what should be Christian existence! This is a keeper.

    Like

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