Friday, December 13, 2019

Mark 6 30-56


and the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus
and told him all things
both what they had done
and what they had taught
and he said unto them
"Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place,
and rest a while"

for there were many coming and going
and they had no leisure so much as to eat.
and they departed into a desert place by ship privately
and the people saw them departing
and many knew him
and ran afoot thither out of all cities
and outwent them
and came together unto him
and Jesus, when he came out
saw much people
and was moved with compassion toward them
because they were as sheep not having a shepherd
and he began to teach them many things
and when the day was now far spent
his disciples came unto him
and said,
"this is a desert place
and now the time is far passed.
send them away
that they may go into the country round about
and into the villages
and buy themselves bread
for they have nothing to eat."
he answered and said unto them
"give ye them to eat."
and they say unto him
"shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread
and give them to eat?"
he saith unto them
"how many loaves have ye? go and see"
and when they knew
they say, "five, and two fishes"
and he commanded them to make all sit down by companies 
upon the green grass
and they sat down in ranks
by hundreds, and by fifties
and when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes
he looked up to heaven
and blessed
and brake the loaves
and gave them to his disciples to set before them
and the two fishes divided he among them all
and they did all eat
and were filled
and they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments
and of the fishes.
and they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men

Nazareth is ten miles from the lake: I think that the disciples must have reconvened in Capernaum after their missionary trip. Jesus sets out in the boat to find a lonely place where they can all have a rest. We aren't talking about a literal desert: just somewhere a bit secluded. He can't have traveled far, because the crowds on land are able to follow the boat and get their first.

Some people say that eremos, "desert", specifically refers to the wild places around a town where shepherds could graze their flocks: in which case it makes sense that when Jesus sees the people he thinks of abandoned sheep. In the fourth century, Christians picked a place called Tabgha, about two miles from Capernaum, as the site of the miracle, which fits with the story well enough. 


This is the most famous of all Jesus-stories. It is in Matthew, Luke and John as well as in Mark. And everyone knows what it means. 

Miss Govey who taught R.E at my infant school knew what it meant. It is about sharing. There didn't seem to be enough food to feed the huge crowd. But a little boy went to Andrew (who was the nicest and most approachable disciple) and offered to share his packed lunch. This made everyone else feel bad; so they shared their lunches as well, and there was enough to go round. (Mark doesn't mention the little boy; neither do Matthew or Luke. He's only in John's version of the story.)  

A.N Wilson the novelist and acrostic-fan knows what the story means. It is about peace. Jesus told the crowd to sit down before the picnic started. And this is one of the most profound things anyone has ever said. Make the people sit down! The fighting men of Israel must sit down! The different sects, the sparring partners, the sectarians must sit down! Make the people sit down! (And so on, for pages and pages.)

John Wimber, the charismatic preacher knew what the story meant. It is about the gifts of the spirit. Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd. They have a ridiculously small amount of food -- literally just a crumb or two -- but because they trust Jesus the bread multiplies in their hands. And they get to take home what was left over -- a whole basket for each disciple! ("You know why most preachers get that wrong? It's because they have never experienced bread multiplying in their hands! They're only theoreticians!") 

Bible commentators know what the story means. It's about the Church. The twelve baskets represent the twelve sons of Jacob. So when the disciples gather up the fragments, they are really showing that God is going to gather together the Remnant of Israel. (Obviously.) 

And of course, with a lot more authority, John, the writer of the fourth Gospel, knows what the story means. It's really all about the Eucharist. Jesus feeding the crowd in the lonely place is a lot like God sending manna to feed the Jews in the wilderness. Jesus feeds the crowds with bread: but he himself is really the bread; and Christians are going to feed on his flesh; through faith or through the Mass, depending on your denomination. 

And none of that is remotely present in Mark's Gospel. Mark just recounts an amazing miracle. The crowds are hungry; the disciples only have a tiny amount of food; Jesus blesses the bread; a huge amount of food is left over. But although, so far as I can see, Mark does not provide us readers with any interpretation, he does make it pretty clear that it is a story which needs interpreting. A bit later, Mark will tell us that the disciples couldn't believe that Jesus had really walked on water because they hadn't understood the miracle of the loaves. Later, Jesus reminds them of the miracle: "When I fed all those people, how much food was left over?" he asks. "Twelve baskets", they reply. "But you still don't understand, do you?". 

There is something about this miracle which needs to be understood: a hidden truth to unpack. 

The Old Testament, the book of Kings, tells a story from a thousand years before Jesus, about Elijah: 

and there came a man from Baal-shalisha 
and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits 
twenty loaves of barley 
and full ears of corn 
and the husk thereof 
and he said 
"Give unto the people that they may eat" 
and his servant said 
"What should I set this before an hundred men?" 
he said again 
"Give the people, that they may eat 
for thus saith the Lord 
they shall eat, and shall leave thereof" 
so he set before them 
and they did eat 
and left thereof 
according to the word of the LORD

The two stories are clearly parallel: the people are hungry; the holy man has only a small amount of bread; he tells a servant to distribute it anyway; everyone has enough; there is some left over. I am not entirely sure how miraculous Elijah was being: a fifth of a loaf per person is a perfectly good snack. 

We have just been told that there is a tale going round to the effect that Jesus himself is Elijah, come back to earth. So there is one possible Secret Meaning. Jesus does the same tricks as Elijah; only more so. Elijah fed a hundred with twenty, and there was some left over; Jesus fed five thousand with five; and there was loads left over. The Old Testament passage suggests that it's the "some left over" which is the point. The feeding illustrates the oracle that "The people shall eat and shall leave thereof."

But I am not sure that this helps me to understand Mark's story any better. The disciples did not believe that Jesus had walked on water, because they did not understand...that he was an even greater prophet than Elijah?  

I have said that we shouldn't infer connections between stories which do not exist: when Mark says "after this happened, that happened" he is probably not implying any meaningful sequence of events. But in this case, Mark does draw a direct link between the mission of the Twelve and the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus has taken the disciples to a lonely spot because they are tired after their journey. So we can reasonably think of the two stories together. 

Once you put the two stories side by side, the meaning of the loaves and the fishes starts to look a little less obscure. The feeding of the five thousand and the mission of the twelve are the same story, told in two different ways. I was surprised that Mark showed the disciples going off on their journey, but told us very little of what happened while they were away. I think that was a deliberate dramatic decision: he holds off showing what happened in each individual village because what happens in the wilderness is a much better example of the same principle. The mission to preach the word and the mission to hand out the bread are two aspects of the same mission; the one is a picture of the other.

Jesus and the disciples are supposed to be having a rest, but instead, they spend the day teaching. At the end of the day Jesus asks the disciples if they have any bread. No, of course we don't. You told us not to take any food with them. Money to buy bread? No: you told us to leave our wallets at home. (I suppose this is why John introduces the little boy with the five loaves: not to make a trite moral point about sharing, but to underline the fact that the disciples are mendicants: they have nothing of their own, not even half a dozen bread rolls.) So Jesus tells them to go ahead and give the food out anyway. And there is plenty. Everyone gets what they want, and a ton of leftover food bounces back for the presumably famished disciples.  

Jesus sent his apostles out to preach with nothing -- not even a clear understanding of his message -- and they came back saying that they have preached and healed and performed exorcisms. Jesus sends his apostles to feed the crowd with hardly anything -- just a few crumbs of bread -- and everyone is full of food and the disciples get a doggy-basket to take home for supper. And that's a bit like what happened to Elijah, when it looked like there was only three slices of bread per person, but actually there was as much as anyone could eat.

So, there's your secret message. You think you have nothing. Actually, you have much more than you need.



and straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship
and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida
while he sent away the people
and when he had sent them away,
he departed into a mountain to pray
and when even was come,
the ship was in the midst of the sea,
and he alone on the land.
and he saw them toiling in rowing
for the wind was contrary unto them
and about the fourth watch of the night he cometh unto them
walking upon the sea
and would have passed by them.
but when they saw him walking upon the sea,
they supposed it had been a spirit,
and cried out:
for they all saw him,
and were troubled.
and immediately he talked with them, and saith unto them,
"be of good cheer
it is I;
be not afraid."

and he went up unto them into the ship;
and the wind ceased
and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered.
for they considered not the miracle of the loaves:
for their heart was hardened.


It is already early evening when the feeding starts. It must have taken some time to distribute the food—each disciple had 416 people to serve. I suppose "when evening came" means "when it got dark". For no immediate reason, Jesus sends the disciples—who only returned from their preaching engagement that morning, and still haven't had a rest—over the lake to Bethsaida. 

No-one knows where Bethsaida is. I don't know whether we should assume that because Mark says that the disciples have gone "to the other side" that it is on the East bank of the Lake (where Capernaum and Tabgha are on the West). Perhaps "on the other side" just means "somewhere you can get to by boat".

Before the invention of digital watches "an hour" did not have a fixed length. Day was divided into twelve hours and night was divided into twelve hours and the hours got longer or shorter depending on the time of year. (This was presumably a lot more trouble than just putting the clocks back in October.) The night hours were divided into four vigils, each lasting for three variable hours. "The fourth watch of the night" means the tenth hour; just before dawn; three in the morning. The disciples have spent nine hours rowing against the wind. 

There is an absurdity, a comic element, to this story. Jesus tells the disciples to take the boat to the other side of the lake, and they dutifully row off, and row all night without getting anywhere. And Jesus follows them—on foot! He walks past them, walking on the sea, and pretends that he hasn't seen them, or that he is going to ignore them. They don't call out to Jesus: I think we have to imagine them screaming. "Yikes! It's a ghost". The word is specifically phantasma : they aren't mistaking Jesus for something "spiritual" or for one of the unclean spirits. Jesus tells them not to be scared; comes on board; and the weather changes. 

There is a temptation to spiritualize this passage. (Matthew will turn it into a full-blown gnostic parable.) "You may feel that you are being tossed and turned in a very real sense by the vicissitudes of the world but once Jesus comes on board into the ship of your life everything will be calm." But I am trying to keep focused on the narrative. The disciples really didn't ought to be amazed that Jesus is walking on the water: but something is preventing them from seeing what is going on. If only they could work out the secret meaning of the loaves and the fishes they would understand. But they can't. 

The word "miracle" is King James' addition, incidentally: Mark simply says that they were boggled by Jesus walking on the water because they "didn't understand the loaves". 



and when they had passed over,
they came into the land of Gennesaret,
and drew to the shore.
and when they were come out of the ship, straightway they knew him,
and ran through that whole region round about,
and began to carry about in beds those that were sick,
where they heard he was
and whithersoever he entered,
into villages,
or cities,
or country, they laid the sick in the streets,
and besought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment
and as many as touched him were made whole


Genneserat was a city about 4 miles south of Capernaum, and the area around it. The sea of Galilee was sometimes referred to as Lake Genneserat; so it is possible that "the region of Genneserat" just means Galilee. Jesus has resumed his mission on his old stumping ground. 

The chapter begins with Jesus going home and finding that he can't do many miracles there; it ends with him moving into a new part of the country and everyone flocking to him for healing. Perhaps the feeding of the five thousand has pushed his reputation as a miracle worker to the next level; perhaps the people flocking to Genneserat are coming from the villages where the Twelve preached. They seem to be mainly interested in Jesus as a healer: he is now turning up in towns and finding the streets lined with sick-beds; and people chasing him to touch his clothes. At the most superficial level, this must be why Jesus doesn't want stories about his healing powers to be spread too widely: the more people know, the more his miracles will be in demand. 

Jesus has walked on the water and reproduced Elijah's trick with the loaves. The disciples have been out preaching and word has got back to the King. And I think at this point Mark takes a step back. We're in a new town. There are crowds. And Jesus is healing everyone. And so it goes on ...

Pull back. Aerial shot of cripple-lined streets. Jesus walking slowly through streets. Deserts beyond the city walls; maybe slow aerial pan to Jerusalem in the far distance, with ominous music in the background. Some pharisees packing their books and getting on the horses. And...fade. 


FUN FACT: 

King James translates the Greek denaria as "a penny". In the pre-decimal English currency "one penny" was abbreviated to 1d where the d stood indeed for denaria. But a Biblical penny is worth a lot more than 1d. It seems that "one penny" was a fair wage for a day's agricultural labour. That means (based on the present minimum wage) that two hundred pence would be worth about £10,000 in today's money.  So the disciples are budgeting at a very reasonable £2 a head. 



I'm Andrew. I write about folk music, God, comic books, Star Wars and Jeremy Corbyn. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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