[June 27, 2010] The passage we come to now is rich. It is the central passage of the present section of the Gospel according to Mark (6:6b—8:26) in which Jesus manifests who He is, but no one really “gets” it, not even the disciples (see 6:52; 8:17-21). In the following section, in 6:27-29, Jesus asks His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” and, while they give a preliminary answer (Peter says, “You are the Christ?”), the rest of the section shows that Jesus cannot be known apart from the way of the cross (8:27—10:52).
In the meantime, as the people are wondering who He is (6:14-15; see 8:28), Jesus manifests the abundance of His own person within the shadow of the cross, for Herod who killed John the Baptist has an eye now on Jesus. It is a picture of how the abundance of Jesus’ own Person is enjoyed within the church in the midst of the howling winds of persecution (see 6:45-52).
The Twelve return to Jesus in verse 30, having been sent out in 6:7-13, and like the apostles Paul and Barnabas, who when they returned to Antioch, “where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled,” “gathered the church together” and “declared the things that God had done with them” (see Acts 14:26-27), the Twelve also reported to Jesus “all that they did and all that they taught.” This is an apostolic pattern, in which those sent are accountable to the ones from whom they are sent, not only the Holy Spirit as in the case of Barnabas and Paul (see Acts 13:2) but the human beings who recognized the divine call (i.e., the local church of which the prophets and teachers were part; Acts 14:26, see 13:1). The apostolic “work” (Acts 13:2; 14:26) includes all three actions: the calling, sending and return, and as we see in Mark 6:30, their doing is characterized chiefly by teaching (but see Luke 9:10).
Now it was time to rest. Mark 6:31 is not in the parallel gospels, but 3:20 likewise reports that they could not even eat bread on account of the crowd (that in Mark were “coming and going”). It is in this real situation of ministering to the crowds and lacking the leisure to eat bread that Jesus manifests Himself by providing an abundance of bread.
Nevertheless, the need for rest and a break from activity (i.e., some solitude) is real, and they get in the boat and seek it out. They do not succeed—Jesus did not succeed in what He set out to do!—yet one wonders if the motif of rest is not also fulfilled in the picture of the meal that follows. For the abundance of the Promised Land, the land “flowing with milk and honey” is also a fulfillment of the Sabbath (see Psalm 96:11). The abundance of bread, which would normally require over two hundred denarii worth of labor to buy (Mark 6:37, see John 6:7), comes without labor—at the hand of Jesus—as a result of God’s blessing (a theme of Deuteronomy).
Nevertheless, in our manic civilization, we ought to remember the importance of taking out time for actual rest, the kind of rest that requires cessation from work and some isolation from its sphere. Work, even spiritual labor, comes in the aftermath of humanity’s fall, the rupture in its relationship to God. We have been cast out of Eden and are wandering in the desert-wilderness as a result. God gave the Sabbath to Israel for relief, and to remind them that that entire sphere (of work) is not all there is. There is also the perfection of creation, which does not require our modification and productivity. Indeed, when we are at last freed from our entanglement in the world and the delusions that perpetuate it, when we are no longer beholden to it, what else is there but the Sabbath of God?
The Shepherd of Israel
Jesus sees the crowds and is moved with compassion for them. Mark borrows these words from Matthew 9:36 which introduce Jesus’ instruction to His workers. Here, however, we see how He Himself meets the people’s needs. He satisfies them with teaching, which is followed by the supper. In the church, the Lord’s Supper “remembers” Jesus, implying that it is preceded by the telling of the Gospel (in the early days, by eyewitness testimonies; now by the testimony of the gospels). Jesus—His real presence—is received by means of the word and then “eaten,” that is, taken in and metabolized by faith.
In Numbers 27:17 Joshua (“Jesus” in Anglicized Greek) is appointed to replace Moses so that the people “will not be like sheep which have no shepherd.” In 1 Kings 22:17 and 2 Chronicles 18:16, the prophet Micaiah spoke of the death of King Ahab by the judgment of God and the people being “scattered upon the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd.” The prophet Ezekiel in 34:8, speaking at a time when the judgment of God was now manifested, repeats the same idea, saying that the shepherds have abandoned the sheep. Zechariah in 10:2 says it again, speaking to the people who have returned from exile. The people of God will continue to be without a shepherd until the coming of the Messiah of whom Zechariah speaks in chapters 9-14.
In the feeding of the multitude, Jesus manifests Himself as the coming of the true shepherd of Israel, the Messiah of whom Zechariah spoke. He would gather the people, feed them, and lead their way.
The Abundance of the Promised Land
When Jesus feeds the multitude, it says that they all ate and were satisfied, and that there was an abundance left over: twelve full hand-baskets of both bread and fish. Matthew and Luke do not mention the distribution of the fish or of their leftovers, but in John’s gospel He gave them as much fish as they wanted. Mark mentions both the distribution of the fish and that there were leftovers of fish.
One of the blessings of the Promised Land, dependent on the people’s fidelity to YHWH, is the abundance of food. The land would be amazingly fertile and fruitful. The blessing corresponds to God’s provision, not on the resources we bring. In the story of the feeding, we only have five loaves and two fish. But the blessing of God multiplies what we have so that it is fruitful beyond what is reasonably possible. The blessing of God represents this extra, this “over and above”-ness. It is the work of God, not the result of our own work. Thus its association with the Sabbath.
But in providing this abundance, Jesus shows not only that He brings the blessing of God because of His own faithfulness to YHWH, but that where He is the Promised Land is. Just as His miracles of healing and exorcism show that where He is the kingdom of God is, even though the kingdom of God has yet to overcome the opposition to God in the world as a whole, so here. Even though Judah and Ephraim do not yet enjoy the blessing of the Promised Land but remain under the judgment of God (along with the entire Gentile world!), where Jesus is that blessing already exists. Where He is, IS the Promised Land in its fullness.
Having said that, however, we can say more—as indeed Jesus in the Gospel according to John does say—that He Himself IS the blessing of God, He is the Promised Land, just as He is the kingdom of God. True, in relation to Jesus God becomes our Father who provides all that we need. Having such a Father because Jesus has brought us into His own sphere removes all ground for our anxieties. But God does not simply provide us with the things that we need. He provides us with Himself.
God is able to provide us with Himself because He has come to us in the Person of Jesus. Jesus is the abundance of the divine Presence. And through His death and resurrection He has made Himself communicable through the Holy Spirit. We can receive the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit comes encapsulated in Jesus’ being our judgment on the cross and acquiring our forgiveness. But when we receive the Holy Spirit, we receive all that Jesus is. We receive His history—the process of His death and resurrection and ascension and what He has obtained in His humanity through this. We receive all the virtues of His humanity and its divinization. We receive His body, soul and spirit. And we receive the fullness of the divine nature that He embodied in His humanity. We receive the gift of eternal life.
There is, in other words, no end to our exploration of this abundance, abundance to which the Scripture bears witness and which we can know in some measure through prayer and contemplation, and which we can receive and share with others in the church. This abundance of Christ is the substance of our worship as we offer it back to God (typified in the sacrifices of Leviticus) and thus participate in the fellowship of the Holy Trinity.
The Manna in the Wilderness
Nevertheless, we are still in a desert place. The people of Judah and Ephraim are not the only ones who still live under the judgment of God. Nor do we escape the judgment of God as we escape our enslavement to the world of the Gentiles. While we inwardly, in our personal relation to God, know the forgiveness of sins and freedom from God’s judgment, we still exist in a world that suffers from wars, poverty and ecological devastation. We suffer along with our fellows and we suffer in solidarity with them. In other words, however rich our spiritual life may be within the church, we are still in a desert place. We may know the Promised Land inwardly, but outwardly we have to wait for it in hope and patience.
In John 6, Jesus compares His providing the multitude with bread in the wilderness with God providing manna for the people as they wandered for forty years in the wilderness of Sinai after they left Egypt, before they crossed the Jordan into the land of Canaan. The Father, He says, gives you the true bread out of heaven. Jesus also taught that He, the Son of Man, both gives the bread of life and is Himself the bread that He gives us. The real bread is His flesh, He says. The flesh of the actual bread that they ate, however, profits nothing. It merely satisfied their hunger. It is the Spirit that gives life through the Word which is both spirit and life. Since the Son and the Holy Spirit dwell in each other (they coinhere), whoever receives the Spirit also receives the flesh of the Son of Man, the flesh which He gave for the life of the world and which was resurrected because it lives with the life of God.
All this Mark only alludes to. The church enjoys the Promised Land of the Person of Jesus as manna in the wilderness. In our life of contemplative prayer, in our assemblies of Word and worship and fellowship, we enjoy the abundance of Christ in our spirits. But we do so in the actual world, which is a desert wilderness (compared to the Eden that we refuse to have), under the judgment of God. We eat our manna while under persecution from the outside, while the conflicted king has John the Baptist executed as if it were something trivial. We eat our manna under the conditions of the world’s presumption of power, a power which considers what we do and what we have as nothing.
The Lord’s Supper
In John the allusion to the Lord’s Supper is obvious, but when Jesus says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat,” the Gospel according to Mark also alludes to the church. As mentioned earlier, Mark provides details about the fish that are missing from Matthew and Luke. In many of the catacomb frescos it is hard to distinguish between depictions of the feeding miracle from depictions of the Eucharist. The church used the loaves and fishes to symbolize the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, the language of the gospels is similar: “Looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before them” (verse 41). Even the dividing of the crowd and having them sit by hundreds and fifties may well allude to the church’s assemblies in the homes where they broke bread.
The Lord’s Supper is more than the ritualized partaking of bread and wine. The imperial church cheapened grace by developing such a sacramental theology. The idea that ritualized acts performed by special priests can save you makes grace just as cheap as the automatic salvation of fundamentalists by the ritual the “sinner’s prayer.” The Lord’s Supper, however, is more than that. It is the church’s partaking of the richness of Jesus through the Word, which the bread and wine indeed actualize, but only in relation to the Word which actualizes the presence of Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Certainly the Supper is no mere memorial by which we remember Jesus in the common sense. When we “feed on Him in our hearts by faith,” we partake of Him really. In the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Reality—Jesus is bodily present as well as present in spirit, for His nail-pierced resurrected Body participates in the “properties” of divinity, meaning that it is eternal, omnipresent, and so forth (He no longer “empties” Himself as in Philippians 2:7). We partake of Him in this “fullness” but we do so only through the testimony of the Word. We “remember” Jesus, whom we have not seen (1 Peter 1:8; John 20:29), through the Holy Spirit causing us to “recognize” Him in the Word, like a person seeing in a mirror the face he or she was born with (James 1:23b).
The miracle of the loaves is important in all four gospels, and is repeated again in Matthew and Mark’s gospels in the feeding of the four thousand. In Mark’s gospel, as in Luke, Jesus manifests who He is without the revelation of who He is necessarily getting through to anyone. In Mark 6:52 and 8:17 this revelation is frustrated by the hardness of our hearts. “Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?” What about us? Do we yet appreciate all that Jesus is? Has He won our hearts from the idols which have captivated us?
Or do we continue to eat sand when He offers us such abundance? We are addicted to our sand the way America is addicted to oil, our use of which is killing us and so much other life on this beautiful but fragile planet upon which God has graciously allowed us to live. If we continue to eat sand, this is God’s judgment on us.