Grace Presbyterian Church
August 2, 2015, Ordinary 18B
Mark 8:1-9, 14-21
Plenty of Bread 2: The Second One
This is an awfully familiar story, isn’t it?
In fact, didn’t we just hear it last week?
Big crowd, only a little bread, lots of fragments gathered up after…it really does sound familiar.
Of course, as Mark makes clear to us in the second part of today’s reading, that’s not the case. What happens here is in fact a second incident, a second miraculous feeding of thousands with only limited resources.
Mark gives us both stories, as does Matthew, while Luke and John only record the more famous feeding of the five thousand. On the surface it would seem that Luke and John have it right; really, what’s the point of telling two stories that, even if there are a few different details, on the surface, is there really enough difference between them to justify telling the story twice?
In fact, the answer is a definitive “yes.” As much as the stories may appear similar, the differences are crucial and point to a distinct, perhaps surprising necessity for this second story, in that this second feeding demonstrates something critically important about this “kingdom of God come near” that Mark has been proclaiming to us since the beginning of his gospel.
To refresh our memories, let us recall that the feeding of the five thousand took place after a journey around the Sea of Galilee, during which crowds on the shore had raced ahead and were waiting for Jesus and the disciples when they landed. Moved with compassion, Jesus sat down and began to “teach them many things” (6:34), which was followed by the feeding of the five thousand. After this there was another boat passage (with its own miraculous story attached), landing at a place called Genessaret, where much healing and teaching took place. After an unpleasant encounter with the religious authorities at the head of chapter 7 (we’ll get to that), Jesus leaves the territory of the Jewish people and heads to the region of Tyre and Sidon (approximately where southern Lebanon would be today, where healing occurs again, and then to a region called the Decapolis (or Ten Cities), which was mostly but not exclusively populated by Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews. In other words, Jesus has crossed over into maybe not quite foreign territory, but certainly outside of his “home” region, and the crowds he encounters are not necessarily “his own people.”
They seem no less eager to encounter Jesus than those on the Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee, such that again the crowds were gathered around Jesus, and he began to teach them, just like the crowds on the “Jewish” side.
This time the stakes are heightened; the crowd has been listening to Jesus not just all day, but three whole days. Even those who had somehow had he foresight to pack a picnic basket had surely exhausted it by now. Another subtle difference this time is that it is Jesus, not the disciples, who expresses concern for the crowd’s care. Whereas the first time the disciples had gotten antsy after just a day’s teaching, somehow in this case it hasn’t occurred to the disciples to be concerned about this crowd’s care and feeding.
So Jesus takes it upon himself to point out to the disciples that it’s been three days, the people have had nothing to eat, and if they are sent away to any nearby towns to get food they are likely to faint on the way, and that some of these people have come from a great distance to be here. Then he waits to see if the disciples get it.
They don’t. “How can we feed these people with bread here in the desert?” they ask. They saw five thousand fed with just five loaves of bread and two fish, but somehow it doesn’t occur to them to check their reserves. One wonders if we might do well to hear Jesus ask his next question with an exasperated sigh: *Sigh* “How many loaves do you have?” They answer, still not getting it, “Seven.” *Sigh* “Get the people to sit down…”
The language for what happens next – Jesus gives thanks, the loaves are blessed and broken and given to the disciples – very much foreshadows the language we hear in chapter 14 when Mark describes Jesus’s Last Supper with his disciples. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the language of chapter 14 echoes the language here, and in chapter 6, and other occasions in the gospels where Jesus is at the table or sharing a meal. The bread we break here and the cup we share here don’t come out of the blue; the meal Jesus shares with his disciples, and shares with us here, come out of the intense and frequent sharing of bread and wine that was not special occasion, but everyday occurrence in the life of Jesus and the disciples. When he tells them to take the bread and cup “in remembrance of me,” it’s not only about remembering one particular meal, it’s also about remembering so many meals, with so many people, and with Jesus providing in ways they would hopefully never forget.
It turns out, though, that the disciples don’t get it yet. Later, after another unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees, the disciples and Jesus are on the boat again, and what are the disciples worrying about? Behind Jesus’s back, they’re fretting about only having one loaf of bread.
Jesus’s reaction might seem unduly harsh. Maybe the disciples forgot to get more bread, but have they really been quite so offensive as that? But Jesus’s questioning here takes us into some unfamiliar territory, in which we need to understand that the number of baskets of leftovers gathered up after the feedings isn’t a random thing to Mark, but a very significant statement on Jesus’s part.
After the feeding of the five thousand, twelve baskets of fragments were gathered up. You don’t have to know a lot about the history of the Hebrew people to understand that when a Jew of that time heard the number twelve, thoughts went straight to the ancient twelve tribes of Israel, the number of sons of Jacob who were reckoned as the ancestors of the people of Israel. Of course, Hebrew scripture tells us that the twelve tribes did not remain intact; some were carried off into captivity at different times. Seeing twelve full baskets left over would have struck a faithful descendent of the Hebrews as hugely significant; all of the Hebrew people being gathered together again.
Seven (the number of baskets gathered after the feeding of four thousand) has perhaps more obscure but no less significant meaning. Though the origins of this significance are less clear, seven stood out in Jewish thought as a number of completeness. For those who have spent much time in the book of Revelation at the end of the New Testament, you might recall how many times the number occurs in that book – seven churches, seven signs, and so forth. So seeing seven baskets gathered up afterwards would have been no less significant; in this sign Jesus is signaling nothing less than that the whole world is to be gathered together.
Maybe this is why the disciples were obtuse; they didn’t want to think about the whole world being gathered up in the reign of Jesus, the “kingdom of God come near.” Maybe this foray into Gentile territory has made them nervous or uncomfortable about just what Jesus is doing here.
Of course, for us, this is much more a sign of hope. After all, we – good American Christians that we naturally regard ourselves to be – would fall into the category of “Gentile” in this story. We’re the ones on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. We’re the outsiders. We’re the “unclean.” This story, this second one, is no less than a foreshadowing of the very opening of God’s kingdom to all of us on the outside. This breaking of bread is no less than the foreshadowing of our being invited to this table before us today.
We can get really possessive, we Christians. Particularly in this country we can be rather accustomed to the idea that we run everything by some kind of divine right. This story – the second one – reminds us that we are not the hosts, not the possessors of the table; we are every bit as much invited guests as the rest of the world. It is only by the grace of God, expressed by Jesus who broke bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee, that we come to this table today, invited by Jesus to come to the table and eat. Let us never be so arrogant or belligerent as to act or presume otherwise.
For this great feeding – the second one – Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90): “Glorious Things Of Thee Are Spoken” (446), “The Church Of Christ, In Every Age” (421), “Break Thou the Bread of Life” (329), “Open My Eyes That I May See” (324)