This is the seventeenth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 3, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the sixteenth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 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. 35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." 37 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?" 38 And he said to them, "How many loaves have you? Go and see." When they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." 39 Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41 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. 42 And all ate and were filled; 43 and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men. 45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. (NRSV)
The first few verses in Act 3, Scene 3 (vv.30-32) end the A-B-A narrative sandwich, or rather, the first of the nested A-B-A sandwiches, as the disciples who have been sent out (A1; Act 3, Scene 1) return to Jesus to explain their ministry (A2). In between, the story of John the Baptist’s death and his disciples claiming the body and bringing it to a tomb has been inserted (B; Act 3, Scene 2). A smooth transition is now made which ends the A-B-A structure in which Mark has Jesus take them to a “deserted” place, to rest, eat and perhaps report on their mission, but they are overwhelmed by people coming to see, hear and be healed by Jesus. This, I would argue is the end of the first narrative sandwich and the beginning of a massive A-B-A sandwich, in which the two feeding miracles as a whole - A1 (6:30-56) and A2 (8:1-21) – form a sandwich around the whole of chapter 7 (B = 7:1-37) and in which chapter 7, as well as the feeding miracles, are only completely explicable in light of each other.
The disciples get no time to be alone with Jesus, even though he recognizes their need for it, and even as he takes time for himself whenever possible. The people are aware of who they are– “now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them” (6:33) – and note that it is they, including the apostles, and not just Jesus alone. The apostles are becoming the equivalent of ancient Jewish rock stars – known by all and with crowds all around desirous to get close to them. We have just seen in Act 3, Scene 2 that danger lurks for the apostles of the teacher Jesus, just like it did for the disciples of John the Baptist, partly because the people are responding to Jesus’ message and deeds, in which the apostles now participate. It must be heady stuff, and with adoring crowds, does the danger from the authorities even register for them at this time? Mark has alerted us to the danger, the auditors, the viewers, through the omnipresence of the narrator. But whatever they know, or whatever they remain ignorant to, still, they want time to relax and recuperate. It will not come now.
Though Jesus encouraged the apostles to go and be alone, when Jesus “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” (6:34). Jesus’ compassion for the crowd trumps personal needs, for him or his apostles, and so he begins to teach the people. The next two verses reveal a practical reality, and perhaps tension, and the apostles’ raising the issue with Jesus could point either to their concern for the crowd or their desire to be rid of them finally (or a mix of both):
35 When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36 send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat."
Jesus, whose compassion was what has kept the crowd with him late into the night, has yet another thing to teach the apostles: "You give them something to eat" (6:37). The apostles, again focused on the practical not the possible, at least not the possible with Jesus, answer him as directly as he has challenged them: "Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?" (6:37). Jesus’ teaching though is sometimes with words and sometimes with actions (or a mix of both) and so he asked them how much food they had with them, which amounts to only five loaves and two fish (6: 38). Jesus instructed his apostles to have the people sit on the grass and fed them all with the limited food he had been given (6:39-40). The people are sitting, though, in groups of fifties and hundreds, so when we are told at the end of the passage that 5,000 men had been fed (not counting women and children; 6:44), the exact number might be a surprise, but not that there was a huge crowd. How can they be fed with five fish and two loaves?
Mark does not explain Jesus’ action in detail except to say that “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” (6:41-43). The blessing and the breaking of the bread reproduce later Christian liturgical language, particularly that of the Eucharist as celebrated in the early Church, but there is no reason to doubt that Jesus’ spiritual blessing was at the heart of the feeding miracle. It is not just that all were fed, though this is central, but that twelve baskets full of bread and fish remained after everyone ate their fill. This detail will become important when the whole of Scene 3 is pieced together, but for now it is important to point out only that the number 12 is the number of Tribes of Israel, the number of Apostles and the number associated with the woman with a hemorrhage and Jairus’ daughter.
After feeding the crowd, Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (6:45). We have ended one chapter abruptly only to have started a new chapter in the narrative as abruptly, but again the questions answered pale in comparison to the questions remaining: what will the apostles ask Jesus about the feeding? Should they have known he could do it? Or were they expected to do it themselves? What is the impact of this action for the apostles? For those who were fed? Why did Jesus send the apostles away before dismissing the crowd? Was it simply to get a head start on much needed time alone? Or are they to reflect and discuss what just took place? And what is next in their education, in the revelation of Jesus and his ministry, and in the trajectory of the ministry in general?
John W. Martens
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