Posted by: jevcat | March 17, 2012

The Five Thousand, the Twelve, and the One

The Gospel in the daily lectionary the other day was Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, and I am struck by some things in the story that never occurred to me before.

Jesus was being mobbed.  When his public ministry first started, it was just him and the disciples:  “Road trip!”  Travelling together, learning, joking, intimate, and warm.  But now this miracle thing has gotten in the way, and it’s become difficult even to get a word alone with him.  They’ve had all these people around all day, and they’re tired.  They want to relax, hang out, have Jesus all to themselves, like in the old days.  But nobody wants to say this, no one says “Just send them away!” because they know, in their hearts, it’s selfish.  In practical terms, they also know it won’t fly with Jesus.  So there has to be a reason, something that sounds good, something that will accomplish their ends without seeming selfish.  Perhaps they even believe they really care for all these people; perhaps they even do.

Someone hits on an idea:  they’ve been with us all day.  We’re hungry; they must be hungry.  So they say to Jesus, “Send them away to buy something to eat.”  It makes a kind of sense in a sort of the-Lord-helps-those-who-help-themselves way:  Tell them to go get food.  Let them use their own ingenuity and skills, after all, it will do them good.  If they can’t make it on their own, then they must deserve to be hungry – and, if they can’t afford to buy food, well, we told them what they should do; if they can’t or won’t, obviously it’s laziness or expectation that someone else will do the work for them – no sense encouraging a feeling of entitlement in them, especially when we’re really the special ones, the ones he’s chosen.

The ploy is transparent, and Jesus’s response is almost more interesting for what he doesn’t say than what he does.  He doesn’t lecture them on the on the socio-economic system that keeps the poor poor.  He doesn’t say there are only so many resources, we’ve worked for what we have, and it isn’t fair to give it to someone else.  He doesn’t tell the people they ought to have thought ahead and if they’d planned properly, they would not be hungry.  He doesn’t say they are hungry because they sinned and God is punishing them or they did not pray hard enough or in the right way.  He doesn’t tell the disciples to see to it the people do some work first to earn food.  And he does not feed them himself, at least not at first.  What he says is, “You feed them.”

“Who us?”  I can almost see the incredulous disciples looking around to see if someone had come up behind them with provisions.  “US?” with voices rising almost to a squeak at the end, “Do you know how much it would cost to feed this many people?  There’s no budget line for this.  [Here picture treasurer Judas’s hand closing reflexively, defensively, around the communal purse at his belt.]  If we feed them, it will be like stray dogs, we’ll never get rid of them.”

Well, actually, what it says in Mark 6:37-38, according to the NRSV, is, “They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ ” And, when they have finished sputtering, he says to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.”  You can almost feel their confusion, and, I suspect, not a little resentment.  Off they trudge, canvassing the followers, rummaging through rucksacks, and returning with the tally:  five loaves and, not that you asked, but two fish.  I see them looking down at the small pile, out at the large crowd, and mentally calculating:  five loaves, five thousand people, that’s one loaf per thousand, so that’s what? A crumb per person?  And even less of the fish.

It’s hopeless.  The crowd has seen the flurry of activity and sensed something going on by now, perhaps they are growing restive or even hostile; perhaps the disciples fear being lynched.  It’s time for Jesus to send the people away, if he still can, before someone gets hurt.  What must their feelings have been when Jesus calmly tells them, “Have the people sit down in rows”?  Nervously trying to project authority, they comply, exchanging glances with each other, maybe muttering under their breath.

And then the miracle happens:  Jesus blesses the food and there is enough.  Whether you believe Jesus conjured something from almost nothing or subscribe to the theory that his actions shamed people into sheepishly bringing out and sharing food they had brought along but been trying to keep to themselves, thereby accidentally creating the first church pot luck supper, to my mind, it’s still a miracle.

Maybe it’s the political climate, because it’s never struck me this way before, but it feels to me a lesson in taking a leap of faith, in saying if we start with what we’ve got and share, if we stop categorizing people and concentrating on what we don’t have instead of what we do, our efforts will be blessed.  And, somehow, there will be enough.


  1. I never heard that “potluck supper” hypothesis but I like it. Not that I don’t believe Jesus would have been able to conjure a feast for thousands from that small amount of food…
    I agree with you about the way this gospel relates to the current socio-economic situation. People aren’t poor because there isn’t enough (food, shelter, medicine; money) in the world. People are poor because the ones who have the most are afraid (or just unwilling) to share.

    • Afraid AND unwilling, I think. Sad for all of us.

  2. first church pot luck supper – now that interpretation satisfies us non literalists and must admit it is a miracle. Another idea is that we eat the wrong food and cook it the wrong way and Jesus provides the spiritual food. In a sense they were starving for God’s embrace and did not know how to attain it being enslaved by the vapid Law and therein Jesus fed them.Outside the Law. How ever we understand the story the thing that matters is that Jesus will provide if we accept His invitation to His supper.

    • Carl, have you ever read Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon? He’s an Episcopal priest who writes about food, and he can be wonderful. One of the things he says, and I believe it’s in Supper of the Lamb (it’s been a LONG time since I read it), is that we have confused festal eating with ferial eating: we eat every day as though it were a holiday. In the early part of the book, he describes the peeling and cutting of an onion in a way that it’s almost a Zen exercise, a meditation on the sacredness of one particular food and so of all creation.

  3. I’ll put that on my list. Rereading Lost Christianities and Missing Gospels.

    • Is that one of the Elaine Pagels ones? My partner, Roger, loves things like that, and I have some interest, as well.

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