Becoming a disciple at leisure

Gospel: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He 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. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. 33Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34As 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. 

[35When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ 37But 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?’ 38And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ 39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 41Taking 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.42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men....]

 53 When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. 54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

Becoming a disciple at leisure

I say to myself, "Surely you can make this shorter!" But there is a panorama here which is too important to ignore, and our reading is at its centre.

Healing and power seem to lie in compassion towards those who are among the least and the lost...
In Mark's story of Jesus, the disciples who follow Jesus are slowly being formed alongside him and by him. Even though his family and home town choose to reject him, a leader of a synagogue; that is, a spiritual leader of the nation, is enlightened in a story which clearly talks about Israel being healed and raised to a new life in discipleship. Jairus, the name of this leader, means to be enlightened. (Mark 5:21-43 See comments here.) His little daughter is an afflicted person or group (in this case, his synagogue) who can be raised to new life in Christ. We are called to become like him, and the other disciples.

The man, specifically a man with power, whom the text implies becomes a disciple, and whose his little daughter is raised, is enlightened by a person who is among the least powerful of society: an unnamed and sick woman.

More men, Jesus' disciples, leave soon after on their first mission. Their mission of healing is told as a sandwich or chiasm in the same way as the previous story of the raising of a little daughter is told. In the middle of the disciples' sandwich is a story of another woman— a woman who is named, and who holds great power— and the story of her little daughter, who is not named. They are at the centre of the murder of John the Baptist. Significantly, in this story, Jesus is completely absent.

Although Mark cannot bring himself to call Herodias' daughter a little daughter (θυγάτριόν)— she is simply daughter (θυγατρὸς), he then uses to describe her, the same diminutive for a little girl which Jesus uses when he says ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up! But before Herod's table, the little girl, who like all children of God, could be raised to become a little daughter of faith, is corrupted and becomes even worse than her mother. (See here.  When Herod speaks to the "girl" in 5:22, it would be consistent to say "the king said to the little girl.")

We then read the story we often call The Feeding of the Five Thousand, which is left out by the lectionary.

Soon after, we meet another unnamed and powerless woman; a gentile. This story has a twist, an unnamed and powerless woman enlightens Jesus! And Jesus heals her little daughter. The story is told using the imagery of food and tables, and the feeding of the children of Israel. It is also a story of the healing of racism and exclusion; a story which is in contradiction to the underpinning winners and losers narrative of Herod's feast.

And because of this woman, and this experience, Jesus is able to repeat, or more correctly, complete, his own feast. Because this time, it has a distinctively gentile flavour to it; it is not The Feeding of the Four Thousand, but the welcoming of all people, all little daughters, even and especially Gentiles, to Jesus' Feast. Mark makes sure to emphasise this point. Mark 8:18-21 says

And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets (κοφίνους) full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ 20‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets (σπυρίδων ) full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ 21Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’ 

The typically Jewish numbers and baskets, and the typically Gentile numbers and baskets are repeated and emphasised. (Read about this aspect of his two feasts here.) And leading to the highlight at the end of Chapter 8, the bread is broken pieces.

While all this is happening, two other themes run alongside.

The blindness of discipleship...
The first is the issue of the disciple's blindness, which grows to unbelief; that is a lack of faithing or trusting in Jesus.

In Mark 4:10-13, ostensibly about the blindness and deafness of those outside the kingdom—  in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand," Jesus says to the disciples, "Do you not understand this parable?" On the lake he asks them, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40) And in the crowd, they question his power, blind to what has happened: "You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” (5:31)

At Jesus' first feast, they cannot see that the power to feed the crowd is theirs. "‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread…?" (6:37) A few verses later they do   "not understand about the loaves, but their hearts [are] hardened." (52) And in Chapter 8:14-21 he asks, "Are your hearts hardened? 18Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? … ‘Do you not yet understand?"

This last event comes shortly after the healing of a deaf man, (7:31-37) and is followed by the healing of a blind man. (8:22-26) And then, at last, Peter sees, although it is immediately apparent that his vision is very limited. (8:27-37) "You are the Messiah."

The event of Peter's confession takes us all the way back to the first of the three big feasts of Mark; Herod's feast. Asked who Jesus is, the disciples repeat the same suggestions made at the beginning of the story of Herod.  But Peter, unlike Herod, sees that Jesus is the Messiah. Ironically, Herod thinks he is John the Baptist raised from the dead. In both cases, Mark 6:14-16, and Mark 8:27-29, we are then told the cost of discipleship.

What we see in this survey of Mark is that despite the fact that they "proclaimed that all should repent... [and] cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them," (6:12-13) the disciples evidence a very frail, and faltering discipleship.

Rest... and something to eat...
There is a key moment to all of this, which is in the reading before us this week. For here, in the midst of the raising the dead and the healing of the sick, the disciples, plagued with fear, unbelief, and blindness, do not have "leisure even to eat."

Yet the first thing Jesus says when the little daughter is raised to life is, "Give her something to eat." (5:43) Herod's feast at least attempts to feed people, although despite all its finery, it does not nourish the little daughter who is present; it corrupts her. And then, after "he declared all foods clean" (7:19) the third little daughter is also fed and healed by Jesus, and with much more than crumbs fallen from the table.

Then coming to Jesus' Feast, great crowds have recognised Jesus and his disciples; that is they have discerned who he is, and have discerned something about the people who are in the boat with Jesus. But the disciples do not recognise they have the power to feed these people; they ask Jesus to send the crowd off to buy food.  Jesus specifically tells the disciples they  can feed the crowd — he says to them: You give them something to eat.  But the disciples do not believe him.

What I have tried to show here is a growing sense of power amongst the disciples, and a growing recognition of who Jesus is. Yet throughout the same panorama there is a constant fear, doubt and blindness. Mark D. Davis makes the interesting point that in the opening verses of this week,

vv.30-33 are repeatedly describing the twelve in ways that are characteristic of Jesus: Proclaiming, teaching, powerful over demons, needing restoration, traveling away by boat, and now being pursued by the paparazzi. Notice that Mark is using the plural pronoun “they” (either as a pronoun or implied in plural forms of the verbs), instead of the typical singular “he” to signify Jesus. In my mind, this is exactly what Jesus intended when he originally called the twelve and named them as Apostles. However, after this verse, the pronoun “they” disappears and “he” returns.  (The emphasis is his.)

The disciples, too busy to eat, did not notice the crowd; nor did they have compassion upon them. And when Jesus reminded them of their calling, they denied it...

I want to sharpen the problem of being too busy to eat. We have contrasting feasts in the text of Mark; those of Herod and Jesus. If we do not eat of Jesus' banquet ourselves, we will inevitably find that we are sitting at Herod's table. We might think that reduced to failing to make time to eat may lead to us feeling lost and without a shepherd, and even to picking up crumbs from under whatever table we can find; surely though, that does not make us diners at Herod's table! Well, the history of the church is that far too often we have lived in the paradigm of winners and losers which characterises the court of Herod. We too often find we have at heart subscribed to the theology of Herod, where might is right, and someone must die or, at least, be made to lose. We may be gathering crumbs, indeed, but it will be the crumbs of Herod that we gather, not crumbs from under the table of Christ.

There is a binary separation here; an either or. Jesus says in Mark 9:40 "For the one that is not against us is for us." We do not own the ministry of Christ and the church; we have no right to condemn or exclude, or pretend our ministry is superior to others'. And we are all escapees from Herod's feast; Herod's feast is the table at which we were formed. But in Luke 11, Jesus says "The one who is not with me is against me, and the one who does not gather with me scatters."  Our escape is, in a sense, only partial, and still happening. When I have not eaten, I find I begin to move toward the table of Herod. I am caught up in the arguments and fights of the church. I begin to hate the politicians and the movers and shakers of the world. I begin to condemn. I fail to see the hurt of others. I focus in upon myself. I begin to play to win.

Next week's lection provides us with the feeding of five thousand according to the Gospel of John, which contains the reflection of an extra generation of disciples upon the story in Mark. So it would be tempting to gloss over the "less mature" reflection upon the story of the feeding as told by Mark this week. This is effectively what the RCL does by setting this week's reading only as Mark 6:30-34,53-56. But Mark's telling of the feeding is intimately connected to understanding what it means to eat, and to understanding what our food costs us. If we talk about going to "deserted places" without thinking about the food we eat, then our reflection will be bear much less fruit than it might.

Being overweight is a spiritual disease. It is one disease I catch if I try to maintain my place at Herod's table. And I note that in the last several weeks of turmoil in our house— we have often arrived home at the end of the day wondering what we can eat, for there has been no leisure even to think about preparing a meal— my weight has begun to increase. I am eating the wrong food.

In verse, 31 Jesus says to the disciples, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." The desert place is where Israel first meets God, and where Israel is formed by God. This is a symbol of renewal. He will mention the deserted place again in verse 32, to emphasise the need for this spiritual nourishment and renewal.

The word leisure could simply have been translated as no opportunity to eat. Leisure seems to me to be an excellent translation for our time. My best sermons, not to mention my deepest health, all come from what society, and even parts of the church, consider excessive and unjustifiable leisure. I constantly struggle not to give into the demand to eat less and work more. (Mark D Davis: "εὐκαίρουν: ...  εὐκαιρέω, 1) to have opportunity  2) to have leisure  3) to do something  4) to give one's time to a thing" )

And they go to this place of leisure "in the boat."   I note that early in the Gospel the disciples are told to have a boat (simply, πλοιάριον) ready for him because of the crowds. (3:9) But this changes in Mark 4:36; it becomes the boat (τῷ πλοίῳ). It is the same in this verse. The boat is the church. We travel with Jesus in the boat. The boat needs refreshment in the desert places.

The nature of our leisure is incredibly important. Davis points out that: "The passive verb “be restored” (εὐκαίρουν) is often used in the LXX to describe Sabbath rest. In that sense, it is more than taking a nap, because it has a restorative quality to it." I began to realise that some of my "napping"— murder mysteries were a case in point— were actually a celebration of the activities of Herod's feast!  Murder mysteries are often a rehearsal of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. Even something as innocent as Grand Designs is often a celebration of material acquisition and the striving to be among the "firsts" of Herod's table. With such observations I feel as though I am a killjoy, letting my inner puritan lose, yet I am mystified that some of my colleagues seem to have been avid viewers of Married at First Sight!  

When we collapse in our exhaustion— good and healthy tiredness from giving care to those around us— Herod's table waits with unhealthy foods on offer, laced with anaesthesia so that we will not notice that we have not really eaten at all.

Finally, in verse 32, the disciples and Jesus are by themselves. This unnecessary addition to the sentence suggests that a Sabbath rest has to happen in some way apart from the world.

The tragedy of the story is that "When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; 36send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’"

In the desert place, in the place of spiritual replenishment, the disciples, who correctly "come to Jesus," do not see that they can feed the people with the authority which has been given them! This is probably stronger in the Greek than it is in the English; it literally says "Desert is the place..."

And so Jesus reminds them of who they are: 37But 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?’ 

This is where the preacher might be tempted to make a whooshing noise and wave her hand over her head. You give them...  You... The church in the desert place is the church which is with Jesus, and is the church which can feed those who are hungry. Will we believe this, or will it go straight over our heads as we say we don't have enough money to buy all that bread?

And what is happening that they think they should buy food? To think we can buy spiritual food is surely the mark of Herod's table.

At church yesterday we began worship as two patrol cars and a paddy wagon howled past to the house at the end of the street which terrorises some members of that congregation, and of my own. We were two streets from the hospital which sometimes seems to have in the emergency department, almost as many police and security guards as it has patients. The suburb is among the "lasts" of society, but in leaving behind the desire to be among "the firsts"— the firsts of Galilee is the literal Greek of the leaders of Galilee invited to Herod's party— In leaving that desire behind, this little church which feels it is in a desert place is given authority to feed those who are starving for something to eat. (6:21)

We explored during the discussion of the sermon how Jesus feast differed: all were welcomed. There was enough food for everyone— food left over. The contrast to the first feast is plain.

I conclude by reminding myself what happens when I get busy and do not take leisure to eat. I forget the power of Jesus' feast. It becomes unreal; I lose faith in it. And I find myself hankering the sweet and empty calories of the other table.

Andrew Prior (2018)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web
Two Foods (2015)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 - Shepherd (2012)
Mark 6:30ff 8:10ff - Feedings in Mark (2009)
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 - Teach and Heal (2009)
Feeding and Feeding  Mark 6:33, Mark 8:1 (2006) The numbers and baskets in the two feasts of Jesus

 Although I have not quoted it, I am indebted to Mark Davis article A Retreating Glimpse of the Reign of God.


Some other notes

34As 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. 
Bill Loader: "The metaphor of Israel as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ derives from Hebrew scripture (eg. Nu 27:17). Israel needs a shepherd. Shepherd was a common image for a ruler, a king and probably hints at Jesus as Messiah."  Someone pointed out to me that the shepherd supplied to Israel in Numbers 27:18 was "Joshua son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit..." and that Jesus is, in fact, the name Jeshua.

As mentioned above, it is Jesus who has the compassion rather than the disciples, who will soon find the crowd overwhelming, and suggest it should feed itself.

38And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ 
In Mark 8:14, "the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat." That single loaf is, of course, Jesus, with us even when we have forgotten what we are about, or have not understood. Here the five loaves remind Israel of the Torah, the five books of the Law of Moses. This will feed you.

The two fish have their own symbolism, not so accessible to us:

In 2 Baruch 29:3-6 we see the two fish:

And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left. The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine.  And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day.

In Psalm 74:14 the NRSV notes a variant reading of the Hebrew:

4 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
   you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness. 

We shall even eat Leviathan, but only when we eat the bread of Jesus. Without the bread, Leviathan may eat us. (Quoted from my page here.)

It is tempting to think that Empire, Herod's table, is the Leviathan of our day.

39Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures... You prepare a table before me
   in the presence of my enemies... (Psalm 23)

40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. 
Bill Loader says of Jesus' teaching in verse 34 that "Mark would doubtless have us assume that it was teaching about ‘the kingdom of God’, the vision of hope and justice for all. That vision was also Jesus’ agenda for ministry. It was good news for the poor." And then, with respect to this verse, he says, "What many longed for through battle, the defeat of the oppressors, Jesus also proclaimed and lived: building a transformed and transforming community. Arranging the crowd into army formation (6:40) reflects this messianic intention. It intends change, but not through violence.

41Taking 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.
The provenance of it all is God; the loaves and fishes are emphasised again, and Jesus looks up to heaven.
And the fish, the food of wilderness (Baruch) is given to all. All stands in contrast to the exclusivity of Herod's feast.

42And all ate and were filled; 
Herodias and the others at Herod's feast were not filled. The woman who has gained the king wants more. She teaches the little girl given everything, up to half the kingdom, to want still more. The crowd fed at the tables want still more; they want blood.

43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
In this feast there is food left over; it is not a feast of scarcity. Herod's feast implies, by its exclusivity, that life and nourishment are defined by scarcity. The number five is again present, as is the number twelve. In contrast to Mark 8, the baskets are distinctively Jewish. In Mark 8 the numbers and the baskets are characteristically Gentile. (See here.) The numbers, and the type of baskets are repeated in Mark 8:18-21, in the conversation in the boat. Although Mark has seen the powerlessness of women, what counts, still, is the number of men.

The next verses are also omitted from the lectionary, but I find it suggestive that after a work of power the disciples are made to get back in the boat. And Jesus prays.

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. 46After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.



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