Sickness managed to sideline me from doing much writing this week, but I did want to take a moment before the hours click away on this weeks end, to offer a brief reflection on my continued journey through Mark. As I made my way through chapters 6-8, there were a few things that stood out for me as I continue to get ready for the Lenten season and the first foretelling of Jesus’ death:
A Second Storm Passage
In the first storm passage (the calming of the storm in 4:35-41), Jesus is in the boat with the disciples and asleep in the stern. The point of this passage was their lack of a faith, a problem that I believe had less to do with their fear or their questioning of Jesus’ care, and more to do with their inability to fully entrust their lives to Jesus’ call, a call that Jesus will be asking them to live out only a few passages later (6:7-13). This is contrasted by the stories of the healed woman and healed man in the passage that follows, two people who demonstrate the necessary faith required to “go” out into the world in the way Jesus calls them to do.
In the second storm passage (6:45-52), we find the disciples in the boat by themselves, with Jesus staying on the land.
Two things to note here- First, sometimes when we have faith enough to go, the going can be a struggle. And sometimes when we face these storms it is easy to mistake Jesus as too far removed from our circumstance to do much at all. And as he demonstrates by walking on the water and joining them back in the boat, we can have faith that Jesus still sees and Jesus still attends to our cries in the midst of the rough waters.
Secondly, this truth (that Jesus never leaves us) finds even more significance in light of the line at the end of this second storm passage, which suggests that they were “astounded” at this truth because “they did not understand about the loaves” (6:52).
Understanding The Two Loaves Passages
Here we find another pair of nearly identical stories in the Gospel of Mark, and while all four Gospels do record the first (the feeding of the 5,000), Matthew and Mark both include the second (the feeding of the 4,000).
It might be easy to simply dismiss these as two varied versions of the same story, but there is worth in considering how and why these stories were included in their traditional context, and the way it can shed further light on the way Jesus promises to never leave us we step out of the boat and enter the world. After all, it is Jesus himself who calls our attention to the danger of misunderstanding the point and purpose of the loaves.
The Numbers Tell The Story
Numbers were important in the ancient culture, and no less important for the Biblical authors themselves, and from my own research, commentators and scholars generally seem to agree that the differences in numbers that distinguish the two stories can help shed light on their intended meaning in the larger picture of Mark’s Gospel.
In the first story, we encounter the number 5 (five loaves, and five thousand). In the ancient Jewish culture this was understood to symbolize the Pentateuch (books of the Mosaic law). And in the stories conclusion, we find 12 baskets (12 Tribes of Israel).
Contrast this with the second story and we find 7 loaves (and baskets). The number 7 usually indicates the 7 days of Creation in which God looked upon all of the created order and saw it as good. 7 can also mean the perfect or whole picture of God or God’s ways.
So what does this tell us? In the story of the Feeding of the 5,000, we find a story that is symbolic of God’s provision for His chosen (Jewish) people. Further, this miracle occurs near Bethsaida, which indicates a Jewish setting.
In the story of the Feeding of the 4,000, we find the location now shifts to the Gentile region, with the number 7 signifying Jesus’ care and provision not just for the Jews, but for all the world.
So how do the loaves connect us back to the story of the storm? For Jesus, the story of the loaves should serve to remind the disciples of two things when it comes to following Jesus. First, they are called to go into all the world. This is how far God’s provision is intended to reach. It is interesting that the story of the 5,000 finds the disciples being removed from the crowd in order to tend to their hunger, only to be pushed by Jesus to share their hunger (and their food) with the crowd. Secondly, no matter how far they go, Jesus is always with them and their care always in His sights. Even as Jesus calls them to out of their own hunger to feed the crowd, we cannot overlook the fact that the story begins with Jesus seeing their own hunger as well.
The Odd Story of John the Baptist as a Further Picture of God’s Provision
When I did a study on The Gospel of Matthew last year, the biggest surprise I found was the intentional way in which Matthew places John the Baptist into his narrative. In Matthew’s Gospel, John is presented as a model for discipleship (with the 3 transitional placements of his story coming at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the beginning of the disciple’s ministry, and finally in the foreshadowing of the passion narrative as the ultimate model of how discipleship is supposed to work in God’s kingdom).
Here in Mark, we find something similar, only John’s arrest arrives at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in Galilee) while his death arrives at the transition into the greater Gentile world (the sending of the disciples).
The abruptness of John’s death feels somehow, even more bracing as Mark prepares us for the sending of the disciples. All but abandoned, all but forgotten, a sort of footnote in the Gospel narrative. And yet it is hard to miss the placement of this story as a demonstration of faith, a faith that allowed John to give his life for the One who was greater than he. It is a faith that seems to ring loud and clear with the common message Mark has been building through the stories of the storms and the loaves- this message that the compassion of God reaches much farther than we can see on our own, and that even when we feel we are alone, Jesus still sees, still cares, is still present- that Jesus above all is interested in love and compassion.
This is a truth that will now carry us into the next transition in Mark’s Gospel, the movement into Christ’s own walk to the Cross and the foretelling of His death. It is something that John’s death equally prepares us for. It is a reminder that just when we think there are limits to His compassion, there is a grace that pushes even further.