Good News from Mark 6
As we explore the remainder of Mark chapter 6, we encounter four passages (technically, called pericopes). The first is an account of the beheading of John the Baptist (6.14-29). A couple things jump out at to the reader. First, why does Mark place this report here, and not place it earlier in his Gospel where he introduced us to John and tells us about his ministry (where Luke places his account of John’s execution)? Mark interrupts his narrative about the disciples’ and Jesus’ ministry to tell us about John’s murder. As I implied in the last blog post, there’s a reason! Mark wants his readers (and the hearers of his Gospel as it would be read aloud from one congregation to another) to understand the cost of discipleship. There is a clear pattern being established by Mark:
John ministers and is delivered up to death,
Jesus ministers and is delivered up to death, and
The disciples minister and are delivered up to death (explicitly stated in 8.34; 13.9-13).
[For a powerful look into the meaning of Jesus’ death and its relationship to his disciples, see:
Fleming Routledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ (Eerdmans, 2015)].
Second, a reading of the event where John’s fate is sealed shows a collection of vain power present in the people who connive his death. There is an incestuous circle of governmental, military, and commercial interests at work. In Mark’s Gospel, the court of Herod, like the Sanhedrin, is viewed with stark realism, seen as deeply corrupt and cynical, where even good intentions are engulfed by ambition, envy, fear, and compromise. In this ecology of pathology, God’s servant becomes a victim, an instrument to be used by others for petty and vile ends. A story like this rings true, of course… to our reading of our times and our analysis of so many institutions that penetrate our lives. By the way, when I mention the “incestuous circle of governmental, military, and commercial interests,” I have named the core elements of a system political theorists call fascism. [But note that fascist regimes are usually aided by majoritarian religious institutions as well, e.g., at present: Hinduism in Modi’s India, Russian Orthodoxy in Russia, and conservative “evangelicalism” (in a nominal sense) in the United States].
In verses 30-44 we come to the story of the feeding of the 5000 men (who knows how many women and children?). This is the only miracle found in all four Gospels. The separate story of the feeding of the 4000 is found in Mark and Matthew. It is easy to see why masses of poor people who lived day by day, hoping for their “daily bread” with little pretention to financial security and access to three square meals a day, would cherish the memories and stories of Jesus feeding the hungry. After all, how many of our own cherished memories include meals shared with friends and family? We’re told that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (.34). And out of this compassion, Jesus provides something to meet the material needs of these shepherd-less people. The Greek word for “compassion” means, literally, to have one’s “guts torn apart” (spagchnizomia). We think, in our present moment, of Sudan, Libya, Morocco, Ethiopia, and elsewhere… are our guts “torn apart” with compassion? And what are we doing as a compassionate response to such
Above I referred to this event as a miracle. But was it? Mark does not tell us that the people experienced it as a miracle (unlike his habit of doing so, usually noting that crowds were “astonished” by Jesus after his miracles). Perhaps the “miracle” of the event is the triumph of a radically different economic and social model—one of sharing within a community, over against a model of individualist consumption in the anonymous marketplace. Rejecting the idea of sending people off to buy food for themselves, Jesus tells the disciples, “Let’s see what we have here,” in effect, “Let’s see what we can come up with.” It turns out, plenty! Everyone ate until they were full, and there was food left over! When Jesus referred to the people as sheep without a shepherd, he was not using a slander against the people. This was a common trope to describe the lack of decent political/religious leadership in ancient Israel. Jesus’ observation is about the lack of leadership that might have provided the infrastructure for a caring, sharing community materialized in economic and political forms (cf. Acts 2). Jesus’ language here is sacramental. Mark tells us that he took the bread and “looked up… and blessed… and broke... and gave it” (.41). The same words are used, of course, at the Last Supper with his disciples (14.22), words we repeat when we share the Lord’s Supper with one another. Jesus feeds us. He nourishes us. He sustains us. As Jesus tells us in John’s Gospel, he is the very Bread of Life (John 6).
The disciples have just returned from their adventure in ministry in nearby villages. Jesus sees that they need respite, rest, and prayer. He insists that they take a boat to the other side of the “sea” (actually, a lake) so as to escape the crowds. He goes to a “mountain” to pray. While on the water, during the fourth watch (3:00-6:00 am) Jesus can see that they have encountered a storm (again!) that imperils them. So, he walks out to the boat. Unlike the feeding of the 5000 where we cannot be sure that a supernatural event took place, here, we can only understand the event as supernatural. Everyone knows the story of Jesus walking on water. Whereas Hellenistic miracle stories depicted gods and heroes walking on the sea, this text is tied to Old Testament pictures of a God who “trampled the waves of the sea… who passes by… and I see him not” (Job 9.8, 11; cf. Ps. 77.19; Isa. 43.16). What is this image of God “trampling” the waves? The ancient Jews feared large bodies of water—the location of Leviathan and other sea monsters, and the cold dark depths. Thus a modest lake is for them, a “sea.” Recall the first creation account, the swirling, boiling, dark and wild waters upon the earth, before God creates the safety of land. When Jesus walks on the water to his disciples, he too walks as a force above, a conqueror of the dark and evil forces below. In the earlier storm, Jesus shouted the storm down and told it to stop. Here, he tramples upon it. In both stories, the faith (trust) of the disciples is put to the test. In both cases, the question was whether their fear would get the best of them, or if Jesus would get the best of them. “Take heart,” he says, “it is I; do not be afraid” (.50). The Greek form of “it is I” (ego eimi) is used in the Gospels, especially John, to echo God speaking to Moses at the burning bush, who declares “his” name as “I Am” (“Who I Am”). We are reminded of Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel: “I have spoken these things to you so that you might have peace in me. In the world (cosmos) you have suffering; but take heart—I have overcome the world (cosmos) (16.33). After the encouragement to trust and courage, Mark notes their astonishment at the storm’s ending and Jesus’ presence, and he notes that they had not “understood about the loaves, while their hearts remained hard” (52). Jesus’ powerful (let alone miraculous!) works in our midst ought to have the effect of building up our trust and the deterioration of the surprise that comes to us when he provides!
When they get out of the boat, they are near the village of Gennesaret. In this region, they find people all around bringing their sick into the spaces where Jesus and the disciples might be encountered, even carrying them upon their beds. In villages, towns, marketplaces, and open fields, they set the ill and afflicted down, so that they might simply touch the fringe of his cloak. And “all who touched it were healed” (.56). In contrast to the disciples (the ones “sent out” to minister to others!)— the crowds demonstrated immediate and powerful faith! Immediate and transparent faith, or struggling to understand, or the hostility to Jesus evident among some of the Pharisees and Scribes— these are ways that people continue to respond to Jesus. Perhaps they are also ways that we all respond to Jesus at one time or another. Each kind of response has certainly been a part of my journey with Jesus. It is so very good to know that he keeps showing up and offering healing regardless. Our faithfulness to Jesus has little to do with his faithfulness to us.
Thanks for reading,