4. You Feed Them!
When I served in parish ministry, I strongly disliked fielding requests for financial assistance from people in and/or traveling through the community. I didn’t regard those in need as undeserving or at fault in some way. No, the issues were entirely with me. I rarely felt like I had succeeded in being helpful in any meaningful way.
Of course, the likelihood that I would believe I had failed at something was often quite high, so that’s not a surprise. For me, that’s a psychological cost of doing business. But in these situations, I was almost always short of available time, available money, and/or available resources to be of much use to the people in need. The chief irritant for me was almost always that I was on the way to doing something else I considered important.
“It’s getting late, and we’re out in the middle of nowhere,” the disciples complained to Jesus. “Get rid of these people so they can scatter into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat.” In the mind of the writer of Mark’s gospel, the disciples are focused on the lateness of the hour – the scarcity of time. It’s such a concern that the writer mentions it both as narrator and through the mouths of the disciples.
I resemble that remark. The first roadblock to my concrete acts of discipleship almost always seems to be my perception that time is a scarce commodity. I don’t want to be bothered at the moment. I have other pressing things to do. It’s been a long day and I just want to go home and put my feet up. I haven’t seen my spouse for hours, and I long for the casual comfort of her company. It’s getting late, and I want to tend to my own priorities.
One of the marks of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Mark is that when it comes to serving, he seems to have all the time in the world. Mark’s gospel is filled with immediacy – literally, since the word “immediately” appears in the text of the gospel forty-one times. That’s seventy percent of the times it appears in the whole of the Christian scriptures. On the one hand, the writer of Mark’s gospel is in a hurry to move the action along.
On the other hand, when it comes to serving those who are “like sheep without a shepherd,” time slows to a crawl in the gospel account. Here in the Feeding of the Five Thousand, the writer lavishes attention on the minute details of the story, pausing to peruse each piece of the plot. In the presence of real human need, Jesus has an abundance of time to spend.
It makes me ashamed to even say that in writing. When I think of how many times I just wanted to get a resolution to the problem in order to get on to the “important stuff,” I know that I had my pastoral priorities backwards far too often. I am, it would seem, a typical disciple.
If I got the abundance of time right, once in a while, I had equally as much trouble with what I perceived to be a lack of resources. In my experience, the need for help always exceeds the help made available through congregations. I was frequently having to calculate how much I could get my hands on, how long I would have to stretch what was available, and how many more requests I might field in the coming weeks and months. I never got that part right.
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus commands the disciples. They respond as I would have. “What, are you nuts! It would take eight months-worth of wages to feed this crowd, even if we had that on us. There’s no way we can have enough to feed them all!” I’m just the administrator. Someone else is in charge of inventory and distribution. Not my area!
I get that. I come with a scarcity mindset hardwired from a childhood of relative poverty (even though I always had enough to eat, enough to wear, and even enjoyed all sorts of privileges and perks as a teen). I’m always sure that I am about fifteen seconds from financial calamity, regardless of the reality of my situation. I have no trouble generating reasons why there won’t be enough stuff to get through the day.
The disciples had just come back from a successful missionary adventure. They have taken next to nothing with them to sustain themselves. Yet, apparently, they had not starved. God had provided enough. With that experience fresh in their minds, they still could not connect that experience of provision with Jesus’ power to provide abundantly to them and through them.
That’s what the writer of Mark’s gospel means when the writer notes that their hearts were hardened. In the face of Jesus’ presence and with an abundance of personal experience as evidence, they were still sure that the good stuff would be gone before everyone was fed. That’s what I would have thought as well. I just can’t unclench my heart long enough to experience a little joy. Who knows when we’ll run out?
Whenever things get a little tight in the budget area, I’m sure that we are two steps from bankruptcy. Never mind that we have received more than adequate provision at every step of our faith journey. Never mind that my experience is not of impending financial disaster but rather of yet another just in the nick of time experience of God’s abundance. Mindset trumps evidence, and I have to talk myself through another restless night of anxiety.
I wonder if Jesus is as compassionately frustrated with the disciples as he is with me. “Fine!” he says to them. “Do an inventory. How many loaves do you have?” They go and count. It couldn’t have taken long. In the crowd of thousands, they find five loaves and two fish. They must have experienced a perverse bit of pleasure in being able to say to Jesus, “We told you so!”
The self-satisfaction didn’t last long. Jesus organized the banquet as a good king and compassionate shepherd should. He prayed for the Divine blessing and the food began to flow. There was, of course, more than enough. Why should we be surprised? That was the whole point.
In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz discusses the feeding miracles. He notes, first of all, that the feeding is not limited to a guest list. “There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table,” Pavlovitz writes. “Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us” (page 62).
There is abundant space and abundant provision in the “kingdom of God” which draws near in Jesus. But my experience of the Church is that it is far too much like me – far too worried about whether there will be enough for all (well, for us, if we’re honest). But relying on Jesus means there will be enough for all. “The Church will thrive,” Pavlovitz writes, “only to the degree it is willing to be about making space for a greater swath of humanity and by recognizing the redemptive power of real relationships” (page 63).
The role of the disciples is not to make sure there’s enough food. The role of the disciples is to make a bigger table. That’s the role we resist so often. “Expanding the table isn’t about digging in our heels around religious rules, doctrine, or dogma.” Pavlovitz argues. “Those things will always provide us reason to disconnect from others. They will always become obstacles. No,” he concludes, “this is about the mind-set with which we gather with people, about creating a space where the differences can be both openly acknowledged and fully welcomed” (page 63).
Pavlovitz gets right the real problem the disciples and I have. We don’t want to share. We want to keep the good stuff to and for ourselves. We want to be the privileged, the powerful, the propertied, and the pious. Jesus gives the disciples a chance here to serve rather than to be served, and they blow it. Yup – been there, done that. Hard-hearted and of little faith — that’s me!
“It’s one thing to personally accept Christ’s boundless grace, and another to avoid hoarding it for ourselves,” Pavlovitz notes. “It’s always so much easier to live with a closed fist than an open hand. And yet, the latter is the way of Christ. This is the heart of his hospitality. This should be our daily bread— and it will cause us to move” (page 71).
It’s easy to miss part of the subtext of Pavlovitz’s argument. It’s not our hospitality that’s at stake here. Jesus is the host, not us. I tend to forget that. I’m as much a guest at the table as anybody else. I’m not welcoming anyone to my space. Instead, we are, as is often said, beggars showing one another where the bread is. As soon as I lose track of that reality, my church becomes a colonizing tool of dominant culture.
I don’t bring anything to the table. Jesus does, and I get to invite people to experience that welcome table together. The minute I lose touch with that, I can feel my heart solidify a bit more…
References and Resources
De Waal, Frans. Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Keltner, Dacher. Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life. W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.
Ortlund, D. (2012). THE OLD TESTAMENT BACKGROUND AND ESCHATOLOGICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA (MARK 6:45-52). Neotestamentica, 46(2), 319-337. Retrieved July 7, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43049201
Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.