Homily for April 1, 2014

~ The Rev. John Forman

Mark 8:1–10: “How can anyone give these people enough bread in this desolate place?”

I am not the first to notice that at critical transition points in Jesus’ life and ministry, he finds himself at the center of a meal[1].  In John’s Gospel, Mary launches Jesus’ ministry at the wedding at Cana, where Jesus transforms water, an element essential for all life, into an extravagant symbol of life in union with the Divine for a gathering of families. But the miracle went largely unnoticed by the guests.

Two chapters before our reading in Mark this morning, the apostles implore Jesus to act on behalf of a crowd.  A crowd of 5,000, mostly Jews, have been listening to Jesus teaching all day.  After they are fed, there were 12 baskets filled with leftovers.  There is no possibility that there were actually 5,000 people, which would have been an entire city.  The numbers, instead, point to Israel—“five,” the number of the loaves and the number of the crowd, refers to the five covenants God made with Israel and, in Jewish numerology, the number five also refers to semi-perfection.  Twelve, of course, refers to the twelve tribes. The baskets were probably small baskets that first century Palestinian Jews used to carry food so that they would not have to eat food touched by Gentile hands.  And so among whatever other physical miracles did or didn’t happen, Jesus inspired an ethical shift: a simple meal, essential for all life on earth, became a symbol of life in symbolically reunited community of God’s covenanted people.  But there was little reaction by the crowd who apparently took the miraculous feeding in stride.

In yesterday’s reading from Mark 7, Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman. Situated between the two crowd feedings, this brief, intimate exchange is focused not on an actual meal, but their talk centers on dining together in a way that takes on enormous significance.  Jesus dismisses this Gentile—this pagan woman—with what some commentators insist must be heard as a racist, sexist slur.  When she confronts Jesus using his own (can we at least say dismissive?) reference to her, Jesus listens—he hears her—and changes his thinking.  She knocks the holy wind out of him and he allows himself to be fundamentally changed.  Is it coincidence that, for the first time in Mark, Jesus heals without physically touching the woman’s daughter? Regardless, the transformation that has lasting repercussions through the ages is in Jesus’ ministry itself: from that moment to this, Jesus offers all of God’s children bread—life, that is—in abundance.

Now so we come to the feeding of the 4,000.  Again, the number is not a census count: the number “four” symbolized divine revelation, and complete harmony in both heaven and earth. This time, the people have been listening to Jesus teach not for one day, but for three days—“three,” a number connoting holiness and love. This time, Jesus, not the apostles, not his mother, not a pagan woman, but Jesus initiates the feeding. This time, the people share not five loaves but seven loaves (the number “seven” symbolizing God’s perfect and sufficient provisioning), and yet perfection and sufficiency remain in the seven baskets of broken pieces. This time, the word referring to the seven baskets implies a much larger basket of the type used by Gentiles, Jews and pagans; by everyone, in other words—it is the same word, in fact, used to describe the basket in which Paul was lowered over the wall of Damascus in Acts, so despite a smaller number of baskets, the amount is actually substantially larger.  This time, instead of going away with the apostles himself, Jesus sends the crowd away, filled with God’s perfect and sufficient provision.

Though we can already hear increasing implications of the Eucharistic feast in these stories, in a few more chapters, we will hear of the Last Supper and at the end of John’s Gospel, the Risen Christ feeds the disciples once again by the Sea of Galilee.  By then, both we and Jesus know this on-going story arc about what people are being fed and by whom.

“How can anyone give these people enough bread in this desolate place?” Even as we look around our world today with this question on our hearts, the answer remains the same. Yes, food, water and shelter—the basic necessities for life.  But only Jesus Christ and him crucified, broken and given to others now by our hands, by our hearts, by our actions—only Jesus the Risen Christ, the Bread of Life, the love of God incarnated, broken and given for all as God’s perfect and sufficient provision.  Only that bread satisfies sufficiently and perfectly.  How many loaves do we have?


[1] See Fr. Alfred Edersheim’s “Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah.”

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