Today’s reading is Mark 8:1-13:
In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat, he summoned the disciples and said, “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some have come a great distance.” His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy them here in this deserted place?” Still he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” “Seven,” he replied. He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute, and they distributed them to the crowd. They also had a few fish. He said the blessing over them and ordered them distributed also. They ate and were satisfied. They picked up the fragments left over – seven baskets. They were about four thousand people.
He dismissed them and got into the boat with his disciples and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” Then he left them, got into the boat again, and went off to the other shore.
At first glance, this scene seems to be about the value of cooperative action and material generosity. Surely, these are values Jesus would praise, but to take these as the main points of the scene is to sell it short of its full meaning. When placed into a larger narrative arc, it becomes clear that this scene, rich with Eucharistic imagery, serves as an invitation to all people – Jew and Gentile alike – to participate in communion with Christ.
This episode is a thematic foil to an episode two chapters earlier when Jesus feeds a crowd of five thousand shortly after the death of John the Baptist, the last of the prophets leading up the full revelation of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, however, Jesus feeds a crowd of Gentiles rather than Jews. This scene is on the tail end of a chiasm – a symmetrical set of scenes – the fulcrum of which is a scene in which Jesus explains to the apostles in plain terms that food laws, in and of themselves, are not what is important but rather the motives of the heart. All this fits well into the broad arc of salvation history: as the full revelation of God, the redemptive power of Jesus Christ supersedes the true but incomplete revelations of God through the law and the prophets. The law and the prophets were God’s way of interacting with his first chosen people, a natural family comprised of Abraham and his descendants. Jesus, however, has the power to extend this choseness, creating a spiritual family anyone can join through faith (cf. the book of Romans).
In this scene, Jesus practices what he was just preaching: “My heart is moved with pity for the crowd…” (Mk 8:1). Jesus is concerned with the hearts of his followers – their motives, feelings, intentions – in short, their internal worlds, and he likewise humbles himself to reveal his internal world, his heart, to his followers. You cannot win brownie points from Jesus for following his laws to the T if your motives are self-centered. Next Jesus explains the reason for his pity is that “…they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will collapse on the way, and some have come a great distance” (Mk 8:1, italics mine). Jesus sees the hunger – physical and spiritual – of the Gentiles, and he is moved to satisfy them. Shortly afterward, he blesses the bread in language that closely parallels the language Jesus uses during the last supper in his establishment of the Eucharistic prayers of the Holy Mass.
As we look ahead to Good Friday and Easter, we Gentiles anticipate three days with nothing to eat, three days in which Christ was dead and gone from the world. It is a Catholic tradition to remove the Eucharist from the tabernacle during these three days to commemorate Christ’s death and wholly unnatural absence. After those three days, however, Jesus returned with power and glory, overcoming Satan and bringing spiritual nourishment to all his followers, Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female (Gal 3:28). On Easter we put the Eucharist – which is fully Jesus, body, blood, and spirit, revealed under the appearance of bread and wine – back in the tabernacle, demonstrating the way in which Jesus made himself available to all through the establishment of the Eucharistic blessing, foreshadowed in this episode of feeding the four thousand.
Jane Thomas ’15 concentrates in evolutionary biology and lives off-campus.