January 8, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
The gospel reading today is from Mark 6:34-44.
When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. By now it was already late and his disciples approached him and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already very late. Dismiss them so that they can go to the surrounding farms and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” He said to them in reply, “Give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Are we to buy two hundred days’ wages worth of food and give it to them to eat?” He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out they said, “Five loaves and two fish.” So he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass. The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties. Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied. And they picked up twelve wicker baskets full of fragments and what was left of the fish. Those who ate [of the loaves] were five thousand men.
The crowd in this story had watched as Jesus and his disciples clambered into a boat and set out to a quiet, deserted place to rest and refresh themselves. But the crowd wasn’t satisfied; people had not had enough of Jesus. They wanted more; they wanted to be fed. And so they hastily walked along the shore until they reached the place where Jesus was disembarking. The feeding of the multitudes made a strong impression as Mark and Matthew each report two incidents, Luke and John each one — the only miracle to be recorded in all four gospels. Probably because to them it was deeply symbolic of the eucharist.
As the New Jerome Biblical Commentary elaborates, the gospel writers believed that these stories point forward to “life in God’s kingdom as a banquet at which the Messiah will preside.” Perhaps Jesus was also using it as a sign of the kingdom of God on earth. With faith and with consideration for others, sharing what they had with their neighbors, the people could enjoy God’s banquet, His bounty, then in the presence of Jesus, the Messiah.
Here we have the scene of a crowd milling about, pressing forward to be able to see and listen to Jesus. A crowd of 5,000 men and unknown numbers of women and children. Isn’t it interesting that when Jesus told them to sit down in groups on the green grass that they ordered themselves in rows of a hundred and a half-hundred? They were docile, obedient, like sheep that came to his mind when he looked out upon them. Their hunger the nourishment of their spirits, for justice in the world, for God’s compassionate care was so great that it overcame the gnawing hunger in their bellies, the aggravation of jostling for position, the frustration in not knowing what was coming, if anything. They just knew that they wanted more of Jesus.
And so Jesus taught them many things. They were in a disposition to listen, to learn, to take into their hearts the teachings of Jesus. He took advantage of the opportunity without regard of the hour of the day or the need to eat.
By contrast, the disciples had had enough for the day. They were tired and hungry themselves and they projected this on the crowd. They were nourished by Jesus every day, unlike the crowd who couldn’t get enough of him this day. It seems that Jesus is telling his disciples that it is their responsibility as his disciples to put aside their own needs and discomfort in order to serve others. They are to strive to be as like him as possible in spreading the gospel and changing the hearts and minds of God’s people everywhere.
There’s a lesson here for me. Especially when I’m tired and hungry, I don’t want to do for others. I want to take care of myself, to tend to my own needs. However, it’s something as a young parent that I instinctively did and probably for the first time in my life. Jesus was the shepherd to the crowd, tending to their own needs before his own. He was teaching his disciples to tend to God’s children as if they were their own as well. They were to be shepherds in his stead both when he commissioned them to go out and after his death. There is a time for me to be like a member of the crowd, eagerly listening to his every word in my hunger for spiritual nourishment. But there is also a time for me to be like a shepherd, to care for and feed others in turn. I can’t always be the sheep, docile and passive. I can make the transformation it in steps, though. First, I can share with others, then I can care for others. That seems to be the lesson for his disciples that evening, part of their ongoing instruction to make them ready to be shepherds — and for me today.