How many loaves do you have?

March 28, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news this Holy Thursday from Mark 8:1-10.

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 of them 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,” they 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. There were about four thousand people. He dismissed them and got into the boat with his disciples and came to the region of Dalmanutha.

Some scholars believe that the feeding of 5,000 in Mark 6 and this scene actually describe the same event. However, Jesus himself in Mark 8:19-20 refers to both episodes and concludes by asking his disciples, “Do you still not understand?”

For a variety of reasons other scholars believe that in the first incident Jesus was feeding a mainly Jewish crowd, whereas in the second he was feeding the Gentiles. Both events have obvious eucharistic undertones or foreshadowing. However, Francis Moloney in The Gospel of Mark thinks, “The disciples’ behavior in this episode, as in 6:31-44, is a central concern of the storyteller.” If so, what was it that they still didn’t understand?

Two thoughts come to mind that have relevance to me. In other words, practices that I think Jesus is trying to teach me. The first thought that came to mind before I read Moloney’s commentary — that’s why I think it’s Jesus’ message for me — was the situation of the haves and the have-nots. The crowd had been eagerly listening to Jesus’ every word for three days, hungry for his message of the kingdom. They had consumed all that they had brought with them not expecting that they would be in a deserted place with Jesus for three days. Yet, the disciples still had seven loaves of bread and a few fish. They had hoarded their provisions and were not inclined to care about the plight of the hungry thousands around them let alone share their own food. It wasn’t their problem to solve; it wasn’t their responsibility to serve the hungry multitudes. Jesus tried to get them to understand that it was their responsibility. He wanted them to share everything they had trusting that God would provide for them all. In the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed there would be no haves and have-nots. Some may have more than others, but no one would be hungry or homeless or naked. The disciples still operated from an us-and-them mentality expressed as “we’ll take of ourselves; you’re on your own” or “we have enough for ourselves but not enough for you.” They had an attitude of scarcity while Jesus functioned from an orientation toward abundance. There was enough for everyone in Jesus’ mind, more than enough to satisfy everyone with seven baskets of fragments left over.

Jesus had sent his disciples out on their mission with nothing, no food or money, assuring them that their needs would be met by the hospitality of strangers. It happened just as Jesus had said, but yet they didn’t instinctively reciprocate here. Sometimes the needs of the world can be overwhelming and I think that’s what happened to them. They looked around at 4,000 people and didn’t think that the little food they had would make any difference, so they wanted to keep it to themselves. Sometimes I think about the literal millions of people in the world who are poor, hungry, dispossessed, diseased, and suffering and I despair of making any kind of meaningful contribution. It keeps me from doing anything. That’s the attitude of scarcity: there isn’t enough for us all or rather there isn’t enough for me and for all of you, too. That’s not the kingdom Jesus promotes. He expects me to trust God, to share what I have in confidence that He will take care of my needs. He won’t be outdone in generosity. I often hear people witness that no matter how much they gave — time, money, energy — they always receive much more in return. Personally, I know that’s true; I’ve experienced the same thing. Still, part of me wants to hold on to what I have, to save it for myself. That’s what Jesus is trying to get his disciples to let go of.

The other thought was that the disciples were confronted by people who were not like them; they weren’t members of their tribe, their religion. They were Gentiles, unworthy and unclean. It was one thing to take care of one’s own, but to be generous with Gentiles? That was a radical notion that they weren’t ready to accept yet. Jesus served everyone — sinners one and all, Galileans, Samaritans, Judeans, Gentiles, Romans. No one was unworthy of God’s love. Jesus’ only problem was with those who tried to separate people from God — the Pharisees, scribes, and religious elders. There are always “others” among us whom we discriminate against no matter how enlightened we may think we are. We may think that gays and lesbians are unworthy or illegal immigrants or mentally ill — people we want to keep at arm’s length, people we don’t want to share with. We don’t want to share our country, our freedoms, our resources because they aren’t “us.” I think that’s also a reason that the disciples didn’t want to share their bread and fish. “They” weren’t God’s chosen people; “they” didn’t deserve God’s favor and blessings. But Jesus tells us that we are all God’s children, that He created each of us in His image, and that He loves each of us as if we were each the only one to be loved to paraphrase St. Augustine. That’s also what the disciples didn’t yet understand and, to be honest, most of us don’t either.

Tonight is the ritual of the washing of the feet, Jesus’ act of loving service. He came to serve all of us, not to be served. That is the message in this gospel reading as well. He had compassion upon all these people, Gentiles to whom he at first did not believe he had come to serve. God moved his heart to understand otherwise. I pray that He will open my heart to understand these things as well and to live my life with an attitude of abundance and acceptance.



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