One of the most densely packed New Testament texts is the feeding of the 5,000 that appears (Mk 6:34-46) just after the murder of John the Baptist. The larger setting of the story is clearly one of the “Markan sandwiches.” The Twelve are sent out, John is murdered and suddenly the twelve return to Jesus. The mission is brought to an abrupt end as they return at once for consultation. The entire countryside is in an uproar with people “coming and going” (v. 31) from “all the towns” (v. 33) in the province. Only here in the entire New Testament do we read the phrase “coming and going.” Everyone wants to know: What does Jesus have to say about the murder of his cousin and what is he planning to do about it? They are not even able to eat (v. 31). Making an astute decision, Jesus tells his disciples, Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while (v. 31). It is time to regroup and reflect on their next move.
On January 17, 1984, in the middle of the long Lebanese civil war, I was teaching New Testament in Beirut, Lebanon. At 8:30 that morning Malcolm Kerr, the president of the American University, was shot dead outside his office about a block from our home. The entire country went into shock and we had a very hard time discussing anything else. All plans had to be revised in the light of this horrifying murder. Jesus faced a similar crisis. Was he going to demand a “regime change” and agitate for it, or join the Zealots, or go underground or what? They clearly had no protection under law. How can you proclaim a kingdom of peace when the kingdom of Herod, at a drinking party, murders Jesus’ cousin to please a dancing girl ? Who is next?
After crossing the sea, Jesus and the disciples discover that a great crowd has followed them. The “spiritual life retreat” is quickly canceled. His hope for a quiet rest in a deserted place is denied him. The text that follows is densely composed with at least two major interwoven themes. The first is that of the Good Shepherd.
The story opens with reference to Jesus’ compassion for the great crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd (v. 34). In the center of the text the reader is told that Jesus orders the disciples to make all the people lie down … in the green pastures. He then feeds them a meal in the presence of their enemies. (Herod’s spies are present and all that is said and done will be reported to the palace in a few hours. Herod is inevitably very interested in knowing how Jesus might respond to the murder of his cousin.) At the end of the meal there is lots of food left over. Then Jesus takes leave of the crowd and sends them home. He is clearly in charge of “the flock.” The language of Psalm 23 is reused and applied to Jesus. Much of what God does for David in the Psalm, Jesus does for the crowd at the wilderness banquet. It is all about Incarnation. In Psalm 23, Jer. 23 and Ezek. 34, God promises that one day he will himself appear and care for the lost sheep/flock. In this text Jesus is seen as fulfilling that promise. This brings us to the second major theme.
The Psalmist records the question on the lips of the people who followed Moses in the wilderness: Can God spread a table in the wilderness … Can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people? (Ps 78:19-20). The answer to that question is a resounding “yes “ The manna and the quails appear as God responds to the pleas of the people. This Exodus scene is clearly a part of the “music in the background” for the text before us. But there is a difference. God responds to the needs of the people by acting through Moses and Aaron, his human agents, as he commands these two leaders to tell the people, At twilight you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.“(Ex 16:12). In the wilderness banquet, the people are once again fed “bread and meat” in the “lonely place.” But, in this “re-enactment” of the Exodus story, Jesus is the one who saves. The “new Moses” in the new wilderness story is himself the prime mover for the miracle of the meat and the bread in the desert. This can be called “hermeneutical Christology.” A saving action, known in the tradition to be an action of God, becomes in the retelling, an action of Jesus.
Herod hosted a banquet that spun out of control and ended with the murder of John. It was a banquet of death. Jesus replied by having the people sit down in “companies” (Gr: sumposia). Jesus spreads a “sumposia“ of life. This is his response to the murder of his cousin. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is set aside. The rich and powerful attended Herod’s “sumposia of death.” Common people from all across the land were there at Jesus’ “sumposia of life.” In every village of Herod’s domain, the two banquets will be compared. Jesus speaks truth to power and a part of what he says to Herod is, “Herod, you can kill us but you cannot stop us My banquet of life trumps your banquet of death. I am the Good Shepherd of David and the divine presence invoked by Moses.”
Confrontational yet gentle, bold yet humble, the new shepherd spreads a banquet in the presence of his enemies; and the divine presence behind Moses, now incarnate, again uses his power to feed the people “bread and meat in the wilderness.”
It is all about incarnation. Psalm 23:4 affirms thou art with me (‘ammadi), which is close in both sound and meaning to “God with us” (‘ammanuel: Emmanuel). In the text before us, Psalm 23 is invoked again and again as we have seen. In like manner the “‘ammadi” of Ps 23:4 (Thou art with me) emerges in Mark 6:34-46 as ‘ammanuel (Emmanuel: God with us) and isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
Kenneth E. Bailey is an author and lecturer in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies living in New Wilmington, Pa.