Do you understand the about loaves?

loavesfishIt’s always awesome when things in the Bible suddenly fit together and you realise something bigger going on that makes a whole bunch of pieces fit together. Most of the time I don’t have that experience though and, to some extent, I chase it. So my exegesis is in some ways always contingent (and that’s probably reasonably healthy). Every now and then I find something that I think is awesome but it’s because I was a bit too creative and there’s really nothing there. This may be one of those times but lets do some exegesis in community.

For a while Mark 6:51-52 has really puzzled me, “he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened.” Jesus wanders across water – it’s a bit choppy: the wind is against them – but Jesus steps into the boat and BAM the wind ceases. I don’t know about you but that happens while I’m in the boat and my response is astonishment. I completely sympathise with the disciples’ reaction. So how come Mark explains their reaction as though it is totally wrong: they’re astonished because “they did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened”. Jeepers, that means I don’t understand about the fish and the loaves… What about the feeding of the five thousand (which directly precedes this narrative) am I supposed to understand?

So I have to ask what the feeding of the five thousand is about. It turns out that when you start looking at this narrative it stretches into a bunch of other pericopae. Of course, it comes up in 6:52 but there is also the Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10) which makes reference to the first feeding (directly and indirectly) and then there’s also the Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod (8:14-21) where again there is some kind of misunderstanding going on because the disciples haven’t correctly understood the meaning of the feeding episodes.

As I worked on this account, the Feeding of the Five Thousand, I realised that there were a bunch of allusions going on. The conclusion about the controlling allusion that I came to was first Numbers 27:17 where “sheep without a shepherd” comes up in looking for a successor to Moses, and second Psalm 23 / Ezekiel 34 pastoral imagery. Mark’s message in the Feeding of the Five Thousand is then that Jesus is the true successor of Moses: the true Shepherd of Israel. This shepherd does not feed on the sheep but protects them (in contrast to the Herod/John the Baptist episode which precedes this account) and makes them “sit down in green pasture” (verse 39).

As I have been playing with the ideas in Ezekiel 34 and Psalm 23 suddenly Psalm 23 had bearing on the account that follows the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Yes, the shepherd makes his sheep, “lie down in green pastures,” but he also, “leads them beside still waters.” That realisation brought 6:51 to the forefront of my thinking. They don’t understand that Jesus is the shepherd (i.e. the lesson of the loaves) and so of course they are surprised when waters are calmed around them (a bit of a fudge?).

good-shep-logoThe Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod I would then read in light of Ezekiel 34. The expectation that the disciples understand something of the fish and the loaves is an expectation that they recognise the bad shepherds of Israel. This interpretation may fall down though in that Jesus is talking about “leaven” which is quite a loafy thing to be talking about if he’s really thinking about a pastoral image (unless it’s the leaven that destroys the bread that the bad shepherds feed to Israel).

I don’t know. That’s why you got a bunch of stream of consciousness. I would like some feedback from all you faithful readers out there (all 4 of you. Hi mom!) cause that’s how we sharpen each other. So what do you think?

Christmas: The Traditions of Men and Our Forgotten King

Isaiah 29:13 - Jesus ChristQuoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus distinguished between the traditions of men and the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-8). Though critical of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus was not merely an iconoclast; he was much, much more. At the beginning of his ministry we learn that his preaching demanded repentance, a turning back to God (Mark 1:15). When it came to the traditions of men Jesus was incensed by their obscuring effect; his fight was not against the Jews’ practices and cultural artefacts, but how those drew the Jewish people away from God. Thus the people honoured God with their lips, but their words were unable to conceal wandering and desperate hearts (Isaiah 29:13). In honouring the traditions of men they ignored the commands of God.

True Christmas SpiritOn the eve of Christmas, Jesus’ words from two millennia ago are pertinent and precise in describing people today, besotted with traditions but indifferent to what is behind them. Jesus rebuked his religious listeners: “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition, making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:9, 13). Now, the Christian reading this might don a proud demeanour for not losing sight of the true Christmas message, after all, we have “kept ‘Christ’ in Christmas, have we not?” No. I would suggest that many of us have not. Jesus’ correction is for us, today. With tomorrow marking the momentous historical event of God’s condescension, the beginning of the Son’s humiliation, and the birth of hope we must ask ourselves how the traditions of men have obscured our own celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth.

There was a punk band that I listened to as a teen called Noise Ratchet. One of their best but most poignant songs is entitled You’ll Be Forgetting Me, with this chorus, “happy birthday to me / the forgotten king.” Tomorrow is the day in the Christian calendar when we remember the Son’s self-giving work, which began with the incarnation. Yet tomorrow is most likely already consumed by brightly adorned trees sheltering piles of presents, large family gatherings, and gluttonously sized meals – the traditions of men. To quote from the aforementioned song, “open hands outstretched / to receive their prize / but I could give you anything, yes anything / you’re everything to me.” We desire so much at Christmas time, from the merry get-togethers to stockings crammed full of expensive gifts, yet easily forget to celebrate God’s wonderful open handed movement towards us, the greatest gift.

You'll be forgetting meNoise Ratchet’s song closes with this stirring reminder, from the Forgotten King’s lips, “for you I’ll be / forgetting me,” and therein lies the hope Christmas embodies and the reason we celebrate. Jesus came for us, those who were far from God. He renounced his rights for those who failed to remember God; he practised incomparable self-forgetfulness to bring us back to God. Jesus’ prayer to the Father in Gethsemane must be remembered tomorrow, “Not what I will but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In a post from Easter I wrote this, “[Jesus] dies according to the Father’s will…to save those who are truly guilty and without hope.” When the King is led towards the cross in royally purple robes, wearing his crown of twisted thorns, sarcastically hailed by Roman soldiers (Mark 15:16-18), he forgets himself out of love for us. Remember that tomorrow. Draw near to him who first drew near to us.