The Feeding And Teaching of the 5,000...Zealots: Studies in Mark, Pt. 16

The more I read and study Mark’s Gospel account, especially from a socio-literary point-of-view, the more I see a lot of the little details that piece the story together. Just as well, the more I read and study, the more I become convinced of two things: 1) Mark’s habit of telling stories about Jesus and polishing them with Old Testament echoes and imagery and, 2) The centrality of the parable of the soils (Mk. 4.3-20). I have written about the meaning and importance of this parable in other posts, click the following link to read that information: Mystery of the Kingdom.

Now, before I come back to the parable of the soils, I need to make a few more points. As Ched Myers and other scholars have noted, in the 1960’s, H. Montefiore argued that Mk. 6.30-44 (“The Feeding of the 5,000”) was in the main, a story about Jesus feeding 5,000 zealots. While Myers and others disagree with Montefiore, I actually do agree with his findings but, I would also add to them some other points, for example, the fact that the miraculous feeding should not overshadow the fact that Jesus "taught" the zealots. In fact, Jesus teaching them is as central to the episode as the feeding. This, though, is usually overlooked. What I want to do is argue that the “teaching” should not be overlooked but rather emphasized. To do this, I want to draw on some of Montefiore’s work but I also want to add to and elaborate on it and show that, in the end, by connecting it with the parable of the soils, the “teaching” aspect is surely just as important as the feeding miracle and actually illuminates it.

Montefiore argued that when one compares Mk. 6.30-44 to Jn. 6.1-15, there are many parallels (they are both a retelling of the feeding of the 5,000). I do not want to focus on those grammatical parallels but rather on how Jn. 6.14-5 sheds light on Mark’s account. The verses (14-5) from John, that Mark does not include, read: “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make Him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.”

If we take this scene that the author of John is describing and append it to Mark’s (and as Montefiore has shown, I think we should), then the story is automatically read in a religio-political context: the 5,000 people are zealots who are trying to make Jesus their leader, their king. This is important because in Mark’s account, just before the feeding of the 5,000, there is a long narrative that deals with Herod killing John the Baptizer—a very political story! As I wrote in my previous post (click the link to read: Tyrant Tales), Mark goes to great lengths to characterize Herod in a negative light, as a tyrant! In short, Mark recounts that story and locates it before the feeding scene because of its political overtones; He wants to show the need for a new leader. In fact, Mk. 1.1-15 (for more on that, click the following links: Source 1, Source 2), the opening lines of Mark’s account, show Jesus as setting up a kingdom that is in opposition to Herod’s, a new kingdom, The Kingdom of God; the people do need a new leader.

The problem is, the people desire one kind of leader, a political zealot like themselves, which Jesus is not. Thus, when Mark says in the feeding story that Jesus taught them, we should understand that Jesus is teaching them that He is not the kind of leader that they think He is but rather, a very different type of leader. Mark says that Jesus looked up on the people and had compassion because “they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This phrase, as Montefiore has suggested, is an ancient idiom. Mark uses it here because of the religio-political context of the story. Moreover, he borrows it from Num. 27.15-20. That too, is a religio-political story; a story about Moses handing over his leadership to Joshua (comparable to the name “Jesus,” of course). The text says: “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.”

Okay, so we can see the religio-political context of the story and we can also see how Mark imported echoes of an Old Testament story that had the same type of context into the story. As with Joshua taking on a new leadership role in that story, the same thing is taking place with Jesus in Mk. 6.30-44. If we briefly recall, once more, the beginning of Mark’s Gospel account, we will remember that Mark shows the people coming out to be baptized for “repentance” and “forgiveness of sin.” These people are coming from near and far to be baptized for these things. I have argued that, as Mark tells the story, he reveals that the are repenting and asking for forgiveness because they have succumbed to the Roman Empire and its sinful, deceitful, materialistic ways.

This point actually brings us back to soils parable. In explaining that parable, Jesus says that some, “…like seed sown among thorns, hear the word but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mk. 4.18-9). I have even argued that the parable that follows these comments (Mk. 4.21-5), makes the same point! (Click the following link to read that post: The Rhetorical Jesus) Since the 4 types of soils represent the types of people that Jesus and His disciples encounter in Mark’s story (and in ministry in-general), these people represent the third soil, a group of people who have succumbed to the pressures of the Empire and society.

So, what does all of this have to do with the feeding of the 5,000? Everything! What I have attempted to do thus far is to show how, considering the literary (e.g. narrative) context of Mark’s story, as well as the religio-political context of those stories, gives the feeding scene much more significance than just the usual “multiplication of fish and loaves” type of sermon leads on. There are Old Testament echoes, political ramifications, religious influences, narrative tie-ins and much more going on than just the telling of a feeding miracle. I am not trying to downplay that miracle, I am simply trying to say that there is more to the story. Too often, when the miracle is overemphasized, the "teaching" aspect is overlooked.

But what was Jesus teaching? Well, this story is, in the main, a story about the identity of Jesus. The 5,000 zealots want Him to be something other than He is; they want Him to be their religio-political leader. But Jesus “teaches” them that He is not that type of leader. He understands that they have succumbed to the Empire and He wants that to change. He understands that they have repented and baptized. He understands that they have no good leadership. He understands how horrible the Herodian family is. He understands how much they have been oppressed. He understands that at present, something new is happening with Him, much like the situation that happened with Joshua.

Indeed, He is going to lead the people of God in a new way and as a new leader but He is going to do it His way, not anyone else’s. He is going to be non-violent and He is going to tell the truth. And when He sees that people just don’t understand who He is (remember, this is what the parable of the 4 soils is about, people and their reactions to who Jesus claims to be), He is going to take the time to “teach” them. And not only is He going to multiply physical food for them but He is going to multiply His new kingdom as well; it is going to be like a mustard plant that, like wild weeds, spreads far and wide (4.30-4). He is going to do things His way, not Herod’s way, not the way of the crowds nor anyone else because when He does things His way, it will bring the Godhead glory. So, first Jesus "teaches" the zealots about who He is and then, to reiterate that fact, He multiplies the fishes and loaves. The "teaching" and the "feeding" go together!

One of the things that I think this story, when placed in its proper context teaches us today is that we should not try, like the zealots did, to make God conform to our desires, agendas or wishes. We should not try to dream up a God who will justify our sins and injustices. We should not try to manipulate God in prayer or other things. We should not try to shape God according to our likings and likenesses; we should not create God in our own image. Instead, we should conform to God and His ways. We should let Him continually create and recreate us so that we can be like Him, holy and true. We should bend our wills towards God’s and our desires towards His. We should conform to His agenda instead of trying to get Him to conform to ours.

Perhaps if you are guilty of trespassing God in this way, you, like all those in the beginning of Mark’s story, need to repent and ask for forgiveness. Perhaps you need to be baptized in the name of the Triune God and become part of His people. Perhaps you have succumbed, not to the Roman Empire, but to your society or its political and economic evils. Maybe it is high time for you to change your ways and to fall before God Almighty and ask Him to forgive you and bathe you in His amazing grace. Perhaps you’ve had the wrong impression about who God is, maybe your eyes have been opened and you’re starting to see Him in a different light; maybe you just need to be taught. I encourage you today to seek Him; to pray to Him and to join yourself to Him. Let Him make a new you and let Him give you an invitation to His table, where He’ll feed you a miraculous banquet. But still, despite all of the food on that table, the thing you’ll be most hungry for, is a relationship with Him and His people. Now that’s something to be zealous for!

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