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The Loaves and Fishes: Feeding the Gentiles in the Gospel of Saint Mark (Trinity VII)

Before we discuss our Gospel reading today, it is important to note that there are many scholars who believe that Saint Mark’s Gospel has two differing stories regarding the same feeding. The two stories are actually one story told differently to two very different groups. One version of the story is preached to a Jewish crowd and the other version is preached to a Gentile or non-Jewish) crowd. Those who feel the feedings are an integrated story cite the two expulsions of the buyers and sellers from the Temple at the beginning and end of Jesus' ministry. However, it can also be claimed that in Saint Mark's account of the feedings, Jesus points to the feedings as two distinct miracles.

However, the feedings, both on the eastern side of the lake, were different. The time was different. Events, before and after the feedings, were different. The fasting of the people was different – in one case the fasting did not last a full day and in the other case it lasted for three days. The number fed was also different – five thousand in one case and in the other case four thousand.

The number of loaves was different – five in one case and the other seven. The number of fish in one case, as stated by the four Evangelists, is two. In the other cases just simply stated, “a few small fishes.” In one case the multitude were commanded to sit down “upon the green grass,” and in the other case, “on the ground.” The baskets in one story are filled with fragments numbering twelve, while in the other case it’s seven. With these facts laid out in the story of the feedings, how can one believe that this is a single miracle with two interpretations? Even Jesus expressly distinguished the two stories from one another.

Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand Saint Luke: 8. 1-9

"During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 2 “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

4 His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

5 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied.

6 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. 7 They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. 8 The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 9 About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away."

As we begin to study the feeding of the four thousand, Saint Mark reminds us that we are witnessing Jesus' ministry at its zenith. He has now begun to speak before large crowds. He is courageous in his ministry. Most notable in this regard is when Jesus crossed purity boundaries and social barriers after he crossed the Sea of Galilee.

It was forbidden for Jews to associate with Gentiles and the Jewish purificatory customs made this a prohibitive action. Jesus, however, dismissed these concerns (Mark 7:1-23). An example of this is when Jesus healed the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman and the deaf and dumb man in the Gentile land (Mark 7:24-37). This proved that the door was open to the possibility that Gentiles might also be fed without it necessarily being against Jewish Law.

Jesus' healings were performed in front of large crowds resulting in people following Him throughout the Holy Land (Mark 6:45 & Mark 7:14, 17, 33). Jesus offers His compassion to the Gentile multitude. He explains that His compassion is based upon the knowledge that this crowd had been following Him for three days (Mark 7:24-37).

What Jesus saw before Him was a large gathering of people who had not eaten for three days and who were physically exhausted from all the travel they endured in order to be in His company. So the reality was that they were in a barren desert far from home and Jesus could observe that they were weak. Indeed, they could possibly faint if He sent them away. What else could He do? Jesus’ compassion for the multitude comes from His heart. He could only have a deep sense of kindheartedness for a people who would flock to see Him, willing to go hungry for up to three days, and without making as much as a single complaint.

Jesus’ compassion for the Jewish crowd was akin to recognizing them as sheep that had no shepherd (Psalm 23 and Ezek. 34). With the Gentile crowd, however, Jesus is more concerned about the personal well-being of these followers. He’s genuinely worried about them because they've come a very long way. In their eagerness, the Disciples seem not to have thought about the need for provisions for such a length of time; but the Lord thought of it. Thus, at this point we begin to recognize a change in Jesus's ministry. He becomes both the Shepherd of Israel teaching a troubled people and the One who both physically and spiritually nourishes all who will follow Him.

Much like the first feeding the location of the event is an arid dry place. The Disciples had misgivings about Jesus solving the logistic nightmare of feeding such a large number of people. The problem of locating a place to get so much food was the concern (Mark 8.4). The Disciples were absolutely convinced that they couldn’t feed so many people. Certainly logic would tell them this.

Jesus asks, “How many loaves do we have?” In both feedings He asks them the same question (Mark 6:38 & Mark 8:5). But the Disciples differing reaction to the same question seems to reveal their arrested development on the subject matter.

They appear to understand the significance of the first miracle feeding of the five thousand 'Jewish' followers in a deserted place, but they are somehow puzzled with regard to the feeding of the four thousand 'Gentile' followers. The Disciples are painfully slow on the uptake and grope around for answers, as Jesus patiently directs them to go through their inventory of provisions. Ultimately, this gives them enough time to think and finally ask Jesus, “but where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” (Mark 8:4)

The answer to their question is obvious; Jesus provides them with enough food. In both incidents, Jesus blesses the meager supply of food they possess (Mark 6:41 & Mark 8:6). As in the earlier feeding (Mark 6:41), the Eucharistic practice of the early church is recalled (Mark 8.6). Jesus blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples to distribute. However, only the bread is mentioned, amplifying the suggestion of a Eucharistic event.

References to Jewish elements are noticeably absent. There is no talk of an Exodus people or Psalm 23. The reader in chapter 8 can see that this is indeed an event involving Gentile people. It seems clear that Mark 8: 1 -9 was most likely written to reflect the words used in the Eucharistic celebrations of the Greek speaking, Gentile world.

In our Gospel reading today, we learn that miraculously everyone present at Jesus' gatherings was provided enough to eat and be satisfied. There is so much food that the Disciples were able to collect a large quantity of leftovers (Mark 6:42 & Mark 8:8). We also learn that despite strong opposition from the Pharisees and Scribes (Mark 7:1-13), Jesus, as the Shepherd, without the full understanding of His Disciples, fed the children of Israel (Mark 6:31-44). Jesus, for the first time begins to be perceived as a messianic figure as announced in Isaiah 35:5-6 (Mark 7:24-37; see v.37).

The most astounding thing is that through the feeding of the 'Gentile' crowd Jesus has opened up the idea, as articulated by the Syrophoenician woman, that “even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs” (see Mark 7:28). Jesus is now offering to non-Jewish followers the same opportunity to be fed by His teaching and miraculous power. The miracle of the feeding of four thousand suggests to us that Jesus is not just a Redeemer or a Messiah like Moses and David, but He is in reality the Redeemer who offers redemption to both Jew and Gentile alike. And for that we say Amen!

Originally entitled A Sermon for Trinity Seven Gospel : Mark 8: 1-9 The Second Multiplication of the Loaves and Fish: Among the Gentiles in The Traditional Anglican News Volume 4 Issue 7 Published on July 15th, 2016 {Revised on May 24th,2023}

© Dr. Charles Warner 2023

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