Tuesday after Epiphany or 8 January – Gospel

Commentary on Mark 6:34-44
Just before today’s passage begins we are told that the Twelve had just returned from the mission on which Jesus had sent them. He suggested that they all go to a secluded spot where they could rest. So they set off there in one of their boats. (In spite of what we are told in Mark 1:18 and 20 about them leaving their boats to follow Jesus, we still see them in use.) However, the crowds spotted them and large numbers ran along the shore and, by the time Jesus and his companions had reached their destination, they were faced with a huge crowd. Perhaps the disciples were very disappointed to see their day of rest so badly disrupted. Jesus, on the other hand, was filled with compassion as he looked over them. He saw them as people lost and confused; they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus, of course, is their Shepherd. He began by teaching them many things, helping to bring clarity and understanding into their scattered lives.
As evening began to draw in, the disciples approached Jesus and urged him to let the people go to the surrounding villages and towns where they could get something to eat. Did they say this because they really felt for the people’s needs or because they wanted to be left alone? Jesus replied by telling his disciples: “You feed them yourselves.” They remonstrated. It would need a large amount of money to give everyone even a little to eat.
Then Jesus told them: “Go and see how much bread there is.” They found that there were just five loaves and two fish. For Jesus that was enough.
The people were told to sit down in rows on the green grass. The scene recalls Psalm 23:
The Lord is my shepherd [Jesus saw the crowd as sheep without a shepherd]
there is nothing I lack.
In green pastures you let me graze… [the people sat in rows on the green grass]
You set a table before me…
Only goodness and love will pursue me
all the days of my life…
It is also reminiscent of the Israelites encamped in groups in the desert (Exod 18:21-25) and the prophets speaking about the transformation of the desert into pastures where the true shepherd feeds his flock.
In a very ritualistic way, Jesus took the loaves and bread, looked up to heaven [to his Father], said the blessing and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. The fish were similarly divided. All ate and were satisfied, there were twelve baskets of leftovers and altogether 5,000 people had been fed.
The whole passage has strong Eucharistic overtones. There is what we would now call the Liturgy of the Word when Jesus taught the people at length and the Liturgy of the Eucharist with the bread blessed, broken and distributed to the people in groups/communities. The amount left over points to the huge generosity of God in taking care of his children.
It is worth noting that Jesus does not distribute the bread and fish himself but delegates his disciples to do this. And that is how Jesus comes into people’s lives today – through the agency of his dedicated followers.
It is also significant that the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus which appears in all four gospels. It can be understood on many levels. It looks backward to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert during the Exodus. It was expected in some circles that this would be repeated in the messianic age – as in fact happens here. It may also point to the prophet Elisha feeding 100 men with just 20 loaves of bread, an action met with the same scepticism as the disciples showed but, in this case too, there was some left over (2 Kings 4:42-44)
Altogether in the gospels there are two multiplication stories in Mark and Matthew and one each in Luke and John. This is taken as an indication of the importance of eucharistic gatherings in the early Church.
But the story essentially points beyond the Eucharist to what it signifies. The breaking of the bread and its being shared out among all present is intended as a sign or symbol of the life of the Christian community, where all the resources of the community are shared and divided in such a way that none is in need. And this way of life is also to be fostered in the wider community. It is a story about the love of God for his people and how he takes care of them but that love is shown in practice by his people passing on that love, especially to those in need. If that does not happen then the Eucharist becomes a sign of nothing. It is simply reduced to an abstract ritual.

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