We have all seen the commercials with those wide, hungry, eyes that stare out at us from our TV screens or from the cover of brochures. These images are compelling because they bring us face to face with a hunger and need that is unimaginable in our affluent society. If we are people of conscience, we are convicted and feel an urgent need to do something—anything—but the need seems so great and the task so overwhelming that we are paralyzed. What could my dollar a day really accomplish?
People all over the world are hungry. Many of them are quite literally hungry, but they are also hungry on another level. The poverty, oppression, chaos, disease, and injustice in the world awaken in us a hunger for peace, stability, order, well-being, and justice. The Bible has a word for the kind of peace and harmony just described, the Hebrew word ‘Shalom.’ When God’s kingdom arrives at last, all things will be put right. There will be Shalom. Until that time our hearts cry out, “How long?!”
People flocked to Jesus because they recognized in him the hope of a world made right. In him they saw the truth and goodness that they were so very hungry for. They followed him wherever he went and made it very difficult for him to have even a few hours rest and quiet with his disciples. Instead of being annoyed or impatient with them, our text tells us that, “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things”(Mark 6:34 ESV). In this one sentence the author of Mark’s Gospel speaks volumes not only about our Lord’s heart of love for his people, but also about who he is and why he has come. In Jeremiah 23, the Old Testament reading that accompanies this gospel reading in the lectionary, God pronounces judgment on the corrupt leaders of the people of Israel saying, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” (Jeremiah 23:1 ESV). There is a similar denunciation of the wicked shepherds of the people of Israel in Ezekiel 34. Israel’s leaders led the people astray, and their wickedness brought God’s judgment on the nation. This resulted in their exile and captivity to foreign overlords. The leaders of Israel failed in the task for which they were appointed. Instead of being good shepherds that care for God’s people and lead them in his ways, the shepherds were more like wolves! They ruthlessly exploited God’s people for their own ends. They did not strengthen the weak or heal the sick, they did not bind up the broken nor restore those cast off or search for the lost, but they ruled them with violence and cruelty. In fact, the way that the Bible describes the cruelty with which they exercised their authority is the same way it describes the oppression that the Israelites suffered in Egypt. Therefore God promises to rescue his people from their jaws. He promised to come and shepherd his people himself through the good Shepherd that he would appoint.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’ (Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV).
There is a story I once heard about Joseph Stalin that I think is relevant to this gospel. In a speech he once gave to a conference of Soviet leaders, Stalin announced to those gathered that he would teach them how to govern the Russian people. Much to the perplexity of the audience, he produced from a cage a live chicken, which he commenced to savagely pluck of its feathers. He dropped the hysterical and bloodied creature to the ground where it hobbled about in agony. Looking around, Stalin produced a small amount of feed from his coat pocket and trailed it after himself as he walked a few steps away. The chicken followed slowly behind picking up the bits of grain.
Like the crowd upon whom Jesus looked with pity, there are people today like sheep without a shepherd. They wander about aimlessly, searching for security and satisfaction for the deep hunger in their hearts. There is also no shortage of those who would seek to exploit this vulnerability for their own ends. The tyrants of this world—the wicked shepherds—exploit the vulnerability and need of the harassed and helpless masses for their own ends. They know that if you keep the people hungry, fearful, and defenseless, that they are more easily manipulated and exploited. Jesus came to call people into true liberty through following him as their true shepherd. Israel followed the wicked shepherds into sin and bondage. Because of their wickedness they were carried off into exile. Although God brought the people back to their land, all was not yet as he promised. There was still the deeper exile of sin that kept them from enjoying God’s shalom. John began a movement of renewal when he began baptizing people in the Jordon. He was calling people to a new Exodus, and now the promised shepherd of God’s people had arrived in Jesus. As we saw in the previous passages in Mark’s gospel, the false shepherd of God’s people, Herod, was terrified. Here was God’s true king.
The author of Mark tells us that the people followed Jesus and the disciples out into the wilderness to a desolate place. The setting and situation are evocative of the story of Exodus, which is no accident. Moses was God’s instrument in leading the people out of slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt in order that they could serve God as they were intended to do. Jesus is a new and better Moses, who has come to lead the people to liberation from tyranny (not least the bondage and tyranny of their own sinful nature) so that they could be free to serve God in God’s Kingdom, his promised Shalom. Just like in the wilderness, the people were hungry, and the disciples turned to Jesus. Jesus’ response seems a bit glib and somewhat confusing, as is often the case. He says, “You give them something to eat.” The people needed guidance and leadership. They needed authentic shepherds, ones that would lead them to the truth so that they could see and know God’s kingdom. In this simple response Jesus seems to be saying to his disciples, “This is why I have called you. My people are like sheep with out a shepherd. Feed my sheep!” The Church, especially those called to ordained ministry, should mark these words. Jesus is here commissioning us to be the ones who will lead the lost in the way that they should go, and give to them that food which will truly satisfy the longing of their hearts. Food is essential for life, and God’s people perish for lack of food. The disciples do not understand though. They also do not catch Jesus’ subtle scripture allusion to 2 Kings 4:42-44, or else they would understand what Jesus is about to do next.
Jesus collects five pieces of bread and two fish from his disciples. He organizes the people and sits them on the green grass—perhaps an allusion to Psalm 23, “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:1-2 ESV). Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it his disciples. The whole scene is rather reminiscent of the Eucharist. In fact the series of verbs that the author uses here is the same he uses in 14:22 during the last supper. Miraculously, the five loaves and two fish are able to feed the whole multitude of people gathered there. The people eat their fill, and twelve baskets of crumbs are left over (perhaps a basket for each disciple). The image is one of abundance proceeding from scarcity, and an example of the overflowing nature of God’s love and generosity. Jesus is able to satisfy our deepest hunger and to give us more than we ever imagined possible. In Ezekiel 34, God condemns the wicked shepherds for feeding themselves while ruthlessly oppressing and exploiting his flock, but Jesus lays down his life for the flock. The food that he gives them is his own body and blood, his life poured out for them. John’s Gospel makes this explicit,
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35 ESV)
Just as God sent bread from heaven to feed the people in the wilderness in Exodus, he has given the world his own Son to satisfy our deeper hunger. Jesus is the true and greater bread from heaven.
“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 ESV)
The bread that Jesus’ disciples are entrusted with, and told to feed the people with, is the very bread of life – it is Jesus himself. In response to the great need of the world, Jesus commands his Church to give his people the living bread that does not perish. In response to a world of lost people like sheep without a Shepherd, the church is called to faithfully point them to one who himself is God’s shalom. In the preaching of the word and the celebration of the sacraments, including the Eucharist, the living presence of Jesus is made present to us like bread from heaven in order satisfy us, sustain us, and to give us life.
N.T. Wright, in his commentary on this passage, raises a concern that is perhaps on all of our hearts as we read this passage,
“…It is all very well for the five thousand, but what about us today? Wasn’t it a bit odd for Jesus to feed them but not to feed the millions in our own world who wait with big, round eyes, and big, round stomachs at food distribution centers (if they’re lucky), and making guest appearances on our television screens and charity posters, and in our consciences? What about them? If God could do it then, why doesn’t he do it now?” (Mark for Everyone, 79-80)
As we find over and over again in the gospels, the Kingdom is indeed at hand, God has broken through and visited his people with mercy, but God’s shalom has yet to be fully realized. When we faithfully proclaim the Gospel through word and deed, we challenge the powers that be and God brings the Kingdom closer and closer to being on Earth what it is in Heaven. In the declaration of the Gospel, God breaks the bondage of his people and declares himself as the World’s true Lord over against the tyrants of the world.
This brings us back to the question raised in the beginning, in the face of such over whelming need, what can my meager gifts—my dollar a day—ever hope to accomplish? As someone who feels called to ordained ministry, I am humbled to consider my inadequacy in light of the great calling God has entrusted me with. Perhaps you feel the same when you consider what it means to be called to share in God mission? “God, you must have the wrong person, I’m not up for this. I’m no Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa! Find someone else, someone more qualified!” The calling to join God in his mission is not just for spiritual superheroes though, or even just for those called to ordained ministry, it is for every Christian. God commands us, “You give them something to eat.”
Our text teaches us that God is able take our meager gifts and make them much more. He takes each of our gifts and weaves them into the glorious tapestry of his superabundant love and grace. We cannot overcome the world’s crushing need alone, but God has graciously invited us to be a part of the solution. We mustn’t be overwhelmed, but instead faithfully proclaim the Gospel, pointing people to the bread of life. He himself will feed the world.
The world, lost and confused, following after many false shepherds, needs to know that it does not need to keep starving. The powers of darkness would have us naked, hungery and afraid, because there in lies their power over us. Sin only oppresses and enslaves us while making hollow promises of security and satisfaction, but Jesus wants to satisfy us with what does not perish, his own undying life.