That would dampen the spirit, wouldn’t it?
Or how about hosting a dinner to celebrate the promotion of a co-worker who announces in the middle of it all that she’s resigning from the company? Or maybe a personal picnic in a special place—where the young man has something important to tell his girl-friend of three years. She thinks he is going to propose. But he announces he is taking a job hundreds of miles away and he thinks they ought to break up.
Suddenly the whole world changes. Your expectations are shattered. You thought you knew him or her or them. But at this moment you realize maybe you do not know them after all. Not much of a picnic, is it?
Here's a story:
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest."Jesus has been proclaiming the kingdom of God—this is very political speech that has a lot of implications for the Jewish people. He selects twelve disciples, a very symbolic number—is he selecting twelve generals for the twelve tribes? He’s been telling stories about the kingdom of God growing in very subversive ways. He then sends out the twelve to announce the coming kingdom. It makes people wonder. Even Herod says, Oh no, it’s John the Baptist all over again!*
So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it's already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat."
But he answered, "You give them something to eat."
They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?"
"How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five—and two fish."
Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.
When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.
The apostles come back from their proclamation tour flush with excitement. To them, this isn’t merely a preaching tour where people become Christians and join churches. Something is happening as a result of their preaching. Notice the phrase: many people were coming and going. Notice Mark doesn’t mention any healing or exorcisms going on—in fact, these folks are going to run to the other side of the lake and even head off Jesus. It doesn’t sound like a bunch of sick people, does it? Who were these people? What is this coming and going about? Were they here to join the church? To hear another sermon about being nice? Or how to make their marriage better?
Note also some very interesting phrases that crop up in this story: wilderness, green grass, sheep without a shepherd, groups of hundreds and fifties, 5000 men . What do all of these phrases and words indicate? The people coming and going are not folks looking for healing or gathering to hear a gospel sermon. Think about scenes from Robin Hood Prince of Thieves or Braveheart—where rebels are gathering around Robin of Locksley or William Wallace planning their next raid and you’ll get a clearer idea. The green grass indicates Spring time of the year and in the wilderness. This is Passover season—the freedom celebration! Jewish rebellions tended to start in the wilderness focusing on God’s leading his people out of the wilderness into the promised land. Groups of 50s and 100s are typical military units of the Jewish nation. These are 5000 men sitting in classic military formation. To read “sheep without a shepherd” as a congregation without a preacher or elders is to read our church culture back into this first century context. The primary OT usage of sheep and shepherd is military (cf. Numbers 27). Sheep without a shepherd is an army without a general. Jesus feels compassion on them because what he sees is a leaderless mob who are a danger to themselves and everyone else. He teaches them many things—Mark 8:31 uses similar wording when Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus tells him not to tell anyone and he teaches them he must suffer many things. We can surmise some of the many things he teaches the crowd. Perhaps it is similar to what Jesus was telling Peter later on: the kingdom of God and the Messiah are not what you think: they are about suffering. They are about victory through loss and death.
He then performs the miracle of feeding the 5,000.
Again, we can’t help but wonder what the crowds are thinking. John in his gospel gives us some ideas. This isn’t just about bread and feeding an army miraculously. This is a messianic sign. Moses feeding the children of Israel in the wilderness—here is a prophet like Moses. Jesus is perhaps demonstrating the suffering figure of Moses who constantly had to explain God’s will to a stubborn people. They are undoubtedly thinking the military leader Moses—and perhaps his successor who shares the same Hebrew name of Jesus: Y’shua or Joshua.
Jesus then forces his apostles into the boat—the phrasing of this command is very strong. He is telling his men in no uncertain terms: get in the boat now and get out of here! Why? Who got the crowd there in the first place? Who are perceived heads of the new twelve tribes? Jesus is diffusing a volatile situation. He then disperses the crowd, and goes to the mountain to pray. Not surprising is it? This was a major test—a temptation to forego the suffering figure he was called to be. Right in his hands he had 5000 troops! He could have had more, too.
And then we have an interesting little story of Jesus walking on the lake. The men are frightened, he calms them down and enters the boat…and their hearts are hardened. They are not impressed with the miracle. They are not impressed with what Jesus has done. All they know is that Jesus has given up a tremendous chance. The next thing he does is enter into Gentile territory and start healing people—what is going on?
The tension found in the gospels is the result of a basic misunderstanding of the nature of Jesus’ ministry and identity. For the Pharisees and Zealots—especially of Galilee, the Messiah would come and usher in the Kingdom of God as a military/ political realm. For every sect of Judaism it seemed everything hinged on the restoration of Israel from her long exile. The kingdom would be restored. Each group had a different idea and agenda. Even Jesus taught the kingdom restored to Israel. The difference though was all the difference in the world.
Peter and the other apostles were men of their day. They were from Galilee and had much in common with the Zealots and Pharisees. They, too, had the same visions of Israel defeating Rome and the Davidic king restored. These men were first rate political activists. That’s why their hearts were hardened. Jesus’ kingdom agenda was radically different, though. The kingdom would be ushered in, not by a military coup—but by the death of the Suffering Servant. He would suffer for Israel’s sake. He would pay the price for sin—and provide a way for a kingdom that would become a light to the nations.
It seems that Mark is saying it is possible to be totally committed to the Kingdom of God but miss the point. Everyone, it seems has a vision of what the Kingdom is about—a vision of what Jesus is all about. For some it is about patriotism where Jesus is associated with the American vision and dream. If you don’t pledge to the flag or sing the anthem you are not just judged as being unpatriotic, your Christianity is suspect. Others view Christianity as advocating governmental action for the poor and creating a large federal government to take care of social services. Somehow you are unchristian if you don’t buy into that agenda. Others think Christians should have no political opinions or views—just pull away into solitude and pretend the world isn’t there. Practice a quietist spirituality that seeks to retreat from the world. It is interesting how people with totally opposing agendas can appeal to Jesus for their justification. Jesus has been made into their image.
Mark asks: is it possible to give up everything to follow Jesus and miss the point? Following Jesus is not about political clout or which party you belong to. It isn’t about military victories or might. Following Jesus isn’t about health, nice kids, good marriages, or meaningful jobs. It isn’t even about pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is about a suffering servant. We think power is found in money, good jobs, possessions or health. We think power is found in the Presidency, or in the Senate or Congress: people who make decisions about armies, treaties and policies. But let me ask you a question: in the twentieth century who demonstrated more lasting power: an American President, a billionaire like Bill Gates or a tiny Belgian woman named Mother Teresa who took a vow of poverty? Some would say the former—but I think Teresa walks in the tradition of Jesus. They could walk into the presence of the most powerful people in the world unafraid and confront them with their inconsistencies and failures. And not even bat an eye. They exhibited power through unselfish service and sacrifice: the giving of one’s life to bring light to the nations.
So, what about us? We come to the table to eat with Jesus. What are our expectations of him? How do we view the Kingdom? Is the kingdom about meeting our needs and wants? Is the kingdom about political clout, health, possessions? Or is it about suffering in order to be the light of the world? Is it about unselfish service to others? Sometimes I sit at the table and I wonder if I have completely missed his point.
We need to come to the wilderness and sit down with Jesus. We need to give up our expectations of Kingdom and Empire. We need to look toward his kingdom agenda. Practically this is hard to address. But I think living the way Jesus envisions would somehow involve being more serious about personally sacrificing to help others who hurt and less serious about getting what I want. Perhaps it would involve intentionally choosing the way of suffering if that choice would open the door for someone else to enter the kingdom—rather than choosing the way of comfort. I don’t know how that would play out in your life. I’m not certain how that would look for each of you individually. I think as a corporate body we would become less concerned about self-serving programs and preferences and more concerned about mobilizing to touch a community.
Let’s go to the wilderness and sit down with Jesus. Let’s discover who he really is. Hear him explain his kingdom agenda. Listen to his gentle correction of our misperceptions of kingdom and empire. Rise to follow him all the way to Jerusalem: not as a conquering army—but as suffering servants ready to give their lives to be light to the nations. We’re reclining on the grass with him and he has something to tell us—will he shatter our expectations? Do we really know him? This is no picnic! Think about it.
*For more reading along these lines check out the writings of N. T. Wright. Also, another couple of resources are: Hugh Montifoire, "Revolt In the Desert?" New Testament Studies, 8 (January 1962): 135-41 and T. W. Manson, The Servant-Messiah: A Study of the Public Ministry of Jesus, Baker Book House