What the Feeding of the 5000 means for discipleship (Mark 6:30-44): A fair reading and significance for church
The feeding of the 5000 in Mark 6 is a miracle story that reveals who Jesus is—most assuredly. Yet still, Mark’s purpose in writing a gospel for the church community in Rome to be read out loud at the symposium following their supper gatherings (what we might call a church gathering) was to build the church, mature the congregation’s faith, and teach what it means to follow Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord, raised from the dead. More so, Mark’s Gospel, including this feeding of the multitude story, was (and still is) to prepare the church for the persecution, hardship, and the difficulty of being the church while staying faithful to its mission and Lord.
The Mark 6 feeding of the five thousand is as much about who the church is as it is about who Jesus is.
While the miracle itself is revealing of who Jesus is and certainly links the reader back to the Old Testament Exodus under Moses (thus, picturing a new exodus under One better than Moses, giving the new mana), this is a discipleship story that has a discipleship point to be made to the readers/listeners.
First, three times in the space of five verses the word “desolate” (“desert,” actually, “wilderness” is best) is used in a fourteen-verse story—over a third of this vignette on the feeding the 5000 focuses on where this event takes place. And, if we count the reference to “green grass” (v. 39) where Jesus had the crowd sit to be served, this story does indeed focus the reader/listener’s attention on the place of this story; thus, giving a clue to its importance on the subject of discipleship--what does it mean to follow Jesus?
Second, the story is mostly about the newly appointed “apostles,” the twelve “sent ones” (6:7-13), who had just returned (v. 30) from the mission Jesus had sent them. The story begins with their return, reporting, and Jesus taking them to some spot—a “desolate place,” a grassy space of wilderness—to eat and rest. “Leisure” (as in “had no leisure even to eat,” v. 31c) is an unfortunate word choice of the ESV, for it gives the impression of fun, earned vacation or a weekend (perhaps), or an extended break from work—here, it simply means a few moments to rest so the disciples can eat.
Then, after finding their own “desolate” place to eat, the crowd from nearby towns followed and found “them” (v. 33)—Jesus and the disciples, who had just been going through their towns preaching the kingdom of God. After Jesus spent some time teaching the crowd, the apostles “kindly” mentioned to Jesus that the crowds, who had followed “them” to their desolate place (v. 33), needed to find their own food in some other place (vv. 35-36).
While we often focus on Jesus in this story, Mark keeps the “apostles” front and center. Just after the disciples request the crowd be sent away to buy their own food, Jesus instructs them: “You give them something to eat” (v. 37a)--they were their eating (by-the-way) and obviously had food; something from their own resources. Still complaining, the disciples sarcastically say, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (v. 37b). (The disciples really wanted to get this crowd to go away!) Paying no mind, Jesus asks them to gather what they had left from their food—“Five [loaves], and two fish” (v. 38c). Then, Jesus instructs the 5000 to sit in groups of hundreds and fifties (like Moses did) and after blessing this paltry amount of food for such large a crowd, gives the food to the disciples to set before all the people—in other words, to serve the crowd food in that desolate place they had originally found to “get away and eat themselves.”
A quick aside: The miracle in this story is very linked to the disciples, for the multiplying of the bread and fish come, not in some surreal miraculous moment, but through the serving of the bread and fish by the disciples—so even here, the story focuses on the disciples.
As you can see, while the feeding miracle stands out (and is, of course, important), but the story has the multiplication of the loaves and fish in the serving by the disciples to the people. The content of this story focuses our attention on the disciples—more so, on a discipleship moment.
So what’s happening here? Yes, at the very moment the new exodus is revealed, displayed in the feeding of the 5000, and Jesus is revealed as the ultimate Moses, the disciples first find a spot to eat and are interrupted by the crowd who had followed “them” to this desolate place, and, then, wanted to turn them away when it was time for the crowd to eat.
There is some irony here for sure.
As I had mentioned before in a previous Facebook post: I believe, the readers on this side of the text are to hear that Jesus is setting his disciples up for a lesson—a learned experience, a discipleship moment—in what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
We, his church, Jesus’ disciples are how the bread and the fish multiply. This is revealed in the focus on the disciples and the desolate place in this story. Later, after the resurrection and as the church increased, this can be seen in the multiplying of tables (in supper rooms) of gathered believers starting in Jerusalem and spreading all the way to Rome and eventually filling and overtaking an empire. We can see this revealed in the multiple references to supplying the needs of the poor in the New Testament. And, that the original (not so much, sadly, later in church history, even up to now) gathering of strangers and unequals (i.e., gathered churches) provided a platform and venue for the poor’s needs to get met, including a meal. The Lord’s supper was a supper after all.
We learn of discipleship here: following Jesus is going to interrupt a disciple’s life. Needs are going to be met out of His disciples resources. Meeting needs in inconvenient space, space we thought was for our leisure, is a sign that the Kingdom of God has come.
It is proclaiming Jesus—of course use words. But that’s what the disciples did on their short-term mission just prior to this episode. So, the narrative point (Mark’s narrative point) was to move the disciple’s notion of ministry beyond words to illustrating the arrival of the Kingdom in Jesus. Remember, the miracle of multiplying the food was through the serving of the disciples—just at the time they needed rest and needed some leisure time. Ministry and mission, meeting needs and serving—all should be expected to interrupt and invade our leisure space.
Chip M. Anderson, advocate for biblical social action; pastor of an urban church plant in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, CT; husband, father, author, former Greek & NT professor; and, 19 years involved with social action.