Jesus sent (apostellein) his disciples with authority over demons and diseases (6:7). The apostles (apostoloi) returned reporting what “they had done and taught.” They followed Jesus into the practice of the kingdom of God—announcing the coming reign of God and demonstrating that reign by wondrous acts of mercy. The twelve had become apostles (cf. 3:14—they had been sent) who heralded and enacted the kingdom of God.
But now they needed rest. The crowd—no doubt swelled by the activity of the apostles in the Galilean hills—hindered their self-care, that is, they could not even find time to eat. Jesus suggested that they go to the “desert.” This is the same word as in Mark 1:12-13 when Jesus was tested by Satan in the wilderness. It is also the same word the narrator used to describe Jesus’ withdrawal to pray (1:35) or to avoid crowds (1:45).
Jesus recognizes that the Twelve need some “alone time,” perhaps some quality time, with himself. Returning from traveling among the villages of the Galilean hills, they now needed some “rest.” Jesus is not “all work and no play;” rather, there are times for re-creation when we stop what we are doing and seek refreshment. The mission demands that sometimes missionaries should rest. So, they got into a boat and went to a deserted place on the Galilean shore.
But the crowds were like sheep without a shepherd. Or better, they followed Jesus like sheep that recognized their shepherd. They hurried along the shore as the followed the trajectory of the boat and they picked up others “from all the towns.” When Jesus landed, the crowds were not far behind. A large crowd met him, just as before in Mark’s narrative (3:7-8; 4:1; 5:21).
Jesus recognized their intensity and helplessness. They ran as they followed the boat—they would not let him go, and they seemed to Jesus as sheep without a shepherd—helpless, confused without a leader, and endangered by that lack of leadership. And Jesus loved them, just as he loved the leper earlier (1:41). So, he led them; the mission continued and sometimes the missional needs of others dictate a change of plans. Jesus led these sheep—he taught them, announcing the coming kingdom of God….and he fed them.
How do you feed 5,000 men (andres—the word for males), not counting women and children if they were present? The disciples were puzzled by the same question. The mission had to stop, the disciples think. The fellowship had to break up so the crowds could go home or scatter among the villages to find food. But Jesus has a different idea.
“You give them something to eat,” Jesus says to his apostles. They were missional disciples; they had been sent on a mission and the mission was also in front of them now. Feed the sheep! That is their mission. Here is a test for his newly formed missional community. Can they see the possibilities that Jesus sees?
Alas, they could not, much as we often do not. They can only see the limitations. “It would take almost a year’s salary to feed these people.” They do not have the resources, so they think. But Jesus assesses the resources—“you have five loaves of bread and two fish. That’s enough.”
The Shepherd gathers his sheep (cf. Ezek. 34:26-29). He sits them down in green pastures (cf. Psalm 23:1). He organizes them into small groups (cf. Exodus 18:21). Just as God fed Israel in the wilderness (Exodus 16), so Jesus feeds Israel in this deserted place. Twelve “basketfuls” (a word describing a wicker lunch box) were collected–twelve, of course, corresponds to the apostles who represent the twelve clans of Israel.
Mark’s account not only functions as a “filling to the full” (fulfillment) of God’s provision for Israel; it also anticipates the table in the kingdom of God. Indeed, as a meal which Jesus hosts, breaks bread and eats with his people, it is already a table in the kingdom of God. Everyone, including Jesus, eats, and everyone eats with Jesus. They eat what Jesus has provided.
The language of this table is eucharistic. Jesus takes the bread (and two fishes), blesses God (giving thanks), breaks the bread (symbolic distribution), and gives it. This is the language of the Last Supper where the exact same verbs are used (Mark 14:22). It is the language of the Christian Eucharist.
The symbol of bread, fish and a cup of red wine was common in early Christian art. One of the most significant was found in the crypt of Lucina in the catacomb of Callistus (early third century). The fish probably represented Jesus as well and may have been part of their eucharistic meals in the early centuries.
Christian readers, and narrative readers of Mark, should not miss the theological significance of this moment in the story. God provided food and ate with Israel in the wilderness. Jesus provided food and ate with the people in this wilderness. Jesus gives his life as food and eats with the church as it journeys in the wilderness on its way to the fullness of the kingdom of God.
When we eat and drink together as disciples, we sit at a eucharistic table. We give thanks for the provision of life we have in Jesus.
We also sit at a missional table. Jesus gave his disciples a mission: feed the sheep. They failed; “they did not understand…their hearts were hardened” (14:52). Nevertheless, Jesus ate with them as well as the 5,000.
Whereas Jesus went into the wilderness to rest with his disciples, he ends up providing rest for Israel. We are invited into that rest.
The table invites everyone to sit at the feet of Jesus—to hear his message and eat with him. His provision is sufficient. His love is welcoming. His message is hopeful. “The kingdom of God is near! Come, rest and eat with me.”