As I often do, I’ll be preaching not the prescribed verses in Mark (with twenty verses missing!) but Mark 6:30-52 this week. I don’t know why the editors of the lectionary omitted the wonderful pair of episodes in Mark 6:35-52, but I wanted to preach those parts, so that’s what I’m going to do.
I was trained to interpret the synoptic gospels in a fairly conventional, late-twentieth-century seminarian’s way, so I tend to take each pericope (the technical term for a literary episode) on its own terms first, then look for running images, phrases, and other such things that relate the given pericope to larger trends in the book. Usually that means an indirect connection, a phrase like “reign of God” or a series of allusions to Daniel or something of that sort. But in this case, the story of Jesus walking on water refers directly back to “the loaves,” making sure that the connection between the episodes is explicit and unmistakable, even as it leaves the character of that connection to the reader to search out.
Taken as a pair of episodes, then, the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walking on the water immediately suggests echoes of Exodus: after all, Jesus intended to “pass by” the boat, invoking the “passing over” of the Destroyer (who re-surfaces in Revelation) just before the Hebrews leave Egypt. The parallels are not very tight (Jesus does not seem to be on his way to kill any firstborn children once he crosses the sea), but the ceremonial meal and the passing-by are there. If one can allow for a loose connection between New Testament allusion and Old Testament referent (and I can), then the possibility that Jesus is re-inventing the Exodus, and therefore Israel, makes for a fun take on the feeding. When he groups the people into fifties and hundreds (an echo of Exodus 18), those “sheep without a shepherd” start to take the form of early Israel. When he calls on the disciples to feed the people rather than buying bread for imperial currency, he puts a new twist on the Manna. When he takes the disciples into the wilderness to rest in the first place, he re-invents the wilderness not as a place of wandering (or even of temptation, as in Jesus’s career) but as a place of restoration. In other words, if an allegory can re-invent reality rather than simply re-naming it, the feeding and the crossing begin to point the disciples, if they have ears to hear (which they never do in Mark) towards a new reality, a new way that God will reign.
This is the sort of thing that I’m interested in proclaiming when I preach the Kingdom of God. I get bored easily with various projects to “work for the kingdom” (or the “kin-dom,” if one is Tripp Fuller), largely because they tend to flatten the possibilities to what’s already inherent in one’s political moment. There’s not even the Marxian flair for the unknowable Historical horizon, much less the grand imagination of the New Creation that Paul preaches. Certainly I can call certain modes of political advocacy good (I do hold on to the old Greek notion that politics is supremely human), but the Kingdom takes its appeal from the strong tension between the immanent and the unknowable, the already and the not-yet. I realize that I’m a rhetorical spoil-sport when I say that not every good thing is identical with the Kingdom, but there you go. If the seas aren’t being commanded and the dead aren’t rising, if the sum total of a thing is to replace Caesar Augustus with one of the Claudii, tell me why it’s good, and I promise that I’ll hear with open ears, but don’t call it Kingdom.
And perhaps that’s why the disciples’ hearts are hardened, why Jesus’ display of wonder on the sea does not reach them. Their conception of Jesus’ mission remains too close to the first temptation in the wilderness, feeding the people as the sum total of what is happening. Like Pharaoh in the Exodus, who hears the plea of Moses merely as a political inconvenience rather than the act of the one true God and whose heart is hardened by that act, the disciples do not understand the loaves as one facet of an all-encompassing Kingdom manifesting as signs and wonders but coming, in the age to come, as something entirely new and renewing. Perhaps the Kingdom will always harden those who think they already know the kingdom.
May our imaginations lie open to the signs and wonders and writings set before us as gifts. May our hearts move as the Spirit moves.