As the Gospel of Mark unfolds, crowds are a big part of the action. They form around him as he walks through streets, they seek him out when he wants to be alone, and they adore him up to the crucifixion–but that comes later in the Gospel. In Mark 8 Jesus saw a crowd and he had compassion for them because they had been with him three days and yet they had nothing to eat. Jesus worried that if they went away hungry they would faint. The disciples responded to Jesus’s command to give them something to eat saying, “where can we get enough bread to feed them?”
He told the crowd to sit down just as before. And he took the bread as he had before—he took, he blessed, he broke and he gave. He also distributed the small fish they had as well. And all the people ate and were satisfied. We’ve been here before. You know what comes next, right, the picking up the leftovers—there’s gonna be 12 baskets full—no wait there were seven baskets full. And then then the counting—about 5000 right. Wait, no, four thousand. The story at the beginning of Mark 8 is the feeding of the four thousand and Mark has already told the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44).
The story of Jesus feeding the five thousand is retold in all four Gospels. Even the most skeptical biblical scholars believe that it goes back to an event in the life of the historic Jesus. But Matthew and Mark both record a second feeding of the crowd. The pattern of the story telling resembles their earlier tellings of the feeding of the five thousand. So much so, that one wonders if they aren’t trying to hint at something with the way they tell the story. When two stories in the Bible seem to be largely the same, we pay attention to the differences to understand what they mean. The feeding of the five thousand belongs to Jesus’s ministry in and around his own home town. The people he fed that day were his people. But, the feeding of the four thousand takes place among a different people.
Jesus in Gentile Territory
The passage preceding this makes it clear that Jesus was working in the region of the Decapolis—the name of the region means ten cities though historians both ancient and modern stress it’s difficult to know which ten cities were referenced. The region was united not so much as a political entity as a cultural one. Where the regions surrounding the Decapolis were committed to ancient forms of religion—primarily Jewish—and they struggled to maintain traditional ways of life. The people of the Decapolis had adapted more readily to the Greek and Roman influence of the dominant powers of that day.
They were, as we would say, Hellenistic. They were gentile. They were different. Even the numbers used in the telling of the story suggest this. Where in the feeding of the 5000 there are twelve baskets collected at the end to represent the 12 tribes of Israel, in the feeding of the 4000 there are seven baskets collected representing the seven days of creation (the days when all the world was created). The number seven—an important number for both Jews and Romans.
Five thousand Jews fed—perhaps to represent the five books of Moses and the five divisions of the Psalms. Four thousand gentiles fed perhaps representing the four cardinal directions—North, South, East West. The familiar pattern—he took, he blessed, he broke, he gave—was repeated. Once with people who were familiar. Once with people who were unfamiliar. Once with people who were like him, once with people who were not like him. Once with people who were close and once with those who were far away.
Jesus and the Other
Theologians have started to refer to those we encounter in these moments as “The other.” The other could be someone who differs from us culturally or in terms of lifestyle or sexual orientation or skin color. The other is that person who differs from us in some salient way. We need to think about our response to the other because the normal way to respond is with hostility. For we know the centuries upon centuries of hostility that have been fostered by a distrust, fear and animosity toward the other. The Egyptians made slaves out of the descendants of Abraham living in their land, the Israelites left leaving a wake of destruction as they went. They themselves once victims conquered and displaced peoples living in Palestine creating years of bickering and distress. They themselves were conquered by Assyrians and Babylonians. Then Greeks and Romans. The fighting between peoples just continued. The oppression of the Jews. The Crusades against the Muslims. The genocide of Native Americans. The enslavement of African peoples. North versus South. Jim Crow laws and burning crosses. Walls and barriers and lynchings and strife. It’s déjà vu all over again.
And our culture of political correctness wants to suggest to us that we can pretend that there’s no such thing as “the other.” Our culture wants to say that we are all one. The invitation hymn of such a political correctness is John Lennon’s Imagine. “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do/Nothing to kill or die for/And no religion too/Imagine all the people/Living life in peace.” The impulse behind this approach to the world is good. And so there’s an impulse to say—let’s just pretend that there is no other. We are all just the same. We can live in peace.
It’s a nice sentiment it just doesn’t work. People are different. Acting like everyone is the same is how you get restrooms that people in wheelchairs can’t use. And other shortsighted solutions to deep seated problems. There are differences in the way we perceive time, in the way we regard elders, in the way we pattern our life. The other exists and Jesus knew it. It was a fundamental message for him. It’s why he told the parable of the Good Samaritan the way he did. Why he challenged the notion of what makes a person clean and what makes a person unclean. Why he himself was resistant to helping a Syrophoenician woman and said unChristlike things to her and had to be persuaded to heal her daughter. It’s why the early church wrestled with their own prejudices and met to discuss what it meant to baptize gentiles in the name of Jesus Christ. Jesus’s approach to the other wasn’t to pretend like there was no difference. Jesus’s approach to the other was to recognize their difference and go toward them and to offer them the same hospitality he had offered to those who were like him. The people are not the same—but the same grace is offered to them all.
It should all feel very familiar to us. At least those of us who have passed through the waters of baptism. Who have said yes we accept the grace that Christ offers to us all. Jesus wasn’t like us. He was unlike us in so many ways. He was sent from God. Anointed by God uniquely. He who had given voice to creation through whom all things had come into being. God incarnate blessed to dwell with us. He was not like us. His life was uncommon indeed. And yet this uncommon life came to us. He willingly loved and accepted us though we are not like him at all. We are made from the dust and not from heaven. Our lives have a definite beginning and do not emerge from the eternal horizon behind us. Jesus acknowledged these differences, responded to them, and reconciled them. The experience of Jesus encountering the other should seem familiar to Christians because in our otherness Jesus Christ came and had compassion, he stayed with us and taught us, and when our hunger meant that we were perishing Jesus took bread, he blessed it, he broke it, and he gave it to us.
Most of all we are sinners and he was not. And God demonstrated his own love to us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not ignore the differences between us and himself. Had he been able to ignore those differences he could have avoided the cross. He came to proclaim peace to those who were near and peace to those who were far off and to bring them together and by the shedding of his blood to tear down the dividing wall of hostility that stood between them so that he might form one new humanity out of the pieces and to reconcile one reconciled humanity with God.
Encountering the Other
So, now we too encounter the other in our lives and face a choice of how to respond. We can respond with hostility which is in our nature. We can respond with the benign neglect which political correctness suggests is the way to peace. Or, we can look at them with the compassion we have for the people we know. We can see that they have hungers and needs and if those needs are not met they may also perish. We can ask one another—what do we have to offer—and we can answer one another acceptance, understanding, welcome, accommodation, hospitality, trust and friendship–seven loaves of bread. We can invite the other to sit down, to sit down with us. We can take what God has given to us, give thanks for it and break it and share it with them—just as we have for the people we know, who are familiar, who are near.