And his disciples answered him, “Where will anyone be able to find enough bread here in this desolate place to satisfy these people?” (Mark 8:4)
The miracles were becoming renowned. Yeshua of Nazareth, a name which has been transliterated through the centuries to the name Jesus, had quickly gained a large following through the villages and countryside of rural Israel. Avoiding the major commerce centers, and Greco-Roman settlements, Jesus wove his way among the common people, teaching, healing and astounding them. Trailed at most times by curious Pharisees and often hounded by emissaries from the Sanhedrin who viewed him as an upstart, he and his disciples found themselves in a “desolate place” among a throng of 4,000 strong. They were hungry. The provision was scarce.
And he was asking them, “How many loaves do you have?” and they said, “Seven.” And he directed the people to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, he gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to his disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the people. They also had a few small fish; and after he had blessed them, he ordered these to be served as well. And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. (Mk.8:5-8)
How does this miracle of Jesus fit into his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom of heaven? Let’s consider the Lord’s Prayer…
When the Lord was asked by his disciples to be taught how to pray, he told them…
“Our Father who is in heaven, let your name be sanctified; let Your kingdom come; let Your will be done – as in heaven, so on earth. Give us today the bread of tomorrow….”
The “bread of tomorrow” is the literal wording of the text. What is normally substituted for the literal is the phrase,”our daily bread”, but the more literal rendering gives an important clue as to the eschatological significance of this event in Jesus’ ministry. It also connects it to the Exodus.
In the days after the Exodus from Egypt, and before the giving of the Torah, the people learn an important lesson about trusting the LORD for provision. On the day before the Sabbath rest, the people were to faithfully gather what they needed and the Lord would provide their daily bread, plus the “bread of tomorrow”, or the provision for the Sabbath Day.
Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.” (Exodus 16:25-26)
It’s a mistake to assume that the people gathered double on the day before the Sabbath. In reality, like the miracle of Jesus with the bread and fish, God made the provided food expand to fit the need. This is the teaching of Rashi on the Exodus passage. He explains, through a careful reading of the Hebrew, that the people gathered what was available and were then surprised to discover that it was more than they thought. This clearly parallels the miraculous increase of bread and fish with the Exodus provision of manna in the wilderness. It addresses basic questions of trust.
What if there isn’t enough? What if I can’t pay my bills? How can I rest and be still when there’s so much to do; so much to prepare for? How can I rest when I don’t know where my next meal is coming from?
In our story in Mark, the people were in a “desolate place”, hungry, with no provision. They needed to look to the man, the prophet, the Sent One of God. Like the wilderness generation, which looked to Moses for provision in a place of desolation, the throng following Jesus were led into a desolate place, and Jesus facilitated a miracle from their Father in Heaven.This was provision, but it also, just like the Sabbath itself, alludes to something far more significant than merely the meal of the day. It is the “bread of tomorrow”. It represents the coming Messianic Age.
Jesus first gives thanks to God for the bread, as the bread is the primary food. This is accordance with Jewish Law. Also, this was not likely leavened bread, but was almost certainly matza. A “loaf” was a reference to a matza cracker. Then, he blesses the fish. These were most likely sardines. A typical small lunch for a young child or a poor worker.
Small beginnings. A few small matza crackers and a couple of sardines. 4,000 hungry people. Yet at the end, seven baskets of fragments are picked up and gathered, uneaten. The notation by the gospel writer of the seven baskets of fragments is difficult to reconcile as truly relevant if we assume that the only purpose of the miracle was to show compassion upon hungry people.
These are followers of the Messiah, the promised Jewish King. The people are in hope of deliverance, abundance, the restoration of the sovereignty of the nation, and an overthrow of their oppressors, the Romans. Yet here he is, the Sent One of God, surrounded by his disciples and 4,000 hungry, unsatisfied souls, longing for the promised abundance which God has declared:
For the LORD your God is bringing you to a good land; a land with brooks of water, fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines and fig-trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, you will lack nothing in it, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you will dig copper. You will eat and be satisfied, and bless the LORD, your God, for the good land He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)
Usually, a Christian reading of the gospels does not take into account the importance of the land itself to messianic prophecy. Nor does it consider the promises God made to Israel for deliverance and abundance at the time when her ultimate redeemer, the Messiah, the heir of the throne of David, comes to reign. Yet, this miracle hearkens back to the stark moment in the desert when the nation was first confronted with the manna from heaven, and said to one other, “what is it?”
In like manner, the people wondered about Jesus. ‘Who is he?’ In response to this question from the Lord himself, the disciples answered, ‘perhaps John the Baptist come back from the dead’, or ‘Elijah’, or ‘one of the prophets’, but Peter said:
You are the Christ. (Mark 8:29)
The Christ. The Messiah. The redeemer. The One who was to come, as Moses predicted. He is among them now, and yet the land is not as was promised. The people war among each other. They struggle for power and position in the eyes of their captors. They are not sovereign over their own affairs. They walk in baseless hatred, for which the Talmud later tells us is the reason the Temple is destroyed in 70AD, an event predicted by Jesus. They are experiencing the chastisements and difficulties which Moses predicted if they abandoned God’s Torah and the ethics which it teaches:
You shall bring out much seed to the field but you will gather in little, for the locust will consume it. You shall plant and cultivate vineyards, but you will neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm will devour them. You shall have olive trees throughout your territory but you will not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives will drop off…The alien who is among you shall rise above you higher and higher, but you will go down lower and lower. (Deuteronomy 28:38-40,43)
For centuries since the current exile began, observant Jews have preserved the memory of the promises God has made to them in many prayers and ceremonial acts, such as this prayer, the Blessing of Nourishment:
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the Universe; who in His goodness feeds the whole world with grace, kindness and compassion. He gives food to all living things, for His kindness is for ever. Because of His continual great goodness, we have never lacked food, nor may we ever lack it, for the sake of His great name. For He is God who feeds and sustains all, does good to all, and prepares food for all creatures He has created. Blessed are You, LORD, who feeds all. (Koren Sacks Siddur, pg.978)
As the baskets of bread fragments and fish were gathered, seven baskets full, the people reclined throughout the valley, fully satisfied with the meal their God had provided them through His Sent One, His beloved Son, and had to marvel at this foretaste of the Kingdom which lingered in their mouths. Such a simple meal, yet it somehow met the longing of their hearts. It was a miraculous meal, which illustrated the unending bounty which is promised by the fruitfulness of the Messianic Age, a time when Israel will:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see; they all gather together, they come to you (Is. 60:1-4). The glory of Lebanon will come to you, the juniper, the box tree and the cypress together, to beautify the place of My sanctuary; and I shall make the place of My feet glorious (Is. 60:13). Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob (Is. 60:16). Instead of your shame you will have a double portion, and instead of humiliation they will shout for joy over their portion. Therefore they will possess a double portion in their land, everlasting joy will be theirs (Is.61:7)
This hope of redemption and fruitfulness and satisfaction is at the core of the gospel. If we think the gospel is merely about our personal salvation, we are missing a great deal of the message. It is about the redemption of Israel, the nations, and the land as well as the individual people. It is about the healing of the world. In Jewish theology, this is known as “tikkun olam”. This messianic hope is reflected in this passage in the Talmud:
Abaye said to Rav Dimi: What is the formula of one blessing abridged from the three blessings of Grace after Meals? He said to him: Over fruits of a tree one recites: For the tree and the fruit of the tree, and for the produce of the field, and for the desirable, good and spacious land that you gave as heritage to our ancestors that they might eat of its fruit and be satisfied with its goodness. Have compassion, Lord our God, upon Israel Your people and upon Jerusalem Your city, and upon Your Temple and upon Your altar. May You rebuild Jerusalem, Your holy city, swiftly in our time, and may You bring us back there rejoicing in it as You are good and do good to all. (Berakhot, 44a, Koren Steinsaltz edition)
It is a prayer of hope, which does not just anticipate a relief from suffering, or the blessing of good things. It anticipates very specific promises which relate to the Messianic kingdom, which is the hope of the gospel. As the Lord himself told his followers, and which echoes to us:
Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness , and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33)
In this amazing scene in the desolate wilderness, those following Jesus just wanted to be near him. They wandered after him until they found themselves tired, hungry, under the wilting sun, and unable to fend for themselves.
Sometimes, we look at people who desperately press in towards following God, but it seems they are not being blessed. Life seems a series of trials and missteps. They are poor, without renown, and little influence. But their eyes glow with the hope and promise of a kingdom not made with hands. The hope of the kingdom of heaven, to which they have attached their hope and treasure. Like the throng who looked longingly towards their Redeemer in the wilderness, these malcontents and never-do-wells have chosen the Blessed Life: To follow their king and wait for the promise of the LORD.
When it came to the 4,000, it was a bounty of hope that would spring eternal like living water in a dry place. They were, as the baskets of fragments were gathered, living in the kingdom, as a foretaste of what was to come.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. (Matthew 5:3-6)