1 February 2016

Mark 6:34-44

“And he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (v. 35)

Psalm: Psalm 26


The feeding of the five thousand is one miracle which occurs in all four Gospels, although it is likely that the account here in Mark's Gospel is the earliest. It's therefore one of the best known of the miracles performed by Jesus, but Mark's account makes it clear that the miracle is about much more than how Jesus makes five loaves and two fishes spread among thousands of people.

The initial setting draws on parallels with Moses and the Exodus story. The crowds have followed Jesus into the desert places because they are desperate to hear more of his teaching; and Jesus has compassion because they are "like sheep without a shepherd" echoing Moses' words (Numbers 27:17) and emphasising Jesus' role as the good shepherd. As it gets late it becomes clear they are without food and at this point the disciples ask Jesus for help (verse 36). His initial response is for them to sort this out themselves, but when they struggle to respond Jesus assumes control. He takes the few loaves and fishes they have found, gets the disciples to organise the seating arrangements and suddenly it transpires there is enough and to spare, as there are 12 baskets of food leftover.

Reading this passage in detail draws out the deeper symbolism at work. The language of Jesus' actions - he takes, blesses, breaks and gives the bread (verse 41) - foretells the words used in our Communion prayer and draws out the Eucharistic significance of what is happening. The organisation of the 'men' into companies of 50 or a 100 (verse 40) has a military feel (and we can recall how in the Gospel of John's account it is followed by an attempt to make him king (John 6:15)). And the 12 baskets collected up afterwards (verse 43) perhaps point to the restoration of the 12 tribes of Israel.

So this is no simple miracle story, however that might be understood. Rather, it's a story which raises profound questions about who Jesus is, how God's kingdom is at work in and through him, and how his followers (then and now) are challenged to respond.

To Ponder

  • How do you understand the feeding of the 5,000? Is it a physical or spiritual meal - or both?
  • What does Mark's account suggest about the part that we haveto play in God's miraculous work?
  • What implications does this story have for Christians responding to a hungry world?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Stephen Wigley

Stephen Wigley is a Methodist minister currently serving as chair of the Wales Synod. He is married to Jenny, a priest in the Church in Wales, and they have two teenage sons, David and Andrew.