Mark's gospel could almost be described as the 'Gospel of Eating'. In only 16 chapters, the Greek work for bread artos is mentioned 18 times and the word for eating esqiw 25 times - food is a major theme in this gospel! In this week's lectionary reading, in a scene reminiscent of the exiles sharing manna in the desert, Jesus takes his followers away to a deserted place.
When Jesus saw the crowd there, it is said that “he had compassion for them”. The word used here is esplagcnisqh which literally means his guts or his entrails were twisted! If Jesus is indeed the decisive revelation of God's character, then this example of compassion tells us something important about God and what it means for us to be followers of Jesus. A little too often our attitude is more reminiscent of the disciples who want to send the people away to fend for themselves.
In some of the earliest Christian art found in the Roman catacombs, bread and fish are symbols of the Eucharist, a ritual reflected when Jesus ‘looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves’. The catch is that when we ritualise the sacrament, we risk missing the point because ritual ultimately breeds boredom, apathy and potentially even contempt. The sacrament isn't defined by the ingredients, it's about the attitude. In a society sharply divided by who you ate with – Jesus picnics with everyone! He simultaneously breaks down the religious and socio-economic barriers by sharing indiscriminately with all who were there.
These stats are from a couple of years ago, but they still serve to illustrate the challenge that this reading brings to us on a global scale:
- 852 million people across the world are hungry, up from 842 million a year ago
- Every day, more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes--one child every five seconds.
- Malnutrition: Most poor people who battle hunger deal with chronic undernourishment and vitamin or mineral deficiencies, which result in stunted growth, weakness and heightened susceptibility to illness.
The point here isn't to make us who are living in relative wealth just feel bad about ourselves – but it isn't about being complacent and thinking there's nothing we can do either! Rather, Jesus' example should inspire us to be actively involved in the mission of God in the world. The God who is defined by compassion doesn't want anyone going hungry while others can do something about it. At Jesus’ picnic, people found salvation – not just because they were fed, and certainly not because they secured some heavenly real estate – but because they were challenged to see the world and their place in it differently … and all were satisfied.