It’s the miracle which is perhaps the most famous of them all: the feeding of the 5,000. It’s found in all four Gospels. But we don’t always notice that in Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, there is another miracle, which is very similar: the miracle of the feeding of the FOUR thousand. And that is our Gospel for today.
There is so much in this story, but as I read it again, slowly, two things in particular spoke to me.
First, I was struck again by Jesus’ wonderful compassion. “My heart is moved with pity,” one translation puts it, “because they are hungry.” We often remember all the spiritual things Jesus says in the Gospels, but we don’t always notice how he is not just interested in our spiritual selves, but our physical needs as well. They’re hungry; help them. Remember how after Jesus raises Jairus’ daughter, he says, “give her something to eat.” When the disciples return from mission, Jesus can see they are exhausted and says, “Come away by yourselves and rest.”
I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked: and I hid myself.
It strikes me that as a people we are beginning to ask ourselves (deeply) what kind of freedom our common life enshrines. One of the many assumptions our culture relies upon is the idea that freedom is chiefly about “choice.” This assumption stands out to me as I pray with these readings from Genesis and Mark, and the Spirit asks us to consider the freedom we rightly celebrate as Christians, compared with the world’s many pseudo-freedoms. The freedom to choose God’s will in love, or the second-hand freedoms that will always leave us feeling, nevertheless, afraid.
It is telling to me that prior to our temptation we were perfectly free to choose from every tree of the garden—every blessing and delight of created existence, every pursuit of knowledge and relationship with our partner and our God—except, of course, one.
This tree, our desire to eat of it, and the choice to pursue or abstain from that desire tips the narrative of creation. Twice.
1 Kings 12:26-33, 13:33-34; Psalm 106:19-22; Mark 8:1-10
I have never wanted to create a god. I would never think to construct something out of metal or stone or wood, only to begin to worship it upon completion. This is why the stories of the Israelites turning to the worship of golden calves have, for a long time, been confusing to me. It seems to make idolatry into something that’s an obvious, explicit turning away from God, a deliberate decision to say, “No, I choose to worship this unliving thing, made with my own hands, that I know is not God.” This is not any idolatry with which I am familiar.
I have been happy to discover, then, that perhaps this is not what the Israelites were up to. One theory explaining the repeated trope of the golden calf is not that God’s people intended to fashion for themselves new gods. Yahweh and El—both names ascribed to the God of Israel—were often symbolized with bulls. Further, in the Ancient Near East, it was common to depict images of gods enthroned, not by showing them sitting in a stately chair, but instead standing atop an animal associated with the god in question. If one wished to create a new throne for the God of Israel, it would have been natural to fashion a golden calf.1