Jesus finally sends out the “sent ones.” It’s a bold move, because the last we saw of them they were terrified, astounded, and generally faithless. This is a sink-or-swim school of ministry. Again, the summary of their ministry is clearly an imitation of Jesus’ word and deed proclamation of the kingdom. They are given authority--the same authority by which Jesus has taught and healed--indicating that they are actually just an extension of his ministry. The commands limiting the Apostles‘ resources and causing dependence on the goodwill of their hearers may seem odd to us, but it is really a simple matter. We have seen some of the expectations of Second Temple Jews, but now we see some of God’s expectations for them. If they are really attuned to the kingdom message as the people of God, they will treat God’s messengers with kindness and generosity. If the Apostles were going to the Gentiles, it would be a different story (Jesus in fact reverses these commands near the end of his life in Luke’s account, preparing them for a mission among those for whom expectations are different). But they are presently ministering among the people of God, who should know how to treat the stranger and, more pointedly, the prophet. In this way, Jesus actually makes the needs of the Apostles a test of their hearers’ acceptance of the message.
While the Apostles are out, Mark smoothly transitions to another scene. It is a menacing one, because the story of John the Baptist, who has not been mentioned since his arrest in chapter one, fills out the context of the Apostle’s ministry. It is a place where king Herod is hearing about a message claiming that an alternative kingdom is on the rise; a place where other messengers of God are arrested and beheaded. As the Apostles proclaim God’s kingdom, we get a glimpse into the current kingdom.
The situation is not all that complicated, but it is almost cliché in its tabloid-like quality. An ambitious woman marries a prince, then divorces him in order marry his brother and become queen. An influential man of God denounces the conduct of the royal family publicly, and they act quickly to censor the bad press. The woman, Herodias, is especially vindictive, but the husband, Herod, sort of likes the man of God and sort fears the consequences of killing him. It’s a marital stalemate. In the mean time, Herodias’ daughter dances at a party in a way that “pleases” her uncle/step-father and he makes a drunken offer to give her anything she wants. The cunning mother takes advantage of her daughter’s wiles and makes an end of the man of God. It’s quite a kingdom. And it’s all so familiar that the message of an alternative, though dangerous for those who proclaim it, is hopeful indeed.
Now the disciples meet up with Jesus and debrief. Things look good, considering “all they had done and taught.” Jesus plans a retreat to get away from the constant pressures of ministry. When the needy crowd invades the retreat location, though, we are given a special glimpse of the character that funds Jesus’ life of service: “and he had a visceral feeling of compassion for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Just as we saw with the leper, Jesus is the compassionate one. Furthermore, there is in this choice of words another commentary on the establishment, as the Davidic king was to be as a shepherd to God’s people. Jesus is moved by the lack of the kingdom that he is presently inaugurating.
After a long period of teaching, the Apostles, perhaps feigning similar concern, are ready to dismiss the crowd to find food. Jesus seizes the opportunity for a real evaluation of their recent ministry experiences by giving them the chance go take care of the food problem themselves. Although they had just got back form a successful healing and exorcism tour, however, the economics of the situation seems overwhelming. They assume the power of God they have so intimately experienced won’t be quite enough to cover the bill. It’s a fail, and even more so if they aren’t really interested in serving these shepherdless sheep so much as getting on with the retreat and their own overdue supper.
While the miracle of multiplication is mind-boggling and not to be ignored, the story is really about the disciples’ own lack of faith and failure fully to imitate Jesus. Going out with borrowed authority is one thing. Coming back with faith and compassion is another. Images of multiplication and plenty do continue the Creator theme introduced during the storm at sea. The implicit claim is that the Apostles need to blow the top off of their expectations at this point.
As an aside, there are rich overtones in the story that suggest the difficulty many observing the situation would have in order to overcome the usual expectations for the Messiah. The five thousand mentioned are described specifically as males (meaning the count did not include women and children--this was a massive gathering). The groups of fifty and a hundred are reminiscent of one organizational structure in the Roman world (also composed of males): the military. And of course three issues plague every army: food, injury, and death. Jesus has demonstrated that he can heal, raise the dead, and now, create an unlimited supply of food. He would be the unbeatable revolutionary, the only one in the world who could conceivably take on the Roman war machine. It is no surprise that at just this moment in John’s Gospel the crowd tries to crown Jesus by force. For Mark, though, these are just hints at the potential, setting up all the more astonishingly the contrast with the unexpected path that Jesus chooses. One sort of victory--the one that the majority is looking for--is tantalizingly easy and just within grasp. Once again, with that temptation so near, we see Jesus go to pray alone. The struggle must have been titanic.
The next passage involves the famous miracle of walking on water. Again, the miracle is impressive, filling out even more the idea of his Creator-like power, but the main point is the Apostles’ reaction. They are at sea once again and terrified by the foreignness of Jesus’ power once again. The scene is almost redundant. Then comes a critical bit of commentary from Mark: “and they were completely and totally flabbergasted, for they did not understand about the bread; rather, their hearts were hardened.” Hardness of heart will be the main theme of the next section, and its introduction here in connection with the miracle of multiplication will be important to recall later. It is the intersection of unbelief, fear, confusion, and hardness of heart that reveals the true depth of the Apostles’ anguished struggle to understand Jesus. Discipleship can be brutal.
Finally, the summary statement of vv. 53-56 finds them back in Gentile territory, encountering a totally different disposition than before. There is the slightest hint that the ex-demoniac has been powerfully preaching Jesus’ mercy in the Ten Cities. Now they come in droves. It may seem like just another statement of Jesus’ usual goings-on, but the transition so briefly mentioned here is, in truth, earth- shattering. The full extent of Jesus’ kingdom ministry is now exercised among those who are not the people of God, foreshadowing where the Apostles’ ministry will lead them next in imitation of Jesus. The Jewish resistance to this turn of events will the be the primary conflict of the next section.
Note: the last paragraph of this article is erroneous. It is not until chapter 7 that Jesus returns to Decapolis. Ministry among Gentiles picks back up in this month’s section. My apologies for the confusion.