How Many Times Do I Have To Tell You?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On June 17, we considered a curiosity – Mark narrates the feeding of the 4,000 just after he tells us about the feeding of the 5,000.  Why would Mark, the sparest of Gospel writers, think we needed to hear what is essentially the same story twice?  Unless, of course, it’s NOT the same story…  Thoughts about how this expression of God’s presence in Christ is instructive in Jesus’ world and in ours. You can all about it in Mark 8:1-10.   We remembered the songs of God’s people by hearing Psalm 107:1-9.

To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the media player/link below:

All right, let’s say that you’re in the back seat of a car…make it any car…say, a 1968 Ford station wagon.  And let’s say that you’re on a long, long trip in the middle of a hot, hot summer…say, oh, I don’t know, from Wilmington DE to Falls City NE – 3 days in this unairconditioned vehicle with 5 people and a dog.  And let’s say, oh, just imagine this, that you’re in the middle between your older sister and your younger brother, and they keep touchingyou. And it really, really, bothers you. For 2 days, it bothers you.  And maybe, let’s say, you happen to mention this fact out loud.  A couple of times.  And let’s say, just for the sake of this discussion, that your father turns around while he’s driving 70 MPH down the highway and says, “Son, how many times do I have to tell you to quit your whining?”

OK: helpful tip here, if you ever find yourself in a situation like this one.Some questions that people ask – they don’t reallywant an answer.  “How many times do I have to tell you?” “Ummmm, seven?” – Well, apparently, that’s not the answer my dad was looking for.  I’m just saying…Some questions, you better think really hard before you try to answer them.

In honor of Father’s day, I’d like to take a look at today’s Gospel readings in the light of two “Dad-isms” that stand out not only from my childhood, but from a careful reading of this scripture.

“How many times do I have to tell you?”  I know you’ve heard that question before.  And I see some weary parents out there, hanging your heads, saying, “One. Please.  For the love of God, let me tell you something one time.”

One time is a great answer.  It makes sense.  It’s efficient and logical.  For most things in life, we think, we should have to be told once.

And when Luke and John got around to writing their gospels, they came to this story and they apparently said something like, “Oh, another feeding of a multitude.  We’ve done that.  Five thousand, four thousand, whatever.  Not going to waste parchment on this story again…”

All Were Satisfied, James Seward (2006)

But Jesus and Mark, it would seem, believe that in this particular instance, once is NOT enough. Just one chapter separates the account of the feeding of the 5,000 with the one you heard today – the feeding of the 4,000.  You might remember that as we’ve talked about Mark, we’ve said that he is a spare narrator. He doesn’t like to waste words, and he’s telling us a tight story.  I would suggest that in Mark’s mind, the story of the 4,000 is notthe same as that of the 5,000.  So what’s different?

Well, in chapter 6, we read that the crowd had been with Jesus all day and by suppertime, they were hungry.  In today’s reading, how long had the group been together before someone mentioned food? Three days.

Hmmmmm.  Three days.  Here’s a little clue from your old friend, Pastor Dave.  Whenever anyone in the Bible, and especially a Gospel writer, says something was going on for three days, well, pay attention.  Last week, I mentioned that it seemed as though the mood music in Mark was beginning to signal a shift in emphasis and intent for the gospel.  Today, we read about a Jesus event that lasted for three days.  Tuck that away, and remember that in the weeks to come.

So they’d been together, this time, for three days.  Have you ever been so engaged in something, so preoccupied, that you forgot to eat?  You’re caught up in a show, you are wrapped in grief, you’re pressing hard to finish a big project at work… and you just don’t think about food?

The crowd would rather be with Jesus than eat.  The disciples would rather be with Jesus than take care of the crowd.  And Jesus would rather spend time with all of these folks than worry about what was looming on the horizon for him.  Everybody is having a good time, but, well, you’ve gotta eat.

Jesus points this out to his followers, who seem to be less than thrilled about the idea of catering such a large event.  When this passage is read in worship, it’s often interpreted as a way to say that the original disciples of Jesus were a bunch of lug nuts who never seemed to understand what Jesus was really about and this is one more time for them to demonstrate just how thick they were.  And if we read it as if the twelve really are just a pack of lug nuts, then Jesus says, “How many times do I have to tell you?”, he is barking it in anger and frustration.

And yet we all know that there is more than one way, and there is more than one reason, to ask that question.

A young lover gazes into the eyes of a beloved who has been deeply wounded in the past – so traumatized, in fact, that trust is hard… and the lover says, again, “How many times can I tell you…?”

A child has been abused and treated with violence and contempt but then brought into a new home – with new ways of treating each other – but continues to act in hate and fear. The new caregiver continues to offer love and peace, while saying softly, “How many times can I tell you…?”

I’m here to suggest that in this passage, Jesus is smiling tenderly as he looks at his beloved friends and then sets to work.  When they had the feeding of the 5,000, there was a cool efficiency to the process. Jesus gave the orders to the twelve, and then they broke the company down into fifties and hundreds… there was a hierarchy, and it worked.

Here, however, Jesus is much more low-key.  He speaks to the crowd, and they are gathered apparently together.  Had Jesus really been trying to straighten out some aspect of his followers’ behavior, he’d have made them do it again and get it right. He’d be drumming it into their heads. But with the four thousand, he treats it almost like a worship service and just enjoys the time together.

In some ways, that is Jesus living into the second Dad-ism of the day.  I would suspect that many of you can predict what my father might have said after he asked me “How many times do I have to tell you…?”.  “Do I have to stop this car and come back there and give you a reason?  Do you want me to show youthat I mean business, mister?”

Now, in my father’s defense, he was raised as an only child, and so he literally had no way of understanding the horror of a sibling actually touching you and looking at you hour after hour…  So in a way, he didn’t know what he was saying.

But in a way, that’s what the feeding of the four thousand is: an affirmation of Jesus’ willingness, and in fact, eagerness, to be the means by which God’s love was shownto the ones he came to save.  Jesus, in capping off these three days of teaching and healing and prayer with a sacramental meal is demonstrating the depth of God’s commitment to the world.

This demonstration becomes more obvious when we look at another key difference between the feeding of the five thousand and that of the four thousand.  In the earlier miracle story, what was left over at the end of the day?  There were twelve baskets of bread remaining.  That makes sense, we say.  There were twelve disciples, and each one got a meal for the next day.  Twelve baskets – the Greek word for basket in the feeding of the five thousand is kophinos, and it means, well, lunch-box.

St. Paul Lowered from the Walls of Damascus in a Basket, 11th c. tapestry

In today’s reading, what remains after the crowd has been satisfied?  You heard it: seven baskets.  Ah, so Jesus must be getting better at anticipating the needs of the crowds, eh?  He’s done a better job guessing the amount of food to feed the multitude, and it’s more efficient.  Well done, Master!

Except that’s not what happens here.  There are not seven kophinos left over; here, Mark chooses a different word.  When this crowd has eaten, there are seven spuridas to fill.  A spuris is not a lunch-box – it’s a hamper.  A large hamper.  In fact, when the Apostle Paul’s life was threatened in Acts 9, he was saved from death by being hidden in a spuris.

Furthermore, if we’re going to say that there were 12 baskets left from the first feeding, and that represents the 12 disciples… then why are there 7 left here?  What’s the point?

One of the things that “everybody knew” in those days was that while there were Twelve Tribes of Israel, there were just as clearly Seven nations of the Gentiles.  In fact, much of the Old Testament narrative is about the Twelve Tribes in conflict with the Seven nations.

I’m suggesting that in leaving seven enormous baskets of sustenance on this day, that Jesus is coming down there to show us that we are all called to be one people of God.  Gentile, Jew – there is enough for everyone.  Here, he said that day, let me show you.

And as the passage for the day ends, there is one more way in which this account of the feeding of the four thousand differs from the earlier story.  After the five thousand had been fed, Jesus puts the disciples in a boat and sends them on their way… In today’s reading, he gets in there with them.

Today, let’s not talk about the twelve being so thick that they didn’t trust Jesus to take care of business.  Let’s not bicker about who is in and who is out.  Let us instead pause, as the Psalmist suggests, to consider the generosity and character of the one who will tell you time and time again that you are enough. Let us give thanks for the one who comes to us again and again offering his very self.  Let us be grateful to the one who promises to get in the boat and go with us toward an uncertain future and in so doing, demonstrates the reach of God’s unending love.

My dad was not perfect – not by any stretch.  But one of the things he did was seek to anchor his life around attempting to demonstrate that which might have seemed hard to believe.  So he did ridiculous things like put three kids and a dog in a station wagon and drive to Nebraska for a week so that his parents could see their grandkids.  He sought to make promises real and visible.

That’s all the church is asking you to do today, sisters and brothers.  Look at the lavish generosity of Jesus, poured out for all of us – insiders and outsiders alike – and then look for ways to make that care and presence seem real in the lives of the people who are around you this week.

How many times are you going to have to do that?  Probably quite a few. Do you have to stop what you’re doing and get over there and demonstrate to people that God is love?  Yep.

Thanks be to God for the calling and equipping to do that.  Amen.