Becoming Bread Again (Mark 6: 1-13)

by The Rev. Daniel P. Strandlund on June 10, 2021

The first few verses of Mark pair two stories about home, hospitality, and the mission of God: Jesus teaches in his hometown of Nazareth and is rejected (6:1-6a); then he sends out the twelve apostles in pairs to proclaim God’s message in the surrounding area (6:6b-13). Today, I want to look at this passage not only on its own, but in the context of Mark more broadly. Specifically, we’re going to see how this passage might flow out of Mark’s parable of the sower (4:1-20) and into the death of John the Baptist (6:14-29) and beyond, eventually into the Last Supper (14:12-25). That’s a lot of ground to cover, to be sure, but I’m going to take next week off from writing on Mark as I’ve been doing, so I wanted to cover a wider swath of scriptural territory today. Now, down to business.

 

When Jesus enters his hometown[1] he receives what is at best a tepid welcome. Jesus follows his usual pattern of teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (6:2), but these folks know Jesus’ parents and siblings (6:3). They’re not quite prepared to accept what Jesus says, nor are they quite prepared to accept what they’ve heard about his deeds of power (6:2). Maybe to them, Jesus sounds kind of uppity. Their reaction might have the vibe of, “Jesus used to cut my grass. The darn kid ran over my daffodils not once but twice. Now he thinks he’s going to proclaim the kingdom of God to me? Who does he think he is?!”

 

Their skepticism prevents Jesus from performing prominent miracles. The other times Jesus has taught in a synagogue on the Sabbath he’s also done a deed of power—casting out a demon, restoring a man’s withered hand, etc. (1:21-29; 1:39; 3:1-6). There’s not too much of that here, however, just a few healings (6:5). This is important: We’ve already seen that the faith of the one receiving a miracle partly determines its efficacy (2:5; 5:34).

 

How are we to read this rejection in Nazareth? Mark’s own interpretive key might be the parable of the sower from chapter 4. If we recall that Jesus is the sower of the Word, then his hometown is not a good kind of soil (see 4:3-9, 13-20). So Jesus leaves, heading back out to teach in other villages (6:6b). Maybe the soil is better out there.

 

It’s then that Jesus sends out the twelve apostles on a mission.[2] His instructions about not carrying bread or bag or money or extra shoes or clothes are evocative of God’s care for the Israelites during the Exodus: “I have led you forty years in the wilderness. The clothes on your back have not worn out, and the sandals on your feet have not worn out; you have not eaten bread, and you have not drunk wine…so that you may know that I am the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 29:5-6). The mention of a staff evokes the staffs of Moses and Aaron, signs of authority (Mark 6:8, Exodus 4:2, Numbers 17). Jesus’ instructions about not taking extra sandals or a spare shirt are clear enough: God will make sure the apostles’ clothes will hold up just as God made sure the Israelites’ own sandals didn’t wear out.


There’s a twist when it comes to the food though. In the Exodus narratives, God provides manna from heaven and quail for them to eat (Exodus 16). These appear as if from nowhere, which fits because the Israelites are in the middle of nowhere, i.e. the wilderness. But in Mark, when Jesus sends out the apostles, it seems their food is not going to appear miraculously as if from nowhere, but that the apostles are to rely on the hospitality of the people with whom they stay (6:10-11). Mark doesn’t make it explicit that the apostles are to eat at the tables of their hosts, but that this is the case seems a reasonable conclusion. After all, unlike the Israelites, the apostles aren’t going into the wilderness, but into towns and villages. “When you meet folks who receive what you have to say,” Jesus seems to be saying, “stay with them, and they’ll make sure you’ve got food and a place to sleep.”

 

But Jesus also makes it clear that they can’t expect a universal welcome: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (6: 11). For the apostles, this means they’ll go hungry some days. Any place that doesn’t receive their teaching is likely also to be a place that refuses to feed them. To shake off the dust from their feet means the apostles have empty bellies.

 

It’s subtle, but I think this combination of dust and hunger once again recalls the parable of Jesus as the sower of the Word. The seeds of the Word can only take root and bear fruit in good soil. Only a community with good soil can grow grain. And because bread comes from grain, it is only a community with good soil that can break bread together. Any place that rejects the apostles, therefore, is not good soil because they’ve rejected the Word: Shake that dust off; it won’t produce any grain; you won’t be able to break bread with them; you’ll go hungry there. You know it’s time to move on when your belly is empty.

 

The apostles are among the ones to whom Jesus explained the parable of the sower (4:10). When it comes time for them to be sowers of the Word and carry out the mission of God themselves, the parabolic line between what is literal and what is metaphorical gets blurry. When the apostles travel to a community that receives the Word-seeds of God’s message (which is to say when they find a community with metaphorical good soil), the apostles and their hosts eat literal bread together. The bread of their common meal is the literal and metaphorical fruit of soil that is both literally and metaphorically good.

 

We are entering the realm of sacrament here: The sharing of a meal that does the thing it represents. To be clear, the language of sacrament is not Mark’s language, just my reflections on it. Still, for an agrarian community like ancient Galilee, for Jesus to speak in parables of sower and Word and grain is for Jesus to blur the lines of metaphorical and literal speech.

 

Regardless of any sacramental background for Mark’s community, at the very least I think Mark wants us to connect the parable of the sower to these opening verses of chapter 6. Jesus is the sower of the Word, but his hometown is bad soil. So he leaves, and sends out the apostles as sowers, too, telling them they must depend upon God and upon the hospitality of those they serve. Any rejections they encounter will impinge on their material security. If they’re shaking off the dust, it likely means their bellies are empty. The Word was unable to take root there. There was no grain. There was no bread. There was no communion between the apostles and those to whom they were sent.

 

These themes of hunger and food continue through much of Mark 6 and into the rest of the Gospel. When the apostles return from their mission, they’re hungry: There’s so much to be done, they’ve not time to eat (6:30-32). They try to withdraw for some much-needed rest and recuperation, only to be interrupted by a vast and hungry crowd. There’s little food to be had, and some of the disciples get “hangry.” But Jesus tells them to feed the crowd, which they are able to do only when he miraculously multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish (6:33-44). Clearly, the crowd who has been listening to Jesus teach for a while (6:34) is very good soil. There is literal and metaphoric food for thousands.

 

But chapter 6 is not all mission and miracle. In between Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles in 6:7-13 and their return in 6:30, Mark inserts a very different story, one which gives the whole chapter an ominous tone. In 6:14, the camera turns from the apostles to focus on King Herod, who is getting nervous about all these deeds of power and proclamations of the kingdom going on. There’s a flashback in which we see John the Baptist arrested and then murdered at a grotesque dinner party (6:17-29).

 

Wait, what?

 

John the Baptist is a servant of God, like Jesus and the apostles Jesus has just sent out. And like Jesus in his hometown, and like the apostles at some of the dusty towns which they will visit, John the Baptist is rejected in the court of King Herod, the very court John the Baptist has been calling to repentance (6:17-18). The soil of Herod’s court is very bad indeed. This is the kind of dust you’d best brush off your feet.

 

But unlike Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth which involves mockery and sarcasm, and unlike the potential rejection of the apostles in various towns which involves their physical hunger, John the Baptist’s rejection leads to his death. He is beheaded, and his head is brought in on a silver platter (6:24-28). John the Baptist is not invited to the table in order to break bread with those to whom he is proclaiming the Word of repentance; nor is he simply run out of town. Instead, part of John the Baptist’s body ends up on the table in a grim mockery of a shared meal. The very head that proclaimed God’s message of repentance in the Gospel’s opening is, in Herod’s house, presented on a bloody serving platter. It’s hard to imagine a darker twist on God’s Word bearing grain, becoming bread, becoming food. This is no communion, but a dismembering.

 

Fast forward to the Last Supper. On the night before Jesus dies on the cross, what happens? Jesus and his followers have entered the seat of power—Jerusalem, where forces more dangerous even than King Herod are at play[3]. It is in this city that Jesus and the twelve gather for dinner: “While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, gave it to them, and said, Take; this is my body. Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:22-24). This is a different kind of body on the table, one that somehow holds together both the terror of John the Baptist’s death and the intimacy of those who make their home in Jesus.

 

We have traveled a long way since Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. A lot has happened since the apostles’ first mission as Word-sowers, too, and who knows how long it’s been since John the Baptist was laid in the tomb. But none of it is lost—the power and tenderness of God’s Word gathering together those who are the good soil of God’s homeland, a community sharing the literal and metaphorical bread born by the Word, the dust of rejection and of soil not yet ready to receive the Word, the dust from which we are made and to which we all return—it’s all here. It’s all present, somehow, in the bread on this table, the body of God’s Son, offered for the sake of many.[4]

 

The body of Jesus is a seed sown in the grave, and the fruit of that sowing is bread. The mystery is that we are the ones who by violence sowed the seed of Christ’s body in the grave, and yet God, in his mercy, brings life from that sowing as though he himself had done it. The mystery is therefore also that God himself sowed the body of his Son in the earth that we might be the fruit born of that sowing, even as the apostles were. When Jesus sent them out two by two into the dust and beauty of a hangry world, he was sowing them in the earth, too. He gave them their first lesson in becoming God’s bread. It cost many of them their lives, even as it cost John the Baptist and Jesus. Thankfully, the contexts in which you and I are sown do not cost us in that way. But this doesn’t mean we are any less called to be sown by God, to become bread again in and for our communities.

 

As we shake off the dust of Coronatide, remember that you are still the bread. You are still Christ’s body. You are bread for each other and for those not yet known to us. You are bread for a world hungry for connection and ritual and real security. You are the bread; you always have been. Let yourself be given again. Let others give to you. Let Christ’s presence be in yours.

 

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+


[1] Likely Nazareth here, not Capernaum. We’ve seen that Capernaum is Jesus’ base of operations (1:21-29) and is usually where Jesus has gone when Mark says Jesus has gone “home” (2:1, 3:19). In the English NRSV many of us read, we read “home” in 2:1 and 3:19, and in 6:1 the NRSV uses the very similar English word “hometown.” However, English creates a verbal similarity—home and hometown—which Greek doesn’t have. In 2:1 and 3:19, when Mark says Jesus went “home,” the word is literally house. It’s a bit like Mark saying, “Then Jesus went to the house,” which means his base of operations in Capernaum. Here in 6:1, however, the word is different: It more literally means, Jesus “came to his fatherland” (6:1). So the hometown of 6:1 is likely Nazareth where Jesus is from originally (1:9). It is possible that 6:1 is Jesus’ first time back to Nazareth since way back in 1:9.

[2] Jesus calls these twelve to him and names them apostles in 3:13-19. However, in that passage, it’s not clear that he actually sends them out on any missionary work yet, at least not on their own. All we know for certain in that earlier passage is that they are named as folks who will be “with him” and whom Jesus will at some point send out with particular evangelical work. It’s not until 6:6-13 that we can confidently say they work in pairs, independent of Jesus’ physical presence.

[3] Including Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve himself. It is while Jesus and his followers are still in Bethany, just outside the city, that Judas leaves to betray Jesus to the chief priests (14:3, 10). It is a day or two later (it’s not clear to me exactly how many) that Jesus enters the city itself with the twelve to celebrate Passover (14:13-17).

[4] See Mark 10:43-45.

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