Jesus’ behavior in Mark 6.30-44, seems to me a lot like this Willem de Kooning painting, Valentine. [MOMA. Thanks MOMA.] If I gave this baby to my wife as a valentine it would quickly end up in the trash, so what de Kooning meant, if anything, is beyond me [and probably him as well]. The artwork is absurd, and this is what makes me think of Willem de Kooning when I read Jesus’ actions in Mark.
Jesus has been teaching “a great crowd” of people most of the day. [we will find out in short order that there were 5,000 men, not counting the women and children present] The crowd has had nothing to eat all day because they did not pack picnic lunches in their admirable haste to follow Jesus. What to do?
This was certainly a question that was nagging at the minds of Jesus’ disciples [if not Jesus himself]. The disciples’ solution: Send them off to the closest villages and fields and they can find something to eat. It’s actually a pretty logical conclusion, given the situation. I would certainly have had no better idea than this.
Jesus, however, has different ideas, and we see how quickly that he descends into abstract expressionism. “You give them something to eat,” says Jesus, knowing full well that the disciples have zip, zilch, nada, nothing to eat themselves, more less to give to the 10,000ish people in attendance. What can he possibly mean, “you give them something to eat?”
Then this: “How many loaves to you have? Go and see.”
After an exhaustive count which could not have taken all that long, the disciples come back with the bad news. For 10,000ish people they have exactly 5 loaves of bread and two fish. [Probably 5 rolls of bread would be a better translation. These were not huge loaves as we imagine them, they were probably akin to the size of our dinner rolls] At this point, the disciples realize the absurdity of trying to serve 10,000ish people with 5 dinner rolls and a couple of sardines. What, exactly, does Jesus plan to do with these? Jesus does not bother to explain.
Jesus tells the great crowds to sit down in groups, and they sit down in groups of 50’s and 100’s. Now, imagine if you are one of Jesus’ disciples here. You know what you have [rolls and sardines] and you know what is required. [ a heck of a lot more than that, what you have will not make a dent in satisfying the nutritional needs of 10,000ish people]
Surely here, Jesus has ended up in the absurd. He has divided the people up. He has found some food. He begins to pray over the food. He is acting as if he is going to feed 10,000ish people with the contents of a lunch sack for a teenage boy. This makes zero sense and Jesus’ disciples must have been thinking, “well this is going to end up poorly. Why did we have all those people sit in groups as if they were going to get something to eat? This can only end up in a riot.”
Jesus begins dividing the rolls and fish, and dividing the rolls and fish, and dividing the rolls and fish. The disciples begin carrying the food to the crowds, they serve one crowd of 100 and move on to another crowd of fifty, and Jesus is still breaking bread and dividing fish. How long does it take to turn rolls and sardines into a meal for 10,000ish people? A couple of hours? This is a slow motion miracle of the absurd.
At the end of the dinner, when everyone has eaten their fill and been satisfied, the disciples collect up the leftovers: Twelve. Baskets. Full. What has not been eaten is greater by far than what Jesus had to start with.
This reminds me of when Jesus turned the water into wine in John 2. Jesus didn’t just turn a little water into wine, he turned it into gallons and gallons of wine. Somewhere in the area of 120 to 140 gallons! The Kingdom of God does not seem to have a problem with insufficient means. It not only always has enough, it always has an overabundance of what is necessary.
Like the disciples, if we are to follow Jesus, he is going to call us into the absurd at times. It will make not sense. It will not add up. The mathematics will be a joke. The logic will be nonexistent. The absurd is where Jesus often is, it’s up to us whether we join him there, but that is where his work is accomplished.