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Praying about Jesus’s miracles: The feeding of the 4000

Lynne Baab • Wednesday June 19 2024

Praying about Jesus’s miracles: The feeding of the 4000

I want to give you a series of words. See how you feel as you read them. Deserted place. Desolate place. Remote place. Secluded place. Wilderness. Desert. Open field. Do these words evoke longing to get away from responsibilities and difficult people? A hint of uneasiness? A feeling of isolation? A bit of fear for your safety?

All those words are possible translations of one Greek word, eremo, which is used frequently in the stories of Jesus’s feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000. The possible translations of that word may give us a possible answer to a question that bothered me for a long time: Why did Mark and Matthew have two similar stories of Jesus feeding a crowd of people, only one chapter apart in Matthew and two chapters apart in Mark?

Last week, I argued that the feeding of the 5,000, a story in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21Mark 6:30-44Luke 9:10-17John 6:1-15), evokes the Shepherd God described numerous times in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus says he has compassion on the crowd because they are like sheep without a shepherd. The request to the crowd to sit down on the green grass beside the waters of the Sea of Galilee parallels some of the language of Psalm 23. Today, I want to argue that the feeding of the 4,000 brings different memories to mind.

The Greek word eremo is used twice in Matthew’s story of the feeding of the 5,000 and three times in Mark’s version. The word indicates that the setting was isolated in some way, but the green grass shows it wasn’t a desert. When translating eremo in the story of the feeding of the 5,000, various translators describe the setting as desolate, secluded, lonely, remote, deserted, and isolated. The word "desert" is seldom used.

In contrast, the feeding of the 4,000 seems to have taken place some distance from the Sea of Galilee, with no mention of sheep, shepherds, or grass. The New Revised Standard Version translates eremo as “desert” in both Matthew and Mark, the only two Gospels where this feeding appears (Matthew 15:32-39, Mark 8:1-13).

In both versions of the story, Jesus tells the disciples he has compassion on the crowds, so he wants the disciples to feed them. In Matthew 15:33, the disciples respond, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” In Mark 8:4, the response is similar: “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” Other translations use “desert” as well as some of those additional translations I gave above.

In the same way that the feeding of the 5,000 evokes something beyond the immediate story (the Shepherd God), this second feeding evokes memories of wilderness stories. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, and God fed them manna there. When the Apostle Stephen describes at length that time in the wilderness or desert of Sinai, he uses eremo (Acts 7:30). The same word is used when Luke says that God’s word came to John the Baptist in the wilderness (Luke 3:2) and when Matthew describes John, using Isaiah's words, as one crying in the wilderness (Matthew 3:3). The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness (eremo) after his baptism (Mark 1:12). When Jesus describes himself as the bread of life he says, “Our forefathers ate the manna in the wilderness" (John 6:31). He uses eremo.

With the popularity of hiking in the mountains these days and with the frequent overload of city life, “wilderness” and many of those other translations of eremo can sound attractive to us. At the same time, I often hear people using the term “wilderness” to describe times that feel challenging, empty, and directionless.

God fed the people of Israel in the wilderness. God provided locusts and honey for John the Baptist in the wilderness (Matthew 3:4). The angels fed Jesus in the wilderness after his fast (Matthew 4:11). The feeding of the 4,000 is a reminder that God provides in the deserts of our lives. In the developed world in our day, when food is usually the least of our worries, we can affirm that in our wilderness moments, God provides guidance, meaning, comfort, and companions. Sometimes, this is literally true when hiking in the wilderness, but for most of us, it is true in a metaphorical sense. God lightens our loads when we feel overwhelmed and isolated. God is present with us in our lonely, desolate desert places. Because we often find it hard to perceive what God is doing in and through us in those moments, we can ask that the Holy Spirit to open our eyes so we can perceive God's presence and provision.

Immanuel, God with us, thank you for your presence with us in our desolate moments and places. Often, we don’t feel you with us in those hard times, but we sometimes get glimpses of the ways you guide us, comfort us, and bring us companionship. Holy Spirit, open our eyes to see those gifts in the desert. God with us, help us sense your loving presence when times are hard. Help us bring comfort to those we love when they are walking through a wilderness. Open us to receive your love, and empower us help others know they are your Beloved, too, when hard times come.

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Next week: Touching the hem of Jesus's garment. Illustration by Dave Baab: the Grand Canyon from Mather Point visitors center.

I was recently interviewed about the Sabbath on a podcast for recent graduates. If you know recent grads, or if your church has a young adult program, please pass along this link.

Posts and articles that mention deserts:

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