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Comfort Food

Mark 6:30–8:26

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

With these verses we approach the mid-point at the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus will ask his disciples, and, by extension, us: “Who do you say that I am?” Mark’s Gospel presses us for a decision on this question, and aims to provide us enough insight into the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus for us to be able to offer an informed answer to this question: Who is Jesus? He shows us Jesus in action so that we can reach a conclusion about his identity.

Interestingly enough, the window into Jesus and his priorities through which we look in this section of the text is preoccupied with food, feeding, and eating.

We open with Jesus seeking a place of solitude. He has just learned of John the Baptist’s unjust execution, and, while the text does not make the connection explicit, it seems reasonable that his desire for solitude is part of his own grieving process. In the past year, many of us became well acquainted with grief, and with limitations on travel and gatherings, many of us who grieved were robbed of the normal mechanisms for closure and processing that grief: unable to be with a loved one in their final days, unable to attend funerals or wakes.

Jesus, though he did eventually get his time in solitude and prayer (6:46), was also prevented from grieving as he desired, for as soon as he arrived in the solitary place, the crowds found him. Jesus, though, had compassion on the crowd and tended to their needs. Like so many of us in the trying time of the virus, he kept on keeping on, persisting in what he knew he needed to do, despite the inconvenience, despite the grief. The needs of the crowd outweighed his own druthers.

This episode closes with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the multitudes. It’s a desolate place, they’re like sheep without a shepherd, and so in his compassion he feeds them. In chapter eight, in a slightly different situation, with different details, he’ll do much the same thing. In these episodes we see Jesus responding to a basic human need, one that speaks to us in our frustration and grief, and which lies at the origin of the notion of “comfort food.” While, like anything else, eating one’s feelings can become disordered, problematic, and counterproductive, it lies at the heart of our humanity to take comfort in food. And Jesus, in the midst of his own grief, and responding compassionately to the harassed, helpless, shepherdless crowds, provides some comfort food.

Food and eating dominates most of the other episodes in this passage as well. Jesus’ clash with the scribes and the Pharisees in chapter seven over the traditions of the elders hinges upon the question of pre-prandial ritual ablutions (i.e., If you eat without the customary ritual washing, are you defiled?). Jesus insists that no external force can make us unclean (thereby pronouncing all foods clean), and directs our gaze inward instead. Our defilement begins within, and comes from the disordered affections of our own hearts. While hand hygiene is most definitely a good idea (a fact underscored over the last year as COVID-19 wrought its wreckage), Jesus directs us to a far more pressing problem: ourselves.

This call to self-suspicion is, once more, particularly timely. 2020 gave us no shortage of exterior concerns and even foes: racist police brutality and emboldened white supremacy, anti-racism and critical race theory, folks who flout health directives and mask protocols, folks who issue those health directives or encourage mask use, those who support the president, those who support the president-elect.[1] Obviously, the items on this list are not equivalent. I myself have clear convictions about each set of opposed pairs, as anyone who knows me or follows me on social media should be able to tell. But in each case, even those where the concern is valid, they fixate on a problem out there, and risk missing or excusing the disorder of our own hearts. This is not a call to quiescence — I have zero patience for those who will label our woes a “sin problem,” as if that diagnosis excludes the possibility that the sin problem is enshrined in concrete (and changeable) policies, and as if identifying a “sin problem” excuses us from all efforts to ameliorate the damage done by sin or to loosen its grip on our social and political order. It is, though, a call to remember that repentance is always in season, and that if we wish to work toward a better world, we must begin by owning and addressing our own contributions to and complicity with its unjust structures.

Jesus’ encounter with the Syro-Phoenician woman, once more, draws from the culinary realm to make its point. Who is to be given bread, the children only, or also the “dogs”? Through this encounter, Jesus’ human understanding of his own mission and ministry develops, expanding beyond just Israel. (It’s become somewhat in vogue among those desiring to appear “edgy” to cast this passage as a clash with racism and patriarchy. There’s no real textual warrant for that. But there’s also no reason to assume that the incarnate Son, like us in all things except sin, didn’t learn from this encounter.) Moved with compassion, and impressed by this Gentile woman’s faith, Jesus recognizes that the food he has come to give belongs to all, and so heals the woman’s daughter. Once more, compassion leads to a change of plans and a feeding of the one in need (metaphorically, this time).

A final episode also turns upon food and eating, as Jesus warns his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, prompting a discussion among the Twelve about how much bread they’d packed. They’re missing the point, of course. Jesus refers not to the leaven used in bread baking, but rather to the teaching/influence of the Pharisees and the Herodians. But Jesus’ way of pointing this out seems odd and rather indirect. He offers no explanation (at least not in Mark), but rather reminds them of the miraculous feedings narrated in the last couple of chapters. The connection with his point is opaque. Reminding them of the multiplied loaves (and fishes) underscores that having enough bread is not a real concern — Jesus “knows a guy” who can take care of that — but all it really does is show that he didn’t mean literal bread, without explaining what he did mean.

Following Jesus is often like that. He can be enigmatic and his ways are often inscrutable. In the midst of the valley of the shadow of death, we often can’t scry what he’s up to. But, as he prepares a table with overflowing cup in the presence of whatever has us worried, we can know him. He has shown us, again and again, how he is driven by compassion to meet our pressing needs. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at the cross, where compassion led him not just to the shadow of death, but to death itself, so that we could be brought safely through into life. Often the way of life and peace perplexes us and looks an awful lot like a cross. But the Jesus we see in these passages is a Jesus who can be trusted through it all.

The year is still young, and we don’t know what it will hold. But here Jesus assures us that he’ll be with us. He assures us that we needn’t worry, because he is able to meet and committed to meeting our deepest needs. In the midst of uncertainty, he offers us himself as comfort food.

Eugene R. Schlesinger, Ph.D. is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.

[1] This essay was written before the failed attempt by white supremacist terrorists, incited by President Trump and several other elected officials and encouraged by the spread of misinformation by media outlets and their fellow citizens, to violently overturn the results of a free and fair election. It is considerably harder for me to apply this principle to this case, but I still think that the principle holds. I cannot fixate on even this very real external problem to the exclusion of my own sin and/or concupiscence.


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