Every so often, someone asks a question that you not only fail to answer, but which makes you look at things in a whole new way. The most recent of these questions was:
“If the Gospels don’t make a big deal about physical description, why does Mark bother to tell us that grass is green?”
Some context – it’s the feeding of the five thousand. Instead of sending everyone home to get some food, Jesus tells the disciples to gather up what the crowd already has, which is five loaves and two fish. Jesus performs a miracle, everyone is fed. It’s a Sunday School staple, one of those stories that everyone knows.
So why, in Mark 6:39, when Jesus instructs everyone to sit down, does the writer bother to tell us that the grass is green? The Gospels aren’t big on physical description – we don’t have a clue what Jesus or Peter or Mary looked like (or Paul, who came later, although I always picture him as looking like Alan Rickman. Don’t ask me why), but Mark tells us what colour grass is?!
Maybe something else is going on here.
So I did some digging.
First of all, the green grass fixes the time of year; according to the NIV Study Bible, “Grass is green around the Sea of Galiliee after the late winter or early spring rains.” Okay, so why does Mark imply it’s spring? Well, maybe one answer to this lies within John’s version of this story, where he points out that Passover was near.
Now, this is big. Passover celebrated one of Israel’s key stories, the moment that God took a bunch of Hebrew slaves, liberated them from oppression and started to build them into a nation. Suddenly a whole narrative starts playing into this miracle – after all, didn’t God feed his people when they were in the wilderness? And, when they were in the wilderness, weren’t the people arranged in administrative units of hundreds and fifties, just like Jesus commands in verse 40?
Hmm. The hundreds and fifties thing? Set up in the Old Testament so that Moses could delegate some of his authority and avoid burning out. Now, in Mark, who’s in charge of making sure everyone’s fed?
The twelve disciples.
And that’s important because Jesus has already been delegating to them – Mark 6:6-13 reports that the feeding of the five thousand occurs just after the disciples have been sent out to do what Jesus has been doing. So maybe, as well as being a miracle, this story is equally an object lesson for the disciples. When the hundreds/fifties thing is established, it’s noted that it will help everyone be satisfied – which is how the 5,000 people in this story are described in Mark 6:42.
This makes sense, because someone needs to be Christ’s representatives in the world, both then and now – followers of Jesus need to do the things he did so that they can be a blessing to those around them, and yes, sometimes we fail but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be passionate about succeeding. After all, Jesus notes in verse 34 that the people were “Like sheep without a shepherd”, and again this is linking to a whole other narrative, the Old Testament idea that leaders – kings, priests – had a duty as the shepherds of their people, and yet many of them had completely failed in this. Again, we can go back to the birth of Israel to see where this idea comes from – In Numbers 27:15-17, Moses asks God to appoint his successor so that Israel won’t be, you’ve guessed it, sheep without a shepherd. This idea recurs throughout the Bible – Ezekiel 34 is an extended attack on the bad ‘shepherds’ and points out that God himself will act as a good shepherd, which is also a very famous description of Jesus.
And wait, what’s this in Ezekiel 34:14? “There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel”.
Now, anyone out there who knows their hymns might see where this is going. Description of God as a shepherd? Lying down in good pasture – or on green grass? Being fed through God’s provision?
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul.”
It’s Psalm 23. Which, not so incidentally, is the other place in the Bible where God’s provision is linked with green grass.
Suddenly the feeding of the five thousand is linked with one of the greatest expressions of God’s love and support ever committed to paper. This miracle is about God supporting his people, protecting them, looking after them, loving them. And it’s tied into a bigger story, that of God’s rescue plan for humanity that culminates in Christ’s death and resurrection.
And that’s the thing with the Bible. One word – just one, tiny, seemingly insignificant word, can open up a whole new world of meaning and make a story that we take for granted sing a new song.