Since World War II, Scripture scholars have looked at gospels from a completely different perspective. Before the mid-1940s they zeroed in on individual passages, trying to surface how each pericope developed and evolved in the early Christian community. But since then, students of the Bible have also begun to concentrate on how the evangelists integrated those individual passages into a unified work.
This is quite similar to what movie critics do. They often focus on a specific scene, studying how it was filmed, directed and acted. But eventually they have to comment on how that particular scene fits into the whole movie, judging how it helps convey the overall message the director’s trying to get across.
Once scholars of our four gospels began to employ this methodology – called “redaction” criticism – a whole new biblical world opened. They started to appreciate the theology each evangelist was sharing with his community. The four were more than just collectors of early Christian traditions. Each molded Jesus’ sayings and narratives into a unique pattern. Today students of Scripture rarely use the phrases “Jesus said this or did that.” It’s been replaced with “Mark’s Jesus or John’s Jesus said this or did that.” Each evangelist provides us with a different theological picture of Jesus.
It’s significant that when our American bishops were given the next to last draft of the Catholic Catechism to critique, their number one objection was that it wasn’t “scriptural.” Among other things, they realized it didn’t take into consideration the various theologies of the sacred authors. The catechism treated the gospels, for instance, as Jesus biographies, not as Jesus theologies, permitting its authors to arrange gospel passages into the theology they, not the evangelists, wanted to convey.
Sadly, our bishops’ objection was brushed aside.
But neither were those who chose our liturgical readings in the late 60s familiar with redaction criticism, else what’s going to happen next week could never have occurred. Every three years, in the middle of summer, we suddenly shift from Mark’s narrative of the miraculous feeding to John’s account – a biblical “No! No!” Though both seem to narrate the same event, they employ different theologies in their narratives.
Beginning next Sunday, we’ll treat John’s theology for the next five weeks. But since today’s Marcan passage is an intro to his first bread miracle, we’ll look at his.
Like many of our sacred authors, Mark’s concerned with the qualities of a good leader. As we hear in our Jeremiah reading, leadership in faith communities has always been a problem, in this case leading the prophet to look to the indefinite future for the arrival of a perfect leader. Mark, on the other hand, looks to the here and now. In his mind, the perfect leader, Jesus, has already arrived. What aspects of his leadership should Christian leaders be imitating? Jesus’ communities should never be like “sheep without a shepherd.”
In Mark’s theology – clearly demonstrated in his first bread miracle – a faith leader should be a catalyst, creating situations in which Christians can meet the needs of others, even though they initially think they’re powerless to meet those needs. In Mark’s account, unlike John’s, Jesus doesn’t feed the people, his disciples –after much protest – carry out that work. He’s simply the instigator, pointing out an ability they didn’t realize they had until they actually did it.
Though the Pauline disciple who wrote Ephesians emphasizes the unifying aspect of leadership, Mark’s insights can’t be ignored or underestimated. He’s telling his community to surface leaders who aren’t threatened by the power of the people they lead. If they are, the needs of the community will never be met.