You might remember in the story of Hansel and Gretel, that there is a part that involves leaving a trail of bread. A woodcutter and his wife have two children, Hansel and Gretel, and, during a great famine, fear that they don’t have enough food for their entire family. The wife has the idea of leading the children deep into the forest and then abandoning them, so the two adults will have enough to eat on their own. The woodcutter gives a mild protest to this proposal, but his wife prevails. But Hansel and Gretel overhear the plan and Hansel quickly collects some white pebbles which he takes and leaves along the trail as their parents lead them deep into the woods. After their parents leave them, the children find their way back to their house by following the pebbles. Their mother is quite upset and locks them in their room, leading them out the next morning even deeper into the woods. All they have now to mark their trail is crumbs of bread, which turn out to be a poor substitute for pebbles. Their parents leave them again, birds swoop down and eat up all the bread crumbs, and Hansel and Gretel are left on their own to face a old witch who lives in a candy hut and lures them inside with the promise of food, with the real intention of making them her food.
This is one of the folk stories collected by the Brothers Grimm in 19th century Germany. It has become a classic children’s story, although it seems more appropriately used for some serious social analysis about what in the world was going on in 19th century Germany to produce a story like this. I have a pretty narrow purpose in retelling the story here: Pondering a trail of bread intended to mark a path to a desired destination.
A trail of bread is a strategy also used in Mark’s Gospel, and whether it’s a useful strategy or not depends largely on the listener. So far in church history it seems to have been only slightly more successful in achieving its purpose than the trail left by Hansel to lead him and his sister back home. The destination point for Mark, the heart of the good news, is a transformed humanity. A human community fully alive to itself in God. We’re not quite there yet. Maybe Mark should have used shiny white pebbles. But you can’t eat stones, and it is the sharing of bread through the miracles of multiplication and ever expanding hospitality which mark this path. But it can be difficult to stay on the trail, a challenge, perhaps, even for Jesus himself.
The word “bread” occurs 21 times in Mark’s gospel. Mark has 16 chapters, and all but four of these mentions of bread show up in a span of about two chapters worth of material. From half way through chapter 6 to halfway through chapter 8 there are 17 mentions of the word “bread,” after which bread is mentioned only one more time, in chapter 14, when Jesus blesses and breaks and gives the bread to his friends during their last meal together before his death. The other three mentions of bread, before that point in chapter six, have little connection to each other. But for that span of about two chapters toward the middle of Mark, there is a lot of bread going on, and my hunch is that Mark is very intentionally asking his readers to follow the trail of crumbs to see where it might lead.
So what I want to do is something of a metaphorical hike through these two chapters where we’re always paying attention to the mention of bread and looking ahead to see where the next one is taking us. So we’ll be looking into the text of Mark quite a bit, and if you wish you’re welcome to follow along in your Bibles.
Today’s lectionary passage actually shows up half way down the bread trail and seems to serve as a kind of pivot for the whole story, a sharp turn that leads somewhere important. So I want to briefly start there, before going back to the beginning to see how we got there, and then continue beyond it to see where things are headed. So this is Mark 7:24-30, the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman.
It’s a somewhat bizarre, even troubling story, mainly because Jesus seems to use an ethnic slur to refer to a woman who has come to him for help. Maybe not quite as troubling as parents scheming to abandon their starving children, or meeting up with a cannibalistic witch in the middle of the forest, but troubling nonetheless. Which is OK. It may have been intended this way.
Geography plays an important role in this sequence in Mark and we are told here that Jesus “set out and went away to the region of Tyre.” This is an area north of Jewish territory in Palestine. If you are looking at a Bible from the pews you can actually keep a finger in Mark and then turn all the way to the back where there are some maps and there’s one which is the next to last map which shows some of the geography that’s going to be important here. It’s titled Palestine in the Time of Jesus. So if you look up along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, you’ll come to Tyre, which is north of Galilee where Jesus is from and where he has done his teaching up to this point. And you may want to keep your finger back there in the map because there are some other places that will be referenced a little later.
So Jesus entered a house there in Tyre and did not want anyone to know he was there. He’s on personal retreat. Time to escape. This is not a mission trip. “Yet,” Mark says, “he could not escape notice.” And this woman whose daughter has an unclean spirit hears that this Jewish healer has snuck into town and she tracks him down, and must have let herself into the house, and she throws herself at his feet and she breaks his peace and quiet by begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And Mark wants us to know a few things about this person. One, she’s a woman. Two, she’s a Gentile, and three, she is of Syrophoenician origin, from that area. She remains anonymous, but we’re given these social markers of who she is. This was a wealthier region so she is not necessarily poor. In fact, her people were often seen as oppressors of the poor Jewish peasants that Jesus was used to hanging out with. She hears that this foreign wonder worker is in town and she does whatever she needs to do to find him, bypasses any kind of go-between male representative for her cause, and is there in his retreat house bowed down on the floor begging Jesus, who has just been interrupted out of his meditative bliss, to help her daughter.
Jesus’ response is where the bread shows up in this story, although it’s translated as “food” in the NRSV, which is unfortunate because it makes it seem unrelated to all the other bread around it. Jesus replies to this bold foreign woman with a rather derogatory remark: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread/food and throw it to the dogs.” The children are Israel, Jesus’ people, who have all the covenant promises of God, and the dogs are the Gentiles, her people. Yes, Jesus has just referred to this woman as a dog. How do you like him now? Some commentators have tried to soften the tone and say that it’s not as bad as it sounds, but it’s actually worse than it sounds. We’re not talking about a cute well manicured poodle. Dogs were not exactly held in high esteem, since dogs were known to run loose, and get in scrappy fights, and take whatever they wanted for food wherever they could find it. Just like those Gentiles. Dogs.
One commentator notes that the grain economy of the time was structured such that the Jewish farmers of Galilee would produce and export their best grains to the wealthier northern coastal cities, like Tyre, not having enough for themselves in poor harvest years, a situation with plenty of parallels in our present global economy. Jesus doesn’t outright say No to driving the harmful spirit from this woman’s daughter, but there could very well be all sorts of depth of meaning in his words: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What if I didn’t come here to export healing, my best stuff, to you?
The beginning of the bread trail goes back to Mark 6:30, one of the few stories from Jesus’ ministry that makes it into all four gospels – The feeding of the mulititude, the 5000. The apostles had been sent out on a mission trip, two by two, and were just returning, rather excited from all they had done. Jesus tells them, “’Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” A group retreat. A previous failed attempt to get away and rest. They sail away in a boat to be by themselves, but people hear where they are going and actually beat them to their destination point, so just when they’re near the end of their trip, expected to relax, there is this greeting party awaiting them. But the crowds didn’t plan very well because they didn’t bring enough food with them. And Jesus and the disciples start talking about bread – which is the same word translated either bread, or loaves, or sometimes just food. They don’t have money to buy bread, they can only scrounge up five loaves (breads) and two fish. Jesus has everyone get into groups in the grass, and as verse 41 says he took the bread, and he blessed it, and he broke it, and he gave it to his disciples to set before the people. Jesus leads a communion service in the wilderness and all ate and were filled. In a miracle of multiplication, abundance, there is enough bread for everyone. And not just enough, but too much. They gathered 12 baskets of scraps. It fed five thousand men who were no doubt outnumbered themselves by all the women and children who also ate. But those numbers that Mark mentions are important for the story. 5 and 12 – 5 loaves, 5000 men; 12 baskets left over. It is a crowd of Jews who have had an abundance of bread and these numbers are very Jewish numbers. Five books of the Torah. The 12 tribes of Israel. Symbolically in the numbers and literally in the eating of the bread, this Jewish crowd has experienced the gospel of abundance and multiplication.
We don’t know where this happened, but we know that immediately afterwards the disciples get into a boat to go to “the other side” of the Sea of Galilee. Anytime you cross over to “the other side” it can be dangerous, and this is no exception. Their destination Mark mentions, is Bethsaida, which on the map you’ll notice is at the northern point of the Sea of Galilee. But they don’t make it. They’ll get there eventually, but there are some other things that have to transpire before they can actually get to the other side. That’s the alternative sermon title: “A funny thing happened on the way to Bethsaida.”
What happens initially is that there are strong winds that blow in while the disciples are in the boat, trying to get to “the other side.” This is the story where Jesus walks on the water, and the storm calms down. You’d think this is what would get emphasized in the story, a pretty cool thing to highlight if I were Mark. But that’s not what ends up getting emphasized. The second part of v. 51 and v.52 gives the unexpected conclusion of the story. The disciples are astounded. But why are they astounded? Because “they didn’t understand about the loaves (bread).” This is a very strange comment to make at this point. Another strange part of the story is that it says that when Jesus was walking on the water he intended to pass them by, v. 48. After blessing his own people, he was ready to go to the other side. But the disciples weren’t ready yet. So he gets in the boat with them, because they didn’t understand about the loaves. “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” A raging sea stands between the discipleship community, and the other side. And they need Jesus in the boat with them. They didn’t yet understand about the gospel of abundance and multiplication, the bread.
So in verse 53 and following, they’ve come on land, at Genessaret, which no one is exactly sure where that is, and it isn’t on the map, but it’s not Bethsaida, where they were headed, it’s not yet the other side. And in verse 53-56 Jesus is doing all sorts of wonderful things in the different areas where he is traveling.
The next place bread shows up is in verses 2 and 5 of chapter seven, which unfortunately again, doesn’t show up in the NRSV. The Pharisees are accusing the disciples of eating bread with ritually unclean hands, but the translation just says “eating.” But this is more bread politics. And Jesus has this bitter dispute with them, calling them hypocrites, and saying that there is nothing outside a person that can make them unclean, but only what is inside.
It’s such an intense encounter, that Jesus needs a retreat. Way far away. Where none of these Pharisees and crowds, and even his disciples who aren’t getting it, can find him. Time to leave town for a while and go to someplace where nobody will recognize him and no one will know he is there. How about Tyre? A little house right on the Mediterranean. Lovely.
“It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”
Maybe Jesus was being a guru and saying just what the Syrophoenician woman needed to hear. Or maybe he’s being prophetic and talking about bread justice. Or, maybe we are seeing the very human side of Jesus and some latent ethnocentricism is showing itself through his tired mind and body, himself not yet fully arrives at the other side.
It seems that we’ve come to a fork in the road of the bread trail. And as Yogi Berra says, when you come to a fork in the road, take it. It could go any number of directions, it could end here, but the path that it does take is that this woman comes back at Jesus with a wise response. Even the dogs get crumbs. That’s all I’m asking for. Is there enough, or is there not enough for this woman and her daughter, and her people? Yes. There’s enough. “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”
Now Jesus goes to the Decapolis, east of the Jordan River on your map, in Gentile territory, and in the midst of this sequence which is so much about the ability to perceive the inbreaking of the good news, Jesus heals a deaf man. Will the disciples perceive the meaning of the bread? Still in the Gentile territory, chapter 8 begins “In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, he called his disciples and said to them,” let’s get these folks some bread. The story continues with some very intentional parallelism to the feeding of the 5000 with the 5 loaves and 12 baskets. This time it is the 4000, with seven breads; “and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute.” And there are seven baskets left over.” Four and seven are numbers associated with creation, a numerology which includes all people, even Gentiles. The other people.
Now we get to the final part of the bread trail. Will they get to their destination, to the other side, to Bethsaida?
In verse 13, after another lively chat with the Pharisees, they head there. “And he left (the Pharisees), and getting into the boat again, he went across to the other side.”
v. 14. “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one bread with them.” And Jesus starts talking in bread language. “Watch out – beware of the yeast of the Pharisees (religious exclusivism), and the yeast of Herod (political collaboration with Rome). Be careful of these two ditches that the Jews and Gentiles can fall into. There is a third way on the road for the new humanity. The disciples are very literal people here and start talking to themselves how Jesus must be upset with them because they have no bread. What’s he talking about? It must be because we forgot to bring the bread. Just this one. And Jesus says, “Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? Remember 5-5-12 and 7-4-7? Enough bread for everyone, with lots left over. One loaf is all you need. One loaf, for one humanity. We’re in the multiplication business. “Do you not yet understand?” v.22 Finally, “They came to Bethsaida.” And Jesus heals a blind man with the question still lingering in the air as to whether the discipleship community has eyes, but fails to see the new humanity that is emerging through the life of Jesus.
That’s the bread trail of Mark. It doesn’t pick back up until the Last Supper. So where does it lead? I think if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we have to say that we don’t know. I don’t know where it leads. Because I don’t think I’ve actually followed the gospel of abundance and multiplication very far. I think I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to get enough for me and my family and my people, and it looks like a pretty stormy ride over to the other side where there’s enough bread, healing, demon-free living for everyone through the multiplication of the little available. I have no idea where the trail leads.
So I do take some comfort that Jesus does not simply pass us by, even though he’s itching to get to the other side. He comes near, he gets in the boat, even though it’s not even headed in the right direction. He says “Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.” And very slowly, we learn how to see. We learn how to hear. We learn to understand the meaning of the bread. And then we know where we must go. And what we must do.