Monday, July 23, 2018

Same Story, Different Voice

Each of my children, at some point in their life, has enjoyed the story of the three little pigs. Usually, I tell the story at night, right before bedtime. Occasionally, if I'm feeling particularly enthusiastic about my role as storyteller, I will change my voice to match the different characters. As one would expect, the little pigs have a high-pitched, squeaky voice, and the big bad wolf has a growling malevolent voice. Of course, I'm the only one speaking, so the difference isn't as dramatic as it would be if someone hid in the the hallway outside the bedroom and, when it was time for the wolf to speak, knocked on the door and bellowed out the wolf's lines in a terrifying tone. That might add some dramatic authenticity to the story, but it would probably give my children nightmares, so they're stuck with just me.

This coming Sunday, as we often do throughout the lectionary year, we jump from one gospel account to another. Since it's Year B, we've spent most of our time in Mark's account, but this week we will leave Mark and head into John for the feeding of the five thousand and a several-week exploration of the bread of life. What's particularly strange to me is how similarly John and Mark record the sequence of events yet how differently they tell the story. Often John's account diverges from the synoptic accounts pretty dramatically, so, when there's considerable overlap, it's worth paying attention. You can compare the two readings (Mark 6:30-52 and John 6:1-12) here.

Notice how closely they follow one another. Both begin with Jesus and the disciples setting sail in search of some quiet. Both are set in a deserted place. Both include an exchange between Jesus and the disciples about providing bread for the crowd and an estimate of the cost to do so. Both show that Jesus had the disciples get the crowd to sit down. Both include the same meager provision of five loaves and two fish. In both accounts, everyone was sated. Both mention the gathering up of leftover fragments and that the leftovers filled twelve baskets. And both are followed immediately by the walking on the water, Jesus' declaration of "It is I," and the stilling of the storm.

Clearly, they were recalling the same episode. Most scholars think that Mark was the earliest gospel account written and that John was the latest, which means that John probably had Mark or some of the other synoptic texts available to him when he wrote his account. Or, to put it more plainly, the story of the feeding of the five thousand was so critical to the Jesus tradition that John, who often leaves stories out or changes them to make them fit his own narrative, preserved it almost perfectly. Almost.

Notice how John adds details to fill out the story in his own way. John reminds us that the crowd was following Jesus "because they saw the signs that he was doing." John tells us that the Passover was near. John puts the question of where the bread will be found on Jesus' lips, not the disciples, and then explains to us that Jesus was asking Philip about it in order to test him. In John's account, Andrew volunteers the bread and the fish without being asked, but Mark makes Jesus the instigator of that search. John tells us that there were five thousand people in all, but Mark tells us that there were five thousand men, and Matthew later clarifies that there were additional women and children present. John places the command to gather up the fragments on Jesus' lips instead of as the natural act of the disciples, emphasizing that "nothing may be lost." John shows us that the crowd concludes that Jesus is "the prophet who is to come into the world" and that they were going to make Jesus king, but Mark ends the story by sending Jesus and the disciples on their way without such attention.

Part of me wishes that we had stayed in Mark's account. Mark is my favorite gospel writer. But I think switching to John is a gift. We get to hear the same story in the same place in the lectionary, but we get to hear it through a different voice. John's voice adds extra drama, symbolism, and depth to the story. John has taken the synoptic tradition of the miraculous feeding and added layers of meaning: Passover, fragments, prophet, king. I don't know whether they will come out in a sermon, but I trust that they will come out in our shared hearing of the gospel. And, given that the next four Sundays are from John 6 and the discourse on the bread of life, we'll have more than enough opportunity to explore them.

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