“Not counting…?”

A Reflection on Matthew 14:13-21      “The Feeding of the ‘5000’”

Hobart North UCA 31 July 2011

This reflection began with me counting the men in the room – clearly counting but not clear what (or whom).

I announced the number, it was about a third of those present.

We’ve read and heard and preached on that story many times (there’s about 6 versions in the gospels) – today is the day I want us to think for a moment on a few words we nearly always skip over…

words which, among other things, mean that this is a badly named story!

“and those who ate were about 5000 men, besides women and children.” 

That’s the inclusive version!  The more traditional ones read “not counting the women and children”

I happen to know I’m not the only one who struggles with the ways that women and children are almost always the one in scripture that are not counted…or not named.  Sometimes it seems careless, sometimes deliberate.  Remember the woman about  whom Jesus said   “   wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  Her name isn’t even remembered! (Mark 14)

Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests the women in this story get no credit because their work in providing food is not counted: “The reason there was so much food was that all the women…brought picnic baskets for themselves, their children and one or two neighbours.  So of course there was enough for all.”

“But since the women and children were not counted”, she says, “the story tellers did not know where the food had come from, and presumed it to be a miracle performed by Jesus!”

Not sure I embrace that entirely, but it does fit with some of what we know about the culture of Jesus’ day… well, most of history actually.

My challenge, as I sat with this gospel story this week, came in the words  of Roman Catholic theologian  Megan McKenna, reminding that “not counting” and “besides” can literally be referring to the women and children of the story.  But they can also function as symbol in the story to mean all who are excluded from the count.  In Jesus’ day and setting, this might mean: sick people, older people, prostitutes, widows, separated and divorced people, lepers, tax collectors, strangers, Gentiles… it’s a long list!

In fact, says McKenna, it’s probably the bulk of the crowd who followed Jesus, desperately looking for one who’d offer hope, respect, dignity, caring, good news, or just something to eat!

This is troubling to me…

My counting ‘stunt’ this morning points out the challenge of true inclusiveness…

It wasn’t just for your benefit, was for mine too, to see what sort of emotional response it creates in us all.  (having done it, I felt uncomfortable, at how  many aren’t counted).

I happen to think our community is we’re pretty good at inclusiveness and celebrate that regularly.  (Gathering around the  meal at the table is a sacred part of that.)

But of course, when it comes to knowing whether we’re a truly inclusive community, we’re not the ones we need to ask! – (Stillness)

McKenna, M. 1994.  Not Counting the Women and Children. Neglected stories from the Bible. GtB: Tunbridge Wells. Burns & Oates

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3 thoughts on ““Not counting…?”

  1. Thanks for the reflection – when I was writing my major integrated study for my degree I did a lot of work on Mark 14. There are scholars who suggest the words could also be translated “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of me.” Now that rings bells! We have a meal, a footwashing and an annointing all of which may be rituals “in remembrance of me”. Leaves me wondering why the meal won out.

  2. Maybe there weren’t that many more than 5000 there (Mark 14) because most of the women were at home doing all the work and looking after the kids?! More Marthas than Marys?

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