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When grass is green:

How little details can have big meanings

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 earliest of these questions I remember was:

“If the Gospels don’t make a big deal about physical description, why does Mark bother to tell us that grass is green?”

I’m a Methodist local preacher in training, and this question was raised at the very start of my course. And because I’ve always been something of a nerd, I latched on to the question and couldn’t let go. I’ve always been interested in the Bible’s less travelled paths, the opaque details and obscure references that are easy to miss but which can also illuminate the text and increase our understanding. The Bible is a big, complex book that weaves stories and songs and theology and history together into a vast patchwork which, while beautiful, has lots of threads to pull on. I’m the sort of person who likes pulling on threads, which leads back to the question I was once asked in the sitting room of a local manse. Tell me that a gospel writer makes a deliberate point of describing something mundane and I’ll be thinking about that detail for weeks.

Some context – the reference above is part of the feeding of the five thousand. Crowds have been listening to him all day, but instead of sending everyone home to get something to eat, Jesus tells the disciples to gather up what the multitude already has, which turns out to be the famous five loaves and two fish. Jesus performs a miracle, everyone is fed, there’s food left over. 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 mention the colour of the grass? The gospels don’t tend to drown us in 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 thanks to Mark we know that the grass is green. The colour of grass is not something one points out unless you’re trying to make a point somehow.

Maybe something else is going on here. I did some digging.

Reminders
First of all, the green grass fixes the time of year. According to the NIV Study Bible, “Grass is green around the Sea of Galilee after the late winter or early spring rains.” So clearly there’s some relevance to the story being set in springtime, and one potential reason for this lies within John’s version of this story, where he points out that Passover was near. For John, the miracles are never just miracles, they’re signs that point to who Jesus is and what he’s here to do. If Mark wants you to know it’s springtime, John wants to remind you that it’s Passover.

This is big. Passover celebrated Israel’s great national story, the moment that God took a ragtag group of Hebrew slaves, liberated them from oppression and started to build them into a nation. Suddenly a whole narrative starts to play 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?

In Exodus 18, Moses delegates some of his authority so that he can avoid burning out, and so a number of assistants take responsibility for looking after groups of people – with many of these groups being divided into hundreds and fifties. There’s something going on here: Jesus is re-enacting the Hebrews’ time in the wilderness, so who is he delegating to? Who’s in charge of making sure everyone is fed?

The twelve disciples.
This is 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 the sort of things Jesus has been doing throughout his ministry. 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 five thousand 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 five thousand were, “like sheep without a shepherd,” and again this is a reference to a whole other narrative, the Old Testament idea that leaders – kings, priests – needed to serve as the shepherds of their people; unfortunately, many of them completely failed in this. Again, we can go back to the birth of Israel to see where this idea comes from – at one point, Moses asks God to appoint his successor so that Israel won’t end up as sheep without a shepherd (Num. 27:15-17). This idea recurs throughout the Bible – the prophet Ezekiel launches a blistering attack on the bad “shepherds” in chapter 34 and points out that God himself will step in to become a truly good shepherd. This goes on to become a title for Jesus himself.

Rich pastures
So the following verse from Ezekial may well be significant: “There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel” (Ezek. 34:14, NIV).
Now, at this point you may see where this is going: a 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” (Ps 23, NIV).

It’s Psalm 23, which not so incidentally is also 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 the establishment of a new kingdom under the reign of Jesus.

And that’s why I love the Bible. Because a seemingly insignificant reference to the colour of grass gives you the opportunity to jump down a whole scriptural rabbit-hole that takes you from the birth of Israel to an enormous picnic via the words of the prophets and the poetry of a king. Just one, tiny, unimportant word can open up a whole new world of meaning and make a story that we take for granted sing a brand new song. 

Author

  • Matthew Cadden-Hyde is an enthusiastic blogger living in Derby in the United Kingdom. Married with two sons, he is a Methodist local preacher in training and has a mild obsession with the more obscure and under-appreciated bits of the Bible. He blogs at The Left Hand of Ehud (mattsbibleblog.wordpress.com).

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