Now there was Much Grass in the Place

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And so they left the presence of the Sanhedrin glad to have had the honor of suffering humiliation for the sake of the name. They preached every day both in the Temple and in private houses, and their proclamation of the Good News of Christ Jesus was never interrupted.

Acts 6: 41-2

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

John 6: 10-11

In today’s gospel, we hear of the great miracle of the loaves and fishes in which Jesus feeds thousands out of the scarcity of the five loaves and two fishes. In his commentary on the passage, Francis J Moloney, referring to many commentators before him, points out a significant and easy to miss detail. “Now there was much grass in the place.” This is helpful, of course, because it makes it possible for those present to recline, as at a meal, comfortably. This reclining in the green grass, however, also contextualizes this moment in the poetry of Psalm 23. The people who are gathered are the sheep who “shall lack nothing” with the Lord as their shepherd. “You set a table for me, right in the face of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.”

So, too, with the Apostles in the reading from Acts. They live out their call and do their work with peace and joy no matter the differing circumstances. Even as they are challenged and persecuted, they trust and even rejoice at the honor of suffering “for the sake of the name.” “Even when I go through the darkest valley, I am not afraid. For you are with me. Your rod and your staff give me comfort.”

What did it mean to the “five thousand” to recline in the thick green grass and be fed by the hand of the Lord? What difference does it make in life to know oneself among those gathered in the “house of the Lord”? In terms of its vicissitudes, the life of the one who dwells in the Lord’s house looks no different from one who does not. We all experience times on the mountain top and others in the darkest valley. But the one who abides in the Lord is never alone, both “rod and staff” are sources of comfort.

To rest in the Lord is not to undergo the obliviousness of sleep. It is, rather, to be wide awake to all that is occurring, but also to be “at rest” from the anxieties and compulsions that arise when we fear that we must make our own way, that our life is a contest with unfriendly and even malevolent forces. It is to live in the spirit of Gamaliel, as described in today’s reading from Acts, trusting that, without having to force the issue, what is of God will endure and what is not will pass. Lying in the green pasture with the Lord is not inactivity or passivity. It is actually the deepest mode of being and acting that waits on the Divine inspiration and stands ready to serve it, as a servant of God’s will and way. This rest lacks the urgency of a false responsibility to one’s own designs and rather rejoices to be an instrument of God’s will. It serves the moment rather than worrying about the outcome — and so works and acts in rest, trusting that the Lord will provide all the nourishment needed for the day and for “all the days of my life.”

But there is one aspect of this psalm that has always remained and has always made it almost unique. Here the psalmist does not, as so often elsewhere, approach God with a request. Help me, forgive my sin, crush my enemies, do not let me die. Nor, as also frequently, does he offer God thanksgiving after the fact: You did help me, and I am grateful. Nor is it a psalm that celebrates God’s grandeur and mighty deeds. It is just about ordinary daily life, a psalm about You and me. You are my shepherd. In biblical times, no less than nowadays, this assertion might appear altogether foolish. What biblical speaker, living in a world in which the dangers of famine and disease, military invasion, economic collapse, or sudden death, were certainly no less threatening than in our own day, could contemplate his existence and see only grassy field and peaceful waters? But that is what he does see, and say. In so saying, he is asking for nothing, he does not even offer thanks as such. Indeed, that might be the particular nuance of the first line. Since You are my shepherd, I will never have anything to ask for; and having no occasion for special requests, I will likewise have no reason for giving extraordinary thanks. I am thankful for whatever happens.

James L. Kugel, The Great Poems of the Bible, pp. 197-8

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