Please read Mark 8:1-21
Are you any good at barn dancing? From my experience, there is always someone who doesn’t quite get it, even if the band is outstanding and the caller is perfect. They have heard it talked through, seen it demonstrated, even walked through it themselves, but when it comes to the actual dancing, they are still going the wrong way round the circle, or swinging by the wrong hand, or simply counting wrong! Of course, it doesn’t really matter. Who cares if you are a bit slow to grasp the finer details of barn dancing! But there are more serious aspects of life where being slow on the uptake is far more important; when what is at stake is not whether you might bump into someone on a dance floor but whether you will miss something of life or death importance. Far too many people are desperately slow on the uptake when it comes to the spiritual world – the truth about God and how it is possible for us to know him. Mark 8 is about just that, as we watch the disciples putting on a demonstration of being incredibly slow on the uptake. Here is something they should really have understood very well, but apparently they don’t have a clue.
Remember that the first half of Mark’s gospel is about answering the crucial question, Who is Jesus? What is his identity? That is one of those vital questions where people are often very slow on the uptake. By the end of ch 8, this question will finally have been answered: we are not quite there yet, but Mark’s story has been full of clues, many of them tied up with the miracles that Jesus has done. So surely the disciples of all people, the disciples who have literally been walked through the miracles, won’t be so slow that they will miss the point? Apparently, unfortunately, they do. In Mark 8 we come to another miracle of feeding a huge crowd, which the disciples should already know by heart. This story brings to an end the major section of Mark which began in 6:31 with that first feeding miracle, and which I have called ‘From Israel to the Nations’. As we conclude it, the last clues which are needed to establish Jesus’ identity are given; at the start of the next section, all will be revealed.
There are sceptics who think that these two accounts of feeding miracles really represent a single incident. This incident has been remembered in two different ways, or somehow the story has got changed in one tradition, or both; and by the time Mark comes to write all this down he has the idea that there were two separate feeding miracles. But quite apart from the fact that we believe the Bible tells a true and accurate story, this idea does not really make sense. Too many of the details are quite different. The crowd, obviously, is a different size. In fact, all the numbers involved are different, as is the location. Jesus’ motivation for feeding them is different and so is the aftermath. Even the recycling bins for the leftovers are different! In a culture where stories are passed on by word of mouth, you don’t get away with tampering with such details. Someone will always be there to correct you if you try it; that is how oral culture works. There are two stories because there are two crowds and two miracles. This is the catering project, part two!
Mark knows exactly what he is doing as he writes his gospel. Study the layout of these chapters and you can see that he is doing something very deliberate. Compare these two sections of Mark’s gospel, one from 6:31 to 7:37 and the other from 8:1 to v.30, and you will see that in each case, the section begins with Jesus feeding a crowd, then there’s a journey in a boat, an argument with some Pharisees, a conversation involving bread, a healing and finally a confession of faith
As this story begins, Jesus and his group are in the area known as the Decapolis. He has been there for a little while, it seems. People have gathered from near and far to come and meet Jesus; and just as before, there is a catering problem. Whatever food the people have brought with them has now gone. This time it is Jesus himself who points out the problem (vv.2-3). He doesn’t blame the people for failing to bring picnic hampers: after all, they have come for the right reasons, to hear him teaching. He’s presented the problem to the disciples with the implication that they should respond with proper confidence that Jesus can deal with it. Instead comes the helpless answer we find in v.4. They are out in the wilds; the shops are too far away; so as far as they are concerned, the situation is hopeless. Here is the main reason why the sceptics think this can’t be a separate incident. Only two chapters back, Jesus has managed exactly the same problem, and they were all there to see it done. It’s inconceivable that they would be so dumb! In response, we must remember that those two chapters probably cover a few months of real time. Remember too that Jesus often drew huge crowds, and he must often have sent them away at the end of the day without feeding them. So perhaps the disciples have a little more excuse than we might imagine. It’s even possible that they don’t expect or want Jesus to feed this crowd because in this place, east of Galilee, most of them are Gentiles, not Jews.
But for all that, and even making every allowance we can, the disciples are remarkably slow on the uptake! Their reply is depressingly similar to the one they gave the time before (6:37). So Jesus asks, again, What do we have to work with? (v.5). This time the answer is, not five, but seven small loaves, and it turns out there are a few small fish as well (v.7). Perhaps these are the remnants of the disciples’ own supplies, but wherever it comes from, it’s not much to feed the crowd that covers the hillside; yet once more, that is what Jesus does. He tells the crowd to sit or lie down on the ground – and this time, there are none of those distinctive Jewish or Old Testament echoes to the story which we observed in the feeding of the five thousand, because this is not mainly a Jewish crowd. Jesus takes the bread and gives thanks for it, in the usual way; and he breaks it, and he breaks it again, and again; and before their eyes the disciples see it grow and increase until they are carrying great armfuls of bread to the waiting throng (v.6). Then comes the fish course: it would be unusual for a Jew to give thanks a second time, but Jesus does that – again an indication that this is not a Jewish crowd, and he wants to teach them to thank God for the food he provides every day.
In v.8 we see that exactly what the disciples said could not happen, has happened – the word ‘satisfy’ is the same word used in v.4. We probably don’t know much about what it is to be hungry. We are used to having food available when and how we want it. But this crowd of peasant farmers and fishermen live from day to day; they know what hunger means. Some of them won’t have eaten for days. I can guarantee that no-one in that crowd is complaining that they don’t like this kind of fish, or it hasn’t been filleted, or they will only eat haddock! When there is enough to satisfy a crowd like that – and have enough to fill baskets with the leftovers that are strewn across the ground (v.8) – that is some miracle! By the way, these baskets are different from the ones the disciples used after the feeding of the five thousand. On that occasion the word that is used means something like a small shoulder bag. They filled twelve of those with leftovers, so probably each of the disciples had his own personal supply to eat over the next couple of days. But this time, the basket is a much larger one, probably made of rope, and the fact they fill seven of them actually means there are far more leftovers than the first time. It’s as if Jesus is saying, If you didn’t get the point the first time, I will make it even more obvious for you by giving you a much bigger clearing up operation today. Now, perhaps, you will remember! If not the well-fed crowd, then at least the clear-up operation will fix it in your minds.
Now Jesus moves on (v.10). The crowd he sends away (v.9), no longer at risk of collapse from starvation. He gets into a boat and crosses the lake again to Dalmanutha – exact location unknown, but somewhere back on the western side in the Jewish area – and there are his old friends to greet him: the Pharisees again (vv.11-12). All through Mark’s narrative, there has been this ongoing conflict in the background. For the most part, the religious establishment has turned strongly against him, even pronouncing that he is inspired by the devil. That opposition lies behind their strange request. At first it sounds stupid: Show us a sign. They know perfectly well Jesus has been doing miracles – they may even know he’s just got off the boat from doing one of the greatest. Yes, they may be stupid, but they’re not that stupid. What they are asking for is not just another miracle, but a sign from heaven that will authenticate the miracles, that will prove they originate with God: exactly what they don’t believe.
Jesus gives them no encouragement. Their attitude exasperates him. No, he says, I will not produce signs and wonders to order. I will not submit myself to your examination and I will not place myself under your control. If you are so wilfully blind that you cannot see the evidence that’s in front of your eyes, I am not going to give you any more help. And so, we read, he ‘leaves them’. He turns his back on these people who will not recognise him; he walks away; and he gets back into the boat.
Piece by piece, the identity of Jesus is emerging from Mark’s account. In v.13 Jesus is once more in the boat with his disciples, setting off across Lake Galilee. As soon as they have pushed off from land, the sail has been set and they are on their way across the water, the conversation begins (vv.14-15). Quite likely, Jesus is looking back at the group of Pharisees he has just left standing on the shore as he speaks. Now what would the disciples have made of this saying? It sounds odd to us, but yeast was quite regularly used to mean something or someone with a pervasive, under-cover influence – just as the yeast in bread-making spreads its unseen influence throughout the dough. Yeast could be used as a picture of sin, of evil which spreads its sinister effects everywhere. So when Jesus talks about the ‘yeast of the Pharisees’, he means, Watch out for the evil influence of their teaching. Watch out for the effects they could have on you. It’s a warning against the kind of hypocrisy which they’ve just seen in the Pharisees, who claim to be open to the truth but in reality are deliberately blind. In fact, in the Aramaic language which Jesus is originally speaking, there is probably a play on words – between the word for yeast, chamira, and the word for teaching, amira. In any case, it should be obvious to the disciples what Jesus is talking about. Watch out for the hypocrites – and don’t ever be like them. Keep your integrity.
But the disciples are simply not on the ball. Instead of picking up what Jesus is really saying, they stop at the word ‘yeast’ and jump to the conclusion that he must be talking about bread. They are already feeling guilty because they’ve forgotten to bring any – the leftovers from the last miraculous meal are all finished and the disciples have failed to stock up again. In fact, they have a grand total of one bread roll (the probable size of the ‘loaf’ in v.14). Now here is Jesus going on about yeast. Obviously he is getting at them (v.16)! You can just imagine it: ‘Oh, John – head in the clouds again – you know it was your turn to go to the supermarket!’ ‘What on earth are we going to do with precisely one bun?!’ While Jesus is trying to communicate spiritual realities, all they are concerned about is the absence of a packed lunch.
Is it surprising, then, that Jesus rebukes them (vv.17-18)? In Jesus’ words here the disciples, at least if they are listening, will hear the echoes of the OT prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel – the prophets who rebuked God’s people for failing to understand, failing to listen to him, when they should have known so much better
In vv.19-21, Jesus takes them back to those great miracles – the feeding of the five thousand and then of the four thousand – and he checks their memory. Now this is not some complex mathematical riddle. He is simply saying, Do you remember how it turned out that day? You do? And that other day, last week? Seven baskets of leftovers, right. Good. But what did it all mean? You remember it so clearly, you remember the clear-up operation down to the last scrap, but you don’t get the point. All those miracles; all that food; all that teaching – and still you don’t realise who you are with! You are spiritual half-wits.
What is the message of this story for us? I suggest two things: one statement, one question. Here’s the statement. Jesus will satisfy your greatest need. When Jesus sees the starving crowd, he has compassion and feeds them. He meets their need. Jesus does not come to give you whatever you want, as some people think. He comes to give us what we most need. And that is himself – the bread of life. He came to distribute that life of his to a great crowd of people, a great number of us, so that we would be truly fed. It is wonderful that Jesus performs two special feeding miracles: one for Jews and one for Gentiles, showing us that he has come to give the bread of life to people of every nation. Wherever you may be reading this and whichever earthly nation you belong to, this living bread is for you. But before he can feed you, you first need to know that you are hungry. You need to know there is no food anywhere else, there is no satisfaction in anyone else. Your own resources have run out and you need the life that only Jesus Christ can give you. Once you have seen that, he will satisfy your greatest need. He will feed you with life.
Now here’s the question. Are you as dull as the disciples? Are you a spiritual half-wit, as they were? I believe that we Christians often are. How often do we have to walk through the dance before we learn how it’s done? How many times do we have to hear his reassurance, his promises, before we learn to trust him – his promises that he will always be with us, that he will always provide, that he really is working out his purposes for good in our lives – that he wants to give us rest? If you are not a Christian, how many times do you need to hear the message? How long before you can see Jesus for who he really is, God’s promised Saviour, come to give himself for you, to lay down his life at the cross so that you may have life? When the Pharisees made their demand of Jesus, he refused to comply. He gave a deep sigh, turned his back and walked away. Watch out, or Jesus may leave you too. When God stops speaking to you, that is when you really have to worry. Have you heard the call? Are you there yet?