BROKEN FOR US
by Roger Wyatt | 2nd April 2021 | more posts on 'Dealing with the difficult'
Photograph:: The Sea of Galilee looking towards the western Golan Heights - Roger Wyatt
After feeding the four thousand, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and ‘went to the region of Dalmanutha’ (Mark 8:10) – a region probably to the north west of the Sea of Galillee. However, he is tracked down by a group of Pharisees who began to question him and ask him for a sign, ‘To test him’ (Mark 8:11). The attitude of the Pharisees did not impress Jesus and after a sharp confrontation, and probably in an attempt to get away from them, Jesus got back into the boat and ‘crossed to the other side’ (Mark 8:13). The conversation that followed between Jesus and his disciples is an intriguing one:
‘The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
“Twelve,” they replied.
“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”
They answered, “Seven.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”’
(Mark 8:14-21 NIV)
It is difficult to not feel sorry for the disciples in the above account, and anyone would perhaps be excused for answering Jesus’ final question with an emphatic ‘No! I still don’t understand’. Indeed, the reader, like the disciples, is left wondering what exactly is Jesus trying to say? Is he setting a maths problem? And why is he talking about the yeast of the Pharisees anyway? The answer to these questions, to say the least, is surprising.
Ostensibly, compared with the account of the feeding of the five thousand found in Mark 6, the story, found two chapters later recounting the feeding of the four thousand represents somewhat of an anti-climax. Jesus’ first multiplication miracle involved more people, with less original resource, and an abundance of leftovers. Moreover, the second story lacks the joy and surprise of the first and the subsequent encounter with the Pharisees that immediately followed, along with Jesus’ obvious annoyance and immediate departure, tends to leave the reader with a sense that they had witnessed something inferior. However, what the conversation between the disciples and Jesus in the boat reveals, once understood, proves otherwise.
Leaving the fish aside, in the matter of the bread, any search for a mathematical formulae to explain the relationship between the loaves, people and leftovers proves to be bit of a red herring (no pun intended). Expressed plainly, the rudiments of the problem are:
5 loaves —> 5,000 people —> remainder 12 baskets
7 loaves —> 4,000 people —> remainder 7 baskets
The clue to the riddle, that Jesus thought his disciples would have understood, is found in Jesus’ veiled reference to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the figures given in the multiplication narratives. Indeed, it was the short confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees that had perhaps provoked Jesus’ reference to behaviour of those seeking him out to test him - the Pharisees were well-known in the gospels as those who presented an outward show of godliness, but which masked an inner reality that was anything but godly. In truth, very few Pharisees were interested in Jesus, or his message, and indeed it would not be long before they actively sought to have him killed. However, it was not just the Pharisees who could demonstrate such duplicity, and Jesus warns his disciples to be alert to it: ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod’. Importantly, it was this duplicity that had, unbeknownst to the disciples, been at work in the multiplication accounts - after the account of the feeding of the five thousand found in John 6 Jesus exposes the true motives of many of those seeking him out: ‘Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill”’ (John 6:25). Put simply, Jesus was announcing that many among the crowds seeking him were not doing so sincerely, but rather, because they wanted their bellies filled - or put another way, the miracles were essentially wasted on those who could not see beyond their own inner agendas.
Returning to the puzzle of the conversation in the boat therefore, it is a principle that Jesus is alluding to and not a mathematical truth. In the second miracle Jesus was able to take more bread, and feed less people, but with less waste. Whilst in the first miracle Jesus had less bread to feed more people, however, there was more waste. What is ordinarily perceived as a good thing in these narratives, namely, that there were baskets left over, is in fact is a bad thing. God does not like waste when there are others that could have benefitted from it - Jesus made sure the leftovers were collected. Additionally, the numbers prove that Jesus had suffered a significant reduction in those seeking him out between the two accounts – a thousand people – and through what was a large scale figurative demonstration Jesus is revealing that in the reduced group there was more resource to be given and less was wasted – in that sense the second miracle was more concentrated. Moreover, if John 6:25 does follow on from after the feeding of the four thousand, the reduction in the numbers of Jesus’ followers continued dramatically - after Jesus finished his Bread of Life Discourse John records, ‘From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him’ (John 6:66). It must have been a moment of great disappointment for Jesus’ disciples, and they may well have wished Jesus’ body and blood teaching had been less unpalatable – indeed, after the departure of the crowds, Jesus addressed his disciples saying ‘“You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve”’ (John 6:67), to which Peter famously replies: ‘“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”’ (John 6:68). Even after such inspired words Jesus is concerned to expose the presence of the yeast of the Pharisees that had made its way into those closest to him: ‘Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”’ (John 6:68).
In many ways, the multiplication narratives serve a much greater purpose than merely illustrating the compassion and miraculous power of Jesus; they offer an amplification and explanation of Jesus’ words found in Mark 4:25: ‘Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them’. Jesus offered his life-giving words to all, and yet, they were wasted on the many whose own agendas caused them to quickly fall away once Jesus’ teaching became too unpalatable, or when difficulties arose. Those that remained, and whose hearts were free of the yeast of hypocrisy, only stood to receive more of the life giving bread that Jesus was so invested in distributing.