Today’s post continues a study of those passages in the Gospel of Mark which have been excluded from the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.
More’s the pity, particularly because the readings from Mark 8 concern spiritual blindness, specifically, the difference between an ignorant heart and a hardened one. Mark teaches us important lessons through these miracles and sayings of Jesus. Two millennia on and we are in the same weak human condition, asking for signs when Jesus has provided more than can be documented (John 20:30-31).
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Herod
14Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
This discussion between Jesus and His disciples occurs after the Pharisees demanded of Jesus a sign from heaven that He was the Son of God. One doesn’t dictate to Jesus Christ.
Prior to that, we read of Jesus’s creative miracle of providing an overabundance of loaves and fishes for the Gentile crowd of 4,000. The numbers were probably greater, as women and children were in attendance. In Mark 6, Jesus performed His most creative miracle by providing a surplus of loaves and fishes for the 5,000 Jews listening to Him teach. Again, some scholars say that the crowd was much greater, as Mark’s Gospel specifies only the number of men.
Now to today’s passage. All of the above events have taken place as well as Jesus’s countless healings of the mentally and physically ill. Yet, those closest to Jesus still have imperfect faith. This is different to the Pharisees and Sadducees who have hardened hearts. Both are states of spiritual blindness. One is temporary and yearns for the light; the other is permanent and headed for judgment.
John MacArthur explains the difference (emphases mine):
An ignorant heart can’t harden itself against the truth. Do you understand that? An ignorant heart can’t hardened itself against the truth. To harden oneself against the truth, one has to be exposed to be exposed to the truth. Only a knowing heart can harden itself. That’s why those closest to Jesus, namely the leaders of Israel and the people who followed them, and the disciples, stood in the greatest danger of heart hardening. And so does anybody who sits under the truth. The leaders of Israel and the nation that followed them, followed them in to permanent blindness, into judicial blindness, judgment, and into outer darkness.
Mark 8:11-13 represent the end of Jesus’s public ministry in Galilee. He has washed His hands of the legalist Pharisees and the rationalist Sadducees. The remainder of Jesus’s ministry will focus on preparing His disciples for their ministry.
Incidentally, I highlighted those words in the previous paragraph to draw a parallel with 21st century society’s divide between legalist Christians and rationalist atheists. Not all Christians are legalists, happily, however, atheists tend to refer to themselves as ‘rationalist’ and exclude Christians from that number.
As today’s reading opens, they realise they have only one loaf of bread (verse 14). Jesus responds with a warning about leaven (verse 15). Most of us today would probably find this use of the word in relation to Pharisees and Herodians — Sadducees — confusing. Surely, yeast is a good thing? Yet, in preparing for Passover, the Jews were not to have anything with leaven in the house. The Jewish practice continues today with an extensive and thorough housecleaning in the weeks prior to this feast to remove any leaven particles.
If we read Matthew’s account, it turns out that the disciples also think that Jesus is instructing them to eat only unleavened bread. It might help to compare the two passages — Mark’s above and Matthew’s below — for a better understanding.
Matthew 16:5-12 says:
The Leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees
5When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. 6Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 7And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.” 8But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? 9 Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 10Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? 11How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Of Mark 8:15, Matthew Henry says:
Mark adds, and of Herod: whence some gather, that Herod, and his courtiers were generally Sadducees, that is, deists, men of no religion. Others give this sense, The Pharisees demanded a sign from heaven; and Herod was long desirous to see some miracle wrought by Christ (Lu. 23:8); such as he should prescribe, so that the leaven of both was the same; they were unsatisfied with the signs they had, and would have others of their own devising; “Take heed of this leaven” (saith Christ), “be convinced by the miracles ye have seen, and covet not to see more.”
The disciples were still confused (verse 16), perhaps even arguing amongst themselves whose fault it was they had only one loaf of bread.
Jesus overhears this and asks them why they are preoccupied with having something to eat (verse 17). Do they not understand His miracles in providing for their immediate needs? Or is it that perhaps they have hardened hearts — that they have seen His truth and rejected it, as the Pharisees and Sadducees have?
He continues (verse 18), asking them if they didn’t see His creative miracles of the loaves and fishes with their own eyes, pay attention to them and … remember them.
In understanding Jesus, we do well to recall what He has done for the world and for us. He has healed, shown mercy, provided for our needs and will do so again. He is always with us and will always provide for His faithful.
Jesus reinforces His rebuke of the disciples by asking them to remember His creative miracles with the 5,000 and the 4,000 (verses 19 and 20) when not only were the crowds provided for but, also, in each case, there were several baskets of food left over. The disciples themselves had collected those leftovers and placed them in the baskets.
In verse 21, He concludes His reproof by essentially saying, ‘Now do you understand that I will provide for your needs? Stop fretting about bread and have faith.’
We also fall into lapses of faith and begin to worry. Jesus’s rebuke of the disciples holds true for us when we begin to doubt His grace and goodness towards us. As Matthew Henry counsels:
Note, (1.) The experiences we have had of God’s goodness to us in the way of duty, greatly aggravate our distrust of him, which is therefore very provoking to the Lord Jesus. (2.) Our not understanding of the true intent and meaning of God’s favours to us, is equivalent to our not remembering of them. (3.) We are therefore overwhelmed with present cares and distrusts, because we do not understand, and remember, what we have known and seen of the power and goodness of our Lord Jesus. It would be a great support to us, to consider the days of old, and we are wanting both to God and ourselves if we do not. (4.) When we thus forgot the works of God, and distrust him, we should chide ourselves severely for it, as Christ doth his disciples here; “Am I thus without understanding? How is it that my heart is thus hardened?”
I would add that we would do well to pull ourselves out of our self-absorption — doubt, worry, our ‘pasts’ — and get on with the future by walking with Him every step of the way.
This week, Britain’s Channel 4 ran a five-day series called Hotel GB, in which entrepreneurs, presenters and entertainers have worked with a group of unemployed youngsters in an effort to prepare them for permanent jobs. The youths worked in the hotel and the celebrities and businesspeople were their managers. Any tips from the hotel went towards The Prince’s Trust and a few other charitites which are getting our young people into full-time employment. At the end of the programme, all 14 contestants had job offers. Unbeknownst to the contestants, most of the customers were from British companies recruiting new staff.
The upshot is that in an exchange between one of the customers and one of the young cooks, the latter said, ‘I nearly didn’t make it here’. The customer replied, ‘But you did make it here — and that’s what matters.’
It also reminds me of this year’s London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, in which many young athletes overcame adversity (e.g. Mo Farah’s difficulty of understanding English as an eight-year old immigrant in an Uxbridge school) to become gold medal winners. And what about the Paralympians who had limb amputations in childhood and a series of subsequent operations who went on to win gold?
Then I read about everyday people who are much older, better off and still spend each moment worrying about, well, trivia, by comparison — things that happen to many people. Even when the sun is shining on a glorious day, they say the sky is falling. Eeyores, wake up!
This is all analagous to our walk with Christ. So many churchgoers fret about the past — sins, experiences, betrayals — that we focus on those instead of the grace and mercy He will show us today and tomorrow.
Our ignoring providential grace and goodness is, as Henry says, deeply displeasing to the Lord. As such, it becomes sin. Furthermore, the Devil is only too happy to prey on this weakness.
Eeyores think a) that they are doomed to live their miserable, depressing lives and b) know they don’t have the power to pull themselves out of their abyss. They’re right about the latter. Only with God’s grace and mercy can they climb out of their morass.
If you’re an Eeyore, please do ask for Christ to help you. Ask for greater faith and more hope. Start walking in the light.
Next week: Mark 8:22-26