The disciples go back for seconds (Mark 8:1-21)

Yesterday, we looked at a strange story that’s unique to Mark’s Gospel, about a healing that didn’t quite work the first time around (Mark 8:22-26). And we’re investigating the context of that story in Mark’s Gospel to help us work out what it’s all about. It’d be best to read yesterday’s post first if you’re just joining us.

We finished up with the disciples being a bit clueless: they’ve just seen Jesus feed five thousand people with a mere handful of food, and then they’re astounded that he can walk on water. Mark comments that they didn’t get it because at this point in the Gospel, “their hearts were hardened.”

Anyway, on with the story. In chapter 7 we see an encounter with the Pharisees who didn’t believe in him, and then a contrasting encounter with a Gentile woman who did. (You can read that later if you want.) And then we begin in chapter 8 with a by-now familiar scenario:

Mk 8:1-3 During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

Just in case we forgot about chapter 6, Mark tells us that there was again a great crowd, which in verse 4 we find had also gathered in a remote place. Jesus also has compassion on them, using the same wording as with the crowd of 5000 in ch6. And again, Jesus talks about the option of sending them away, which is the same thing the disciples advised back in the previous story. We’re supposed to note the parallels. And surely the disciples will, too, right? Surely they’d say ‘so how about you miraculously feed them all like you did last time, Jesus?’ But no. This is how they respond:

Mk 8:4 His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

Cluelessness factor ten. And to rub it in, Mark continues to highlight the parallels: again he uses a few loaves (although there are more this time – seven) and an unspecified number of fish. He seats the crowd, gives thanks and breaks the bread. The disciples distribute it, the people are satisfied, and the disciples again had leftover food to pick up. And this time, there were a thousand fewer people!

Mk 8:8 The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

You see, this story should be a bit of an anticlimax. Probably shouldn’t have made it into Mark’s final draft. I mean, where space is at a premium – writing materials were expensive – and where there are so many stories about Jesus Mark leaves out – stories we see in longer Gospels like Matthew and Luke – why include two almost identical stories side-by side? And from our point of view as a reader, the second one is an anticlimax. Jesus feeds five thousand people with five loaves and two fish. (Yay! Amazing! Isn’t Jesus incredible!) And then… guess what… he feeds four thousand people… with a couple more loaves… (Um, yeah, that’s good too…) Kind of like a sequel healing that doesn’t quite live up to the original.

But the point of this second feeding is precisely that. Even though the circumstances are the same. And even though there are a thousand fewer people and two more loaves, the disciples still don’t get it! What’s going on with them? Haven’t they worked out who he is yet?

But it wasn’t only the disciples who were clueless. No doubt having heard of what Jesus had done – it would have been the talking point of the whole region – the Pharisees turned up. In verse 11 we read that they asked him for a ‘sign from heaven’. Which sounds like a reasonable request. Apart from the fact that since the first miraculous feeding Jesus had walked on water, healed many sick people, and cast out some demons in a most spectacular fashion. He’s just completed an encore performance by feeding the 4000, and a few verses later we have the Pharisees asking for a sign. Hello!? Jesus responds in v12:

Mk 8:12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”

I think the deep sigh is like he’s saying ‘What more do you want?’ In fact, Jesus describes the Pharisees’ lack of belief as ‘yeast’ in the next little scene, in danger of infecting everyone:

Mk 8:13-21 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. 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?”

Just in case we didn’t pick up what was going on, Mark records Jesus’ words to the disciples, which make very explicit the parallels between the two feedings. Jesus himself is astounded that after all they have seen, they fail to understand. They’re blind to who he is.

And it’s just then that we get our story about Jesus’ meeting a blind man. And healing him in two steps. Interesting. Maybe this is in some way a commentary on the spiritual blindness of the disciples. But tomorrow, we need to look at what happens after this story, too.

To think about

Do you ever find yourself thinking a bit like the Pharisees – come on God, give me a sign so I know you’re there – ignoring the three years of signs Jesus performed, including the ultimate sign of his resurrection?

Do you ever come across people whose reason for not following Jesus is that they want their own personal “sign” – again, ignoring the evidence of the resurrection (especially its eyewitness testimony) which is to be The Sign for all generations?

John 20:29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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