Friday, April 24, 2020

Mark 8 1-21

in those days 

the multitude being very great, 

and having nothing to eat, 
Jesus called his disciples unto him, 
and saith unto them,
"I have compassion on the multitude 
because they have now been with me three days 
and have nothing to eat
and if I send them away fasting to their own houses
they will faint by the way
for divers of them came from far."
and his disciples answered him,
"from whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?"
and he asked them, "how many loaves have ye?" 
and they said, "seven".
and he commanded the people to sit down on the ground
and he took the seven loaves 
and gave thanks, 
and brake, 
and gave to his disciples to set before them; 
and they did set them before the people.
and they had a few small fishes 
and he blessed
and commanded to set them also before them.
so they did eat
and were filled
and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.
and they that had eaten were about four thousand
and he sent them away.

Stop me if you have heard this one before.

There is a big crowd. Jesus is in a "desolate place". The disciples have only a small amount of bread. Jesus blesses the bread; the disciples distribute it; all the people have enough to eat and there is plenty left over.

A few pages ago, we had the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Now, Jesus performs the same miracle again: the Feeding of the Four Thousand. This is not an editorial mistake; Mark has not accidentally included two versions of the same story. It is important part of the narrative that the same miracle happened twice. In a few verses, Jesus will refer to the two miraculous feedings as two different events. Five thousand and four thousand: the numbers are important in some way. 

The last time Jesus asked his disciples how many loaves of bread they had, they shamefacedly admitted "five". This time they rather proudly say "seven". That was another of Alec McGowen's laugh-lines.

and straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, 
and came into the parts of Dalmanutha.

and the Pharisees came forth, 
and began to question with him, 
seeking of him a sign from heaven, 
tempting him
and he sighed deeply in his spirit, 
and saith, 
"why doth this generation seek after a sign? 
verily I say unto you, 
there shall no sign be given unto this generation"
and he left them, 
and entering into the ship again departed to the other side

No-one knows where Dalmanutha is. In Matthews's version, the incident takes place at Magadan, but no-one knows where that is either. After this encounter, Jesus goes to "the other side" of the lake and ends up in Bethsaida, but since no-one knows where Bethsaida is either, that isn't much help.

The location doesn't matter very much. They are back in Galilee, somewhere near the lake. Jesus feeds another crowd; gets into a boat; travels some distance; and gets out. Some Pharisees ask him a question; he won't answer it. Instead he gets back in the boat and goes away again. Mark is building up a picture of what the Galilean ministry was like. Jesus criss-crosses the lake, doing miracles and arguing with Pharisees.

What do the Pharisees mean by a sign? They know that Jesus can do miracles -- they just object to him doing them Saturday mornings. They know he can cast out demons -- they just aren't sure of who gave him the authority to do so. The want some sort of additional sign; a sign from heaven; a sign which would prove something. 

But what do they need proof of? Up to now, Jesus has avoided making direct claims. He has kept his identity largely a secret. They can hardly be saying "Prove to us that you are the Messiah!" because Jesus hasn't yet claimed to be so. They can't be saying "Prove you are the Son of God!" because only the demons know that he is.

But Jesus has insinuated that he is somehow above the law -- and certainly above the Pharisee's own teachings. He has said in their hearing that he can change the rules about the Sabbath if he wants to; that people don't have to fast as long as he is around; and that he himself has the authority to forgive sins. So perhaps that is all they are after. Prove to us that you have the authority to do all this stuff. Tell us definitively who you are claiming to be.

Why does Jesus refuse? Is he stating a general principle: "I offer no proofs to anyone", or a more specific one "I offer no proofs to Pharisees."

Jesus has consistently tried to keep his miracles quiet, but lots of them -- the healing of the woman with the issue of blood; the healing of the man with a withered hand -- have been done in public. People know that he can do this stuff. 

Jesus says that he is not in the business of giving out signs. Not right now. Not to the present generation. It must follow that the miracles of Jesus are not to be taken as signs. One is tempted to write "they are not significant". If you want to know who Jesus is, you have to look elsewhere. Evangelists who tell us to trust Jesus because he healed cripples and lepers are have evidently not read this passage.

now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, 
neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf.

and he charged them saying 
"take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, 
and of the leaven of Herod"
and they reasoned among themselves, saying, 

"It is because we have no bread."
and when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, 
"Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? 
perceive ye not yet, 
neither understand? 
have ye your heart yet hardened?
having eyes, see ye not? 
and having ears, hear ye not? 
and do ye not remember?
when I brake the five loaves among five thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? 
they say unto him, "twelve."
"and when the seven among four thousand, 
how many baskets full of fragments took ye up?" 
and they said, "seven."
and he said unto them, 
"How is it that ye do not understand?"

"It is because we have no bread" say the disciples, who have messed up on this front twice before. And again the audience laughs.

I think the laugh may give us a way in to this very obscure story. The disciples have witnessed two amazing miracles of feeding -- two reruns of one of the Prophet Elijah's best stunts. And the main thing they have taken away -- the thing they are still fretting about -- is "Silly us! How incredibly embarrassing! We keep misjudging the catering arrangements!" It's like they've spotted the least important thing and made that the whole point of the story. And that's quite funny. How could anyone be that silly?

The Pharisees and (although we have not heard very much from them ) the Herodians are different Jewish sects; both expecting a new Jewish King but disagreeing about who is is going to be. The Pharisees are hoping for a bona fide descendant of David; the Herodians, more realistically, want to see the dynasty of Big Herod restored.

Leaven is yeast. At the feast of Passover the faithful eat matzos, bread made with no yeast. The Torah has a lot of instructions about not allowing yeast to get into places where it isn't meant to be. For a whole week around Passover you aren't allowed to have any of the stuff in your house; and bread made with yeast can't be sacrificed to God under any circumstances ("Go and sin!" says the prophet Amos "And then sin some more! And while you are at it, sacrifice some yeasty bread to God, why don't you?") So Jesus is alluding to the practice of searching and cleaning houses of every trace of yeast before Passover. A small bit of yeast gets into everything. If you let even a speck of yeast get into a cooking pot then the whole stew is unclean. So the message is not very obscure. "Search very carefully for anything related to the Pharisees and the Herodians. Even a tiny amount will make you impure."

The disciples don't understand what Jesus is on about, and say so. Jesus reminds them of the two miracles of the loaves. He particularly draws their attention to the numbers of a loaves involved, and the numbers of fragments which came back. They don't understand. And neither, I have to admit, do I. 

Aha. Laughed at the disciples for missing the point? Not so clever now, are you?

Five loaves shared between five thousand people left twelve baskets of left-overs. Seven loaves shared between four thousand left seven baskets. That's a ratio of 1 basket to 417 people in the first case, and 1 basket to 571 in the second. In the first case, each individual got one one thousandth of a loaf of bread, or approximately 0.8 grams each; in the second each person got about one six hundredth of a loaf, or maybe 1.4 grams.

This doesn't help. 

But maybe there is some general point: the less you have to start with, the more is left over? God prefers to work with limited resources? Bread goes further if you add fish to it?

Perhaps we should be reading the numbers magically. Allegorically. Five loaves represent the five books of Torah; seven loaves represent the seven days of creation. So the first miracle is about the feeding of Jews, and the second is about the feeding of the whole universe. Twelve baskets represent the twelve tribes of Israel; seven baskets represent the Amorites, the Hittites, the Jebusites, the Hivites, the Perizzites and the Girgashites who Jacob's descendants kicked out of the Promised Land. (Paul talks about the Israelites defeating "the seven nations", as if that is a number we ought to know about.) It is certainly true that in the troubling story of the Cyro-Phoenician woman, Jesus healing power is likened to bread. But the point of that story is that the pagans are going to get to pick up abundant, plentiful scraps -- not that they are going to go somewhere else and have a feast of their own.

And what does any of this have to do with yeast?

It is obviously true that Jesus is speaking spiritually and the disciples are obstinately understanding him materially. You would have to be very clueless indeed to read this passage and think that Jesus is telling us that if a Herodian gives us a matzo it might be ritually unclean. Preachers sometimes talk as if this misunderstanding is the whole message of the passage. "Jesus once spoke to his disciples about spiritual, metaphorical bread; but they misunderstood him and thought that he meant literal bread. And in a very real sense, isn't that often true of each and every one of us...."

But this doesn't explicate the passage one little bit. In what way does "Remember how much there was left over when I multiplied actual physical bread to feed an actual physical crowd?" lead to "In this case, when I say 'yeast' I am not talking about literal yeast"?

"When Jesus fed two huge crowds with hardly any bread, there was plenty left over. Once you have understood this, you will understand what it means to avoid Pharisee yeast." It makes no sense at all.

When faced with very difficult passages like this in Mark, I am tempted to "cheat" and see what Matthew made of them. But that doesn't help very much in this case. Matthew tells Mark's story pretty much in Mark's words, but he adds that the disciples eventually worked out that by "yeast" Jesus meant "teaching". And that's a good enough reading of Jesus remark about the yeast: avoid the teaching of the Pharisees as scrupulously as you would avoid yeast at Passover. But it doesn't bring us any closer to seeing the significance of the numbers of people involved in the miracles of the loaves. "Once the disciples thought about how much food went into doggy bags after the miraculous feedings, they understood that they should scrupulously avoid the teachings of the Pharisees." The allegorical readings are open to the same interpretations. "The two healing miracles contain a cryptic numerology which shows that God will eventually feed both Israel and the Nations: this tells you in what way the Pharisees' teaching is like yeast."

So: according to our normal procedure, let us simply observe that the literary or artistic effect of this passage is to be leave everyone baffled. The important thing to take away is not that Pharisaical teaching is yeast-like. The important thing to take sway is that Jesus keeps saying things that the disciples don't understand. And neither do we. And that makes Jesus angry:

"Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?"

Do you nor see? Do you not hear? The disciples are blind and deaf. Deaf and blind. And so are we.

And that sets up everything else which happens in this pivotal chapter.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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Mike Taylor said...

I know these posts are not getting a lot of attention compared with some of your other work, but I want you to know that at leaat once person is fascinated.

(It's me.)

Irina said...

And me!

Colyngbourne said...

And me.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Thanks very much all for saying so. I'm working on the next few chapters now (divorce, fig trees, temples). I have a vague ambition to get to the end before Lockdown finishes.