Reading: Mark 8:1-21
Like last week, the story of the feeding of 5000 does not stand in isolation — but, if you skip forward a couple chapters you read the story of the feeding of the 4000. The feeding of the 4000 sounds very familiar, so familiar that it is tempting to guess that it is another version of the same story.
There is a pattern to this as well. You might have noticed that last week in Chapter 5, the Sunday school lesson talked about Jesus healing the demon possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes — and the feeding of the 4000 follows the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and the Greek deaf-mute that I spoke of last week. Chapters 5-8 have important elements that are repeated — whether it is the healing of those the Jews consider enemies, or the feeding of large crowds.
When something is repeated like this, there is a hint that there is something that we are supposed to learn. When Jesus talks to the disciples about what they are supposed to learn from a teaching or an event, it is something that we should pay attention to as well. I imagine that everybody who listened noticed something. I will briefly share what came out when I read this text.
First, I notice that the motivation for feeding the crowds is compassion. At the feeding of the 5000, the disciples had compassion, and encouraged Jesus to send the people to the city where they could buy food. In the feeding of the 4000, Jesus had compassion because they had been with him for three days saying: “If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way.”
The next thing I notice is that the disciples never expect a miracle. We read any of the gospels, and it appears that Jesus is constantly doing miracles — but, even when it is something the disciples have seen before they still seem surprised. The second time, when Jesus tells the disciples he wants to feed another crowd, the answer is: “How can one feed these people in the desert?” This is all the more remarkable as the writer of Mark goes out of his way to tell the reader that they have seen this before. Mark 8 begins telling us that “there was again a great crowd without anything to eat.” Later when Jesus talks to the disciples and mentions this miracle, Jesus asks specifically about feeding both the 5000 and the 4000, asking: “How many baskets are left over.”
The final thing that I notice is that the disciples never seem to learn. The disciples hear every sermon Jesus preaches, they hear every parable, and they even have Jesus to privately explain what they never understood — yet they never understand. Sometimes, I wonder if Peter and the others didn’t exaggerate their cluelessness, because it is hard to believe that they could have missed everything Jesus said and taught and did while they were standing there and studying under Him.
After Jesus teaches and feeds the people, he leaves, and the next place he goes he has the Pharisees calling for a sign. I find it remarkable that “no sign will be given to this generation,” because it seems like there are huge signs everywhere that Jesus goes. Remember what Jesus told the disciples of John when John asked if Jesus was the messiah? “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everywhere Jesus goes, there are signs unless one chooses to ignore them. How can there be a sign for somebody who refuses to read any signs?
When Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, Jesus tells them to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples asked each other if this was because they didn’t bring enough bread, and Jesus reminds them that a lack of bread isn’t the problem because of miracles.
In Matthew, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast — just a little yeast works it’s way through all of the dough. Yeast is, you might say, like mustard or salt, or light; it fills the space it is given. Apparently, the kingdom of heaven isn’t the only thing that one can be full of. Do we not understand what the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees is?
Now, if I were to guess, I would guess that it would be the same yeast. Herod was a puppet king of Rome. The Pharisees were a powerful political party. One of the reoccurring themes in the gospel is that Jesus does not take a place as a politician, nor does he take an Earthly throne — indeed, he insists that his Kingdom is of another place. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the final temptation was political power, if he would worship Satan.
Christian leaders have compromised their faith and Christ’s teachings for the promise of political power on many occasions. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying: “primitive Church good, Constantine bad”, because I don’t believe that the leaders of the Roman empire embracing Christianity was a bad thing at all; but in some ways having a worldly kingdom as a nominal ally makes Christianity more complex. When Rome was an enemy, Christians were only concerned with how to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. With Rome as an ally, Christians also had to consider how to be a good Roman. No man can serve two masters — even when a kingdom of Earth is friendly, it still isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God. Because of Constantine, we must be careful that the temptation of political power does not change the mission of the Church.
I do want to observe that this change made Jesus’ final temptation, the temptation to seek worldly power instead of the Kingdom of God became very real at this point. In many ways, a hostile empire would have been easier — the yeast of worldly power can have a way of working it’s way through the church. If we are not careful, we might become more identified with a political position than with a gospel that heals and saves those around us. We risk choosing the kingdom of the world when we choose which master that we serve.
The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but beware of the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees. May we choose our yeast wisely, and may the right yeast work its way throughout the dough.