Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ They said to one another, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ And becoming aware of it, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ Then he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’
Reflection It’s a favourite ploy of journalists to quiz politicians about the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread. We’d like our leaders to be competent, but we also want them to be in touch with ordinary people and everyday life.
One of the endearing features of Mark’s gospel is the way in which he depicts Jesus’s disciples. Time after time they turn out to be ordinary, fallible people just like ourselves – quite a contrast with those strands of the New Testament that link the apostles with prophets of old and with Jesus himself as being part of the Church’s one foundation (Ephesians 2.20).
So here we find that the twelve can’t even organise a picnic on the seashore. What kind of leadership is the fledgling Church ever to expect? And worse still, the disciples don’t just demonstrate their incompetence over catering (always a significant matter in local church life), but they also reveal a total lack of understanding of what Jesus is saying to them. Earthly power such as Herod’s, and false religiosity such as that of the Pharisees, have always been a danger for Jesus’s followers – but the disciples only want to argue over the short order of bread.
Having eyes yet failing to see, and ears yet failing to understand, they’re behaving like outsiders who have no part in the kingdom (ch 4.11). For all that Jesus has been doing (including those two miracles by the lake) and for all that he is saying to them now, the twelve are simply missing the point. The apparent lack of connection between the two parties in this non-conversation is not a sign of Mark’s awkward style: it’s simply how things were. Yet these are the people who somehow took up Jesus’s mission. Which I find strangely encouraging.
Prayer Jesus, may we look more carefully and recognise the ways you have been at work among us. May we listen more intently for the challenge of your living word. And may we find each day the bread we need to nourish us for the journey..
Rev’d John Durell, retired minister, member of Waddington Street URC, Durham.