Just yesterday, I had a brain-dead moment, commonly known as a “senior moment”—except that I’m not a senior. I was having lunch with a family from church, and I’d brought with me a glass plate which I had borrowed a few months back. However, after entering the house and being warmly welcomed, I suddenly realized that the plate wasn’t with me. I had left it out in the car, I announced to my hosts. And then they told me that I’d actually brought it into the house and given it to them not a minute before—none of which registered in my memory.
Major brain farts are a part of life. Unfortunately, in today’s passage from Mark, Jesus’ disciples are going to experience something more than a brain fart. They’re going to get called out on the carpet for being spiritually dull—by Jesus himself.
Our adventure begins with a moment of déjà vu. Once again, a great crowd gathers, they get hungry, Jesus feels compassion for them and asks his disciples to feed them, they bristle at this unreasonable request, and then Jesus supernaturally feeds the entire crowd with several loaves of bread and a few fish. It’s just like his feeding of 5,000 men, except now it’s a smaller crowd of 4,000 people. However, the context of this story tells us a couple of interesting things. First, Jesus is still in Gentile territory; this is a Gentile crowd! He’s doing the same thing for the Gentiles as he did for his fellow Jews, showing compassion on them and caring for their needs. Second, his disciples haven’t caught on after the first feeding—their response to him is nearly identical to their response the first time around. They still think this is a problem too big for Jesus to handle. They haven’t learned their lesson.
Well, right after this story, Jesus shows up in Galilee again, and he’s confronted by the local Jewish leaders in yet another showdown. Their attitude is unmistakable—they want to discredit Jesus and shut down his teaching ministry. Mark says that they’re “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.” Now, this isn’t an open-minded search for the truth. After all, Jesus has just fed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread! The truth is obvious. No, these Pharisees have already decided that they don’t believe Jesus is from God. They’re just looking for an excuse, any excuse at all, to disparage him.
Jesus is exasperated with these hard-hearted opponents. He knows that no amount of evidence will convince them. “Why does this generation seek a sign?” he asks. “Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He is adamant that they will not get what they’re demanding. Jesus won’t play their stupid game. Instead, he turns and walks away. He gets in a boat with his disciples and heads to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus’ disciples apparently aren’t very good at planning ahead, because once again they didn’t pack enough food. They forgot to get more bread, and they only have one loaf with them! They’re pretty hungry, and you can guess what their thoughts go when Jesus mentions in his teaching, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” His disciples have bread on the brain, so they completely misunderstand this obvious parable. They hold a little pow-wow afterward to figure out what Jesus meant by this cryptic statement. Is he giving them baking advice? Should they change their brand of yeast? Have they been buying bread that has been contaminated by the Pharisees and Herod? But that makes no sense! They only have one loaf with them; why is Jesus bringing this up? Maybe it’s a veiled rebuke for neglecting to bring bread! Man, we really should have remembered to bring bread. I’m starved.
Jesus gets fed up (haha) and breaks into their conversation: “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand?” He is incredulous. Remember that he’d told them that his parables keep spiritually dull people from understanding the truth he wants to teach (Mark 4:10–12). And as he did then, he refers to Isaiah 6:9–10. “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” His disciples just aren’t getting it!
So Jesus conducts a memory drill. “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“Do you not yet understand?”
Jesus wasn’t worrying about bread, and his disciples should have realized that. Why? Because he could make as much bread as he wanted, whenever he wanted, with plenty left over. Bread wasn’t a big issue to him. So they should have realized it was a parable at once. Jesus is warning them about the Pharisees and about Herod—both of whom feel threatened by his authority and therefore oppose him. He’s worried that their “yeast” of unbelief may work its way into the disciple’s hearts and corrupt them. He knows that his disciples are in danger of developing hardened hearts that won’t comprehend what he’s saying to them. The awful irony is that even when he’s warning them, they miss the point of the warning because their hearts are already hard! It’s a catch-22: they can’t understand because their hearts are hard, and their hearts are hard because they can’t understand.
What this means is that the most ignorant, hard-hearted people are often the people who have been with Jesus the longest, who have been “Christians” their whole lives and have heard sound preaching for 50 years. It could be you or me. A skilled surgeon, only Jesus exposes our hard hearts. Only he can rescue us from them.