Have you ever forgotten something when you go on a trip? You’re driving along and suddenly that little alarm goes off in your head alerting you to the fact that you’ve forgotten something. At that point you have to decide if you can do without or not. In 1981, we were on our way to Iowa for our year long internship. We had our car packed and had been driving for about 3 hours when suddenly I realized that we had forgotten our garment bag with my suit in it. This is back in the day when preachers always wore suits and being poor students we couldn’t afford a new one. So we drove back to meet my parents who brought it to us. What did not happen is what often happens next: the blaming starts. “I thought you had it!” “No, you said that you were putting it in!” “No, I distinctly remember ....” Do you have that picture in your mind? Forgetting things is irritating.
Jesus had just had a major confrontation with the Pharisees who had exasperated him with their demand that Jesus give them a sign that would prove that he was indeed sent from God. Instead of given them a sign, Jesus and the disciples got into their boat and went back across to the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. It’s at this point that the disciples realized that they had forgotten something: their bread for the journey. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach them about what they must really be concerned about in life. It’s not the temporal things but the spiritual threats that can damage our very lives. Let’s read Mark 8:14-21.
There is a delightful irony here in that Jesus had just fed another massive crowd of four thousand people by providing bread but now the disciples don’t have enough bread for themselves. As they make their way across the lake, they start talking about their lack of food. They had basket fulls of bread earlier in the day but now they just have one loaf of bread for all of them.
When Jesus hears them talking, he warns them about the yeast of the Pharisees. Jesus wanted to warn them about the Pharisees while the encounter with the Pharisees was still very fresh in their minds. The disciples, however, interpreted Jesus’ words about yeast as an indirect rebuke for forgetting to bring the bread. And so they began quarreling about whose responsibility it was to bring it. I can about imagine that conversation. “I thought you got some! I thought you did!” “My hands were full... etc...” “Great! We had seven baskets of leftovers!”
Let’s look more closely at Jesus’ warning about the Pharisees and Herod. He uses the image of yeast because the smallest amount of yeast will cause bread to rise. In both Jewish and Greek circles yeast was a common metaphor for corruption. The disciples are warned against the evil outlook of the Pharisees who ask for a sign because they don’t believe that Jesus has been sent from God.
The reference to Herod is intriguing since Jesus had not had direct contact with Herod. In Mark 6:14-16, Herod had shown interest in Jesus because Herod viewed him as a threat by stirring the people up. In Luke 23:8, during Jesus’ trial, we read of Herod’s desire for Jesus to perform a miraculous sign. The figure of evil yeast therefore describes Herod’s willingness to consider believing Jesus only if Jesus would perform a sign that would make him believe. Jesus is also warning about a superficial interest in Jesus that will give people only what they want or entertain them.
II. Jesus then rebukes the disciples in verses 16-18.
When the disciples heard Jesus’ warning, they only heard the reference to bread. Jesus’ clear reference to the Pharisees and Herod was simply ignored. The disciples were in a privileged position and they should have been able to see the truth of what Jesus was saying about the Pharisees and Herod. The dispute among the disciples indicates just how completely absorbed they were in themselves.
Before we rebuke the disciples along with Jesus, consider this: Do we get absorbed in our own temporal needs and miss the obvious teaching like the disciples did? Do we fuss and worry about bread or clothing or material things? Do we obsess about such things and miss the insights that Jesus is giving us? Let’s hear the loving words of a patient Savior in his teaching and rebuke of the lost and struggling disciples.
Anne Lamott writes, “Sometimes I think God loves the ones who most desperately ache and are most desperately lost — his wildest, most messed-up children — the way you’d ache and love a screwed-up rebel daughter in juvenile hall. A 5-year-old girl or her mother in the mountains of Afghanistan, a junkie in L.A., Mother Teresa, you, me, children in Gaza — God created us all and loves us and brings us home, into what may be the first shalom we have ever had the chance to experience.”
But Jesus first shows his frustration with how blind the disciples have been. This is at least the third time Jesus had rebuked his disciples for being so dense. Even though the disciples had been with Jesus almost constantly and had heard his teachings and seen his miracles, they still just don’t get it! The rebuke is not just for them not catching what Jesus was saying about yeast. They don’t understand the full meaning of Jesus being with them. In fact, their hard hearts and blind eyes bring to mind the prophets’ description of Israel. Jeremiah 5:21 says, “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” Ezekiel 12:2 says of the people of Israel: “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.”
In addition to that, in Mark 4:11f, Jesus says that those who are “outside” hear but don’t understand in contrast with the disciples who listen to Jesus’ word. In their denseness, the disciples show that they are no different from anyone else. They saw his miracles and heard his teachings without applying it to themselves.
So are we any better than those around us who don’t understand Jesus? Many in our culture today view Jesus as just an end to their means, whether it is riches or political power or to gain whatever they want. Do we stand out from those who are not believers? If we allowed someone to look at our checkbook register or our personal calendars, would it be that much different than those who are non-Christians? I’m not only talking about giving to the church, but about how we spend our money on things for ourselves and our own desires. Is how we live significantly different from our neighbors? If we understand Jesus, our lives should be significantly different from those who are not Christians around us.
III. Jesus then explains the meaning of his rebuke to the disciples in verses 19-21.
By question and answer Jesus leads the disciples back to the two feedings of the multitudes. Jesus now has a tone of more patient teaching to someone who is a bit slow of mind. The numbers and the specific details in each occasion are precisely given. The disciples remember the facts and respond to Jesus’ questions accordingly. This exchange almost has the tone of a parent reminding his or her child about cleaning their rooms or remembering their school work. “What did we say about leaving food in your room?” “We would get ants.” “And what do you have in your room now?” “Ants.” “And so what should you do next time?” “Wash the plate in the sink.”
Yet in spite of Jesus’ patient lesson, they still failed to understand the significance of what had taken place before their very eyes. Why are they worried about bread when they have Jesus right there with them? What Jesus really wants the disciples to see is the amazing secret of himself. What they should understand from the miracles of the loaves is the secret that Jesus is none other than the Messiah and Lord right there with them! It may be that there is also a veiled reference to this in the one loaf in the boat. Jesus is the one true loaf, the Bread of Life, that is with the disciples in the boat. The repeated question concerning understanding in verses 18 and 21 indicates that the disciples still really don’t know who Jesus is.
What are we to understand from this story? Let’s remember Jesus’ primary warning again. We must beware of the yeast of the Pharisees. Let’s be on our guard against those teachings that appeal to works righteousness. Jesus is telling the disciples that they must have faith in him and not follow the very clear and ever-enticing strict rules of the Pharisees. It is so much easier to live in a world of strict rules and regulations. “Just give me a list of things I need to do and I’ll show you how good I can be.” It ends up being self-justification and that is not what saves us. Beware of those things that urge to us to live a life with the resulting belief that this will somehow make God love us more.
And let’s beware of the yeast of Herod. Let’s beware of the desire to have Jesus give us what we want for our own benefit and pleasure. We don’t live for Christ so that he will make us happy, entertained or feel good. We live for Jesus because he is our Lord and we want to express our joyful and sincere gratitude to him for all he has done for us as we live obediently for him.
Finally, let’s not let the temporal things distract us from what is truly important. It’s hard not to worry about having enough money or having a good job. It’s hard to not to worry about health and how that will go for us in the future. The stuff of life is very real and it’s tempting to focus on that and miss what Jesus is saying.
The trip did help Rubin find his way forward in life, but it wasn’t the opportunity to think that he’d expected. Here’s how he explained it:
You’re so busy putting in the miles during a thru-hike you rarely get a chance to sit on a rock and put your life in order. The shelter-to-shelter ridge-line world is a kind of limbo, somewhere between heaven and hell, but in this world of the fringe, you’re too busy to think yourself into damnation.
You turn things over in your mind while you walk, but not with any sort of analytical precision. A thought, like a sock in the dryer, goes around and around, mixing with other tumbling thoughts, appearing, disappearing, hidden except for a flash of color, reappearing upside down and inside out, but finally not going anywhere.
Your conscious mind is so busy staying on the path, avoiding roots and loose rocks, looking for bears or worrying about how hot or cold you are that your obsessions get mixed in with everything else. All the crisp edges get worn smooth and fuzzy by the tumbling. It’s hard to dwell on a problem because you have to pay so much attention to staying just upright, to staying on the trail. You just walk. And walk.”
Let’s keep learning from Jesus by prayerfully and daily reading the Scriptures and keep on walking together on this path through life. Let Jesus firmly and patiently teach us how we are to go as we walk with him.