It was one of those teaching moments that drives teachers crazy. When I was in seminary, one of my classmates was teaching a high school Sunday School class on the Heidelberg Catechism in our church. He was about half way through the lesson when one of the students said, “I think we’ve done this before. I remember the picture on the lesson handout.” What was so distressing was that they had in fact just had the material presented to them a year before, but they had not remembered all those lessons. The lessons did not stick in their minds and it was only when there was a visual reminder that they then remembered. The first time simply didn’t stick.
Jesus would understand my friend’s frustration. The disciples had just recently seen Jesus feed a crowd of 5,000 plus people. Yet when confronted with the virtually same situation, they still don’t understand. So Jesus feeds another crowd but in doing so teaches us about his love and compassion for us and others as well. Let’s read Mark 8:1-13.
This account is very similar to what we read in Mark 6:34-44. This has prompted some to wonder if this actually happened twice or just once. Yet in Mark 8:19-21, Jesus reminds his disciples of two separate feedings. Thus it is clear that there were two instances of mass feeding by Jesus. Jesus was still in the area of the Decapolis on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee where there was a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles. Now a large crowd has spent three days likely being taught by Jesus. And after three days in this isolated location, their food had been exhausted. While some of the people were from villages and towns nearby, others likely had traveled a great distance and would need to travel that same distance to go home. These people had come to be fed by Jesus’ words and Jesus recognizes that.
There are some slight differences in this feeding from the first that are important to see. Notice first that in the feeding in Mark 6, Jesus has compassion because the people are like sheep without a shepherd. The need is their lack of teaching, which Jesus provides and then he feeds them. In this setting, Jesus has compassion for their physical needs because the people have been so long without food. Notice as well in the Mark 6 story that the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that the people could find food in the neighboring villages. Mark implies that they interrupted Jesus’ teaching to call his attention to the people’s practical need. On this second occasion Jesus is thoroughly aware of the crowd’s need for food. This time he is the one who calls attention of his disciples to this urgent need.
Busyness is a futile attempt to convey to yourself and to others that you are a person of great importance. The overwhelming thought process is that a very busy life (for Jesus of course) + work + family + every little thing people ask you (with good intentions of course) = God's favor and will for your life. This formula will undoubtedly not directly equal God's favor but instead will equal individual exhaustion.
Jesus, on the other hand, talks about a man who plants a seed and then goes to sleep and rests. While he is sleeping, corn begins to grow, ‘first the blade and then the ear, and eventually the full corn appears.’ In short, we should not feel that everything is dependent on us when it comes to the work of the kingdom of God. We should do what we are called to do, but not feel that we have to consume every moment in making things happen for God and for God's kingdom.
Jesus saw the needs of the people and took action and we must do so as well.
Here again, as in the first feeding in Mark 6, Jesus invites the disciples to take action. And again, the disciples’ question makes it clear that they know they cannot do this. In the feeding in Mark 6 they had not imagined that a multitude could be fed. In fact, they insist on that it is impossible almost with a tone of disrespect. There is a different tone here. They refer the need for bread back to Jesus and in effect they are asking, “What can you do?” They are expecting Jesus to do something. Jesus counters by asking how many loaves there are available to them and this implies that Jesus is saying, “I know what I’m going to do. What will you do as well?”
Again there are some differences in what Jesus does here as compared with Mark 6. Notice what Jesus says as he breaks the bread. Remember that there is a mixed population in this Decapolis region. In Mark 6, which was primarily a Jewish crowd, Jesus had looked to heaven and given thanks, in effect blessing God’s name before the bread was distributed. Blessing the bread is the normal Jewish practice for beginning a meal. This would have been a new action to many of the people there in the Decapolis.
Once again there was an abundance for seven large baskets of pieces were left over. And Mark again notes the huge size of the crowd: four thousand people there! After dismissing the crowd Jesus left the Decapolis and returned to the western side of the lake and Galilee in the area of Dalmanutha.
The man then asked the Lombinos what his sister should do. They proceeded to give him a public benefits overview and discuss the mental health services available, and he appreciated it greatly. And then he said: “It must be hard helping people in your line of work because most of them are just looking for a handout and trying to game the system. Then we pay higher taxes to pay for them.”
Elizabeth Lombino writes, “We both looked at him in disbelief. He had just told us a story about how anyone can become homeless -- even his own sister -- yet he was holding onto one of the many damaging myths regarding those who are homeless and living in poverty.” We need to open our eyes and see the needs as people, not as statistics or problems, but as people like Jesus did when he saw that crowd of hungry people. Yes, there are those who game the system or don’t want to work, but let’s not throw everyone in the same boat. We need to look with an open heart to the needs of people.
In response to this miracle, the Pharisees asked Jesus for a sign from heaven. Remember that earlier they had accused Jesus of being an ally of Satan. Based on the Old Testament and later Jewish literature a sign is a token which guarantees the truthfulness of a saying or the legitimacy of a person’s action. Prophetic statements were frequently accompanied by a sign which authenticated the prophecy. This means that the demand for a sign was not a request for another miracle. In this context a “sign from heaven” refers to a public definitive proof that God is with him. As such they were “testing him” to see if he was truly a prophet sent by God. The Pharisees, however, had already concluded that Jesus’ authority was from Satan.
Jesus was thoroughly aware of the hostility and unbelief of the Pharisees. His emotion displayed in his deep sigh was an expression of indignation and grief. And so in exasperation he asks, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?” The Pharisees’ demand for an unmistakable proof that God is at work in Jesus’ ministry was an expression of unbelief and Jesus refuses to give them sign. Jesus then abruptly left which reflects his powerful indignation. There was nothing to be gained in dealing with such crass unbelief. And so he crossed the lake to the eastern shore once again. The Pharisees’ unbelief meant that the gospel remained hidden from them.
We must learn to accept what God says in his Word completely. Walter Brueggemann brings faith and caring for others nicely together in an article in Christian Century Journal. He writes:
If you are like me, while you read the Bible you keep looking over at the screen to see how the market is doing. If you are like me, you read the Bible on a good day, but you watch Nike ads every day. And the Nike story says that our beginnings are in our achievements, and that we must create ourselves. According to the Nike story, whoever has the most shoes when he dies wins. The Nike story says there are no gifts to be given because there's no giver. We end up only with whatever we manage to get for ourselves. This story ends in despair. It gives us a present tense of anxiety, fear, greed and brutality. It produces child and wife abuse, indifference to the poor, the buildup of armaments, divisions between people and environmental racism. It tells us not to care about anyone but ourselves -- and it is the prevailing creed of American society.
The question for us is whether we trust in God fully or if we will trust in ourselves.