Mark 8:14-21

THE FAILURE TO LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE

Mk. 8:14-21

They had forgotten to bring loaves, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, “Look to it! Beware of the evil influence of the Pharisees and of the evil influence of Herod!” They kept discussing the situation among themselves, and saying, “We have no loaves.” Jesus knew what they were saying. “Why,” he said, “do you keep talking about the fact that you have no loaves? Do you not yet see and understand? Is your mind completely obtuse? Do you not see although you have eyes? Do you not hear although you have ears? Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves and gave them to the five thousand how many basketsful of broken pieces did you take up?” “Twelve,” they said to him. “When I broke the seven loaves among the four thousand how many basketsful of broken pieces did you take up?” “Seven,” they said to him. So he said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

This passage sheds a very vivid light on the minds of the disciples. They were crossing over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and they had forgotten to bring bread with them. We will best get the meaning of this passage if we connect it closely with what goes before. Jesus was thinking of the demand of Pharisees for a sign and also thinking of Herod’s terrified reaction to himself. “Beware,” he said, to translate it literally, “of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” To the Jew leaven was the symbol of evil. Leaven was a piece of dough kept over from a previous baking and fermented. To the Jew fermentation was identified with putrefaction and therefore leaven stood for evil.

Sometimes the Jew used the word leaven much as we would use the term original sin, or the natural evil of human nature. Rabbi Alexander said, “It is revealed before thee that our will is to do thy will. And what hinders? The leaven that is in the dough and slavery to the kingdoms of the world. May it be thy win to deliver us from their hand.” it was, so to speak, the taint of human nature, original sin, the corrupting leaven which kept man from doing the will of God. So when Jesus said this, he was saying, “Be on your guard against the evil influence of the Pharisees and of Herod. Don’t you go the same way that the Pharisees and Herod have already gone.”

What is the point? What possible connection is there between the Pharisees and Herod? The Pharisees had just asked for a sign. For a Jew–we shall see this more fully shortly–nothing was easier than to think of the Messiah in terms of wonders and conquests and miraculous happenings and nationalistic triumphs and political supremacy. Herod had tried to build up happiness through the gaining of power and wealth and influence and prestige. In one sense, for both the Pharisees and Herod the Kingdom of God was an earthly Kingdom; it was based on earthly power and greatness, and on the victories that force could win. It was as if Jesus by this detached hint was already preparing the disciples for something very soon to come. It was as if he was saying, “Maybe soon it will dawn on you that I am God’s Anointed One, the Messiah. When that thought does come don’t think in terms of earthly power and glory as the Pharisees and Herod do.” Of the true meaning at the moment he said nothing. That grim revelation was still to come.

In point of fact this hint of Jesus passed clean over the disciples’ heads. They could think of nothing but the fact that they had forgotten to bring loaves, and that, unless something happened, they would go hungry. Jesus saw their preoccupation with bread. It may well be that he asked his questions, not with anger, but with a smile, like one who tries to lead a slow child to see a self-evident truth. He reminded them that twice he had satisfied the hunger of huge crowds with food enough and to spare. It is as if he said, “Why all the worry? Don’t you remember what happened before? Hasn’t experience taught you that you don’t need to worry about things like that if you are with me?”

The odd fact is that we learn only half the lessons of experience. Too often experience fills us with pessimism, teaches us what we cannot do, teaches us to view life with a kind of resigned hopelessness. But there are other experiences. Sorrow came–and we came through it still erect. Temptation came–and somehow we did not fall. Illness took us–and somehow we recovered. A problem seemed insoluble–and somehow it was solved. We were at our wits’ end–and somehow we went on. We reached the breaking point–and somehow we did not break. We, too, are blind. If we would only read the lessons of experience aright, it would teach us not the pessimism of the things that cannot be, but the hope which stands amazed that God has brought us thus far in safety and in certainty and the confidence that God can bring us through anything that may happen.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MARK

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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