As a mum, there are several things that can get really annoying.
The first is when me and my kids have had a great day filled with lots of treats – a breaky out, ice cream at the park and a trip to the cinema. And then, after lavishing my hard earned dollars on having a really special day, there begins the incessant whining about the one thing that they don’t have. A gum ball or a pack of stickers or a $700 gaming console – it doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t seem to matter about all the other amazing things we just did and had – now we want that thing.
The second thing is when they start arguing with each other in that “I’m not touching you, I’m not touching you!!” kind of way. It grates in the nerves. It’s like nails down a blackboard. You know you’re going to have to step in like the UN to make peace and there’ll be no “peace keeping” other than separating them and making them be quiet.
The third thing is when they ask you a question, you answer them and they say “yes, but how do you know” a million times as you keep explaining the same thing. For example, “Mummy, do dinosaurs still live on earth.” “No honey, the dinosaurs died out a long time ago.” “How do you know.” “Because I do.” “Yes, but how do you know?” “Because scientists have found their bones and they are millions of years old and nobody has seen a dinosaur since.” “Yes but how can you be sure.” Etc etc until you feel like you could literally die of the whole conversation.
WELL, this passage in Mark (8:11-21) reminds of all three of these.
In our previous passage (you can read it here), Jesus had performed yet another miracle. And yet here we are, again, with the Pharisees asking for a sign.
To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.”
This feels just like the dinosaur scenario. “Are you the Messiah?” “Yes” “But how do you know?” “Because I know who I am and I’ve been doing miracles for a while now.” “Yes but can you show us another one so we can be double triple sure?”
What they want is authentication. This is more than a miracle, they want some kind of sign of divine intervention since even false prophets can do miracles (see for example Deuteronomy 13:1-2). However, God isn’t a performing monkey and while sometimes he grants the request, generally people asking for that kind of sign get a pretty big slap down (like the devil when Jesus was tempted in the desert).
Why? Wouldn’t it be easier to just show people? I think there are several reasons. But one of them is that at some point, you just have to display faith. Faith is built intellectually on various proofs but the final step is allowing yourself to fall and trusting that a God will catch you. A relationship with God cannot be built on forever providing authentication – it would never end. And that, I think is the other reason. These people have seen Jesus’ signs and wonders. They have heard his teaching. They have experienced him face to face. They know the prophecies. And yet they do not or will not believe. If they will not believe on the basis of what they’ve already seen, will there be anything that convinces them? In Luke 16:31 Jesus says If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
In this way, Jesus isn’t just the son of God, God incarnate, he is a also a prophet and watchman – he has told them what is happening. He has warned them. He has shown them that the kingdom is near and they must repent. Now they must believe the good news and accept the salvation that is being offered.
The disciples are not much better at this point frankly. They are in the boat after the feeding of the 4,000 and only brought one loaf. They start arguing.
Jesus, never one to miss a teaching opportunity, says Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod (Mark 8:15). Very deep. Very profound. He is warning them. Yeast is the thing that makes the whole dough rise. A very little bit effects the whole batch. It doesn’t take much to be contaminated. They need to beware.
And what do the disciples say? Thank you, Lord? Good pick up, saviour? Cheers for the tip, Messiah? No. They argue about not having bread.
Not just totally ignoring him, but also arguing about the most trivial thing. This is so reminiscent of being grabby after a day of treats and the “I’m not touching you” arguments! Jesus has done this amazing thing and has tried to impart his wisdom, and all they can do is squabble because they’re hungry-angry.
Jesus asks them if their hearts are hard. Have they seen but not seen? Do they have ears but are not hearing? They are just like the Pharisees.
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? (Mark 8:17-18)
Jesus reminds them what he just did and then says “Do you not yet understand?” (Verse 21).
This ends the scene. We don’t know what their reaction is – if any.
It could be that the disciples were like my kids. In the face of a question like that, my kids just look at me. They would exchange glances like “just say yes so we won’t get into trouble” – “Yes Mum, of course we understand” even though they blatantly don’t. They’ll just say anything to make the conversation stop.
It could be another great literary device that Mark is using. When he ends the conversation here, he is inviting the reader to answer the question for them. At this point, the reader – whether now or 1900 years ago – is screaming at the book “Oh come on!!! How much evidence do you need??? How are you squabbling when he is right there!!!”
And that is the point of this whole gospel. Mark wants his readers to read themselves into this narrative. He is telling a story faithfully, but he’s doing it in a way that draws the reader in, engages them in the story, compels them to feel the frustration, but also feel confident in the truth that the Pharisees and the disciples should be seeing so clearly.
This gospel was written for us. It transcends the ages. Jesus spoke words of truth. He performed mighty signs. He demonstrated his knowledge of God’s plans and purposes – and then he died for us. And when he rose from the dead (with enough evidence around the event to allow us intellectually to believe it is probable rather than possible) we can fall, knowing he is there. We can trust. We can take that step of faith.
We are the Pharisees sometimes. And when times are tough, which they are and will be again, we will ask for signs and authentication that God is there. We will seek worldly certainty when we should just seek Him. Because we can be certain in Him.
We are all the disciples sometimes too. We have ears and eyes but we don’t see or hear properly. We get distracted. We get the spiritual version of hungry-angry. We need to be corrected. We need Jesus to remind us again – do we not yet understand?
Being the Pharisees and the disciples is kind of like us being like my kids, except to God. We squabble. We fight. We keep asking and asking and asking – without stopping to simply have faith.
Remember. Understand. Be certain in Him. Let yourself fall again – because he is there to catch you.
This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here: Studies in the Gospel of Mark