by Daniel Harrell
Red Sox pitchers and catchers report to Fort Myers this week, which means you’re stuck with me tonight. It was fun having Red Sox reliever Justin Masterson with us last Sunday, though, truth be told, none of us expected him to preach a whole sermon. I guess since his dad is a preacher, as well as his uncle and two cousins, the genes sort of took over. Given his preacher DNA, I asked whether his family was disappointed that he became a Major League baseball pitcher. He said he didn’t think so, especially given all the celebrity that has come his way. Not that celebrity guarantees family approval. Nobody was more famous than Jesus, and yet Mark reports how his own mother and brothers thought he was insane. Moreover, the leaders of his own religious community regarded him as a renegade. Nevertheless, given his DNA, Jesus persisted in his determination to shepherd the lost sheep of Israel back into right relationship with God. Of course, these sheep never could see Jesus as their shepherd. No matter how powerful his sermons or amazing his miracles, believing that somehow God had come in the flesh—or at least in the flesh of some run-of-the-mill carpenter out of Nazareth—was just too much of a stretch.
Interestingly, the only ones who did recognize Jesus as the Son of God were the demons. Given how Jesus was kicking them around it was hard for demons not to notice. And then the last time we were in Mark we read how a Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter (three strikes in first century Jewish religious culture) was the first human to call Jesus “Lord” (even though Jesus called her a poodle). There is a perspective that comes with being an outsider that makes it easier to see what’s authentic. I’m reading a book about this Christian and this atheist who go to church together so that the Christian can get some fresh perspective on Christianity. If I have the story straight, they met when the atheist auctioned his soul on eBay a couple of years ago, sort of as a joke, I guess. The Christian bought it for 500 dollars. But rather than make the atheist convert (if indeed that would have been possible), the Christian made the atheist go to church and give his honest feedback for this book the Christian was writing. Not only did they publish the book, but they went out on the seminar circuit speaking mostly to Christians about how they can do better about getting atheists to come to Jesus. Not that this atheist can ever come to Jesus himself—at this point salvation would completely ruin his income stream. Nevertheless, some of his insights are interesting to read. For instance, he was completely astonished by how he could go to one church to hear about the Bible, but then travel just a few miles down the road and hear something totally different about the same Bible. The atheist said to the Christian, “You all read the same book, but it feels like you’re not even close to being on the same page.”
OK, so maybe that’s not so interesting. It’s been like that for a long time. For the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, their read of the Bible taught them that salvation came through strict religious adherence. God’s grace was for those who followed the rules. For others, represented by the Roman puppet King Herod Antipas, their read of the Bible taught them that salvation would come as political and military power. God’s grace was applied with a big stick. Jesus shows up neither respecting religious tradition (he works on the Sabbath and fails to ceremonially wash his hands before dinner), nor displaying any indication of political power (he has no army, no weaponry, no money). He did have power, however. Not only did he heal disease and feed thousands with a few slices of bread, but he stopped storms and walked on water too. And yet none of these miracles were ever regarded as Messiah material. It was like the woman who mentioned how she enjoyed hearing Justin Masterson preach last Sunday, but then whispered how I needn’t worry about my job. Sure the guy can throw strikes, but his exegesis of Jeremiah hardly parsed out the implications of Israel’s exilic predicament rendering any immediate realization of prophetic expectation extremely problematic. I mean, c’mon.
What’s especially sad in Mark’s gospel is how badly Jesus’ own hand-picked disciples struggle to get what Jesus is talking about. Though he put everything in the simplest terms of farmers and seeds, he still had to take them aside over and over again to explain what he meant. I’ve been trying to do the same as I’ve walked us through Mark’s gospel, stopping on the red-letters that denote Jesus’ own words. I say “trying” because not only are the simple sayings still hard to understand, but Jesus’ explanations are too. I may label the disciple’s thickheadedness sad, but only because I can empathize with them. Though sometimes I wonder if it’s all just a smokescreen. For followers of Jesus who believe he’s God in the flesh, understanding what he says means you have to do something about it. One of the major critiques the atheist had of the churches he visited was that they all talked about believing in Jesus as if believing the right beliefs the right way was all that mattered. “Just believe” and you’re good to go. And that’s true. But Jesus also said that genuine belief always bears fruit. It’s not “get saved by grace” and then you can do whatever you please. Nor is it like the Pharisees back in chapter 7 who acted as if the behavior substituted for belief; that righteousness was merely a matter of proper menu and manners. Eat the right food the right way and you were covered. You’ll remember that Jesus labeled that logic a big pile of poo.
In verse 17 of tonight’s passage, an exasperated Jesus wonders aloud why his disciples’ hearts are so hard. They’d had everything explained and had seen everything too. They were in the boat when Jesus changed the weather. They were in the boat when Jesus walked on water. They were on the shore when he fed 5000 and on the shore again when he fed 4000 more. The Pharisees had seen most of this too but still want more proof. Frustrated, Jesus blows them off and gets back in his boat and heads back across the lake (no word as to why he didn’t just stomp back across the water). In the boat, he warns his disciples to beware the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Herod. Given the Jewish experience of unleavened bread as a symbol of God’s holiness, “yeast” was a metaphor for corruption and evil. Just a little bit of the Pharisees’ lust for privilege or Herod’s lust for power would corrupt everything Jesus was about. However the disciples hear “yeast” and think that Jesus is scolding them for not packing enough bread for their trip. Again, this comes just two paragraphs after feeding 4000 men with seven loaves. Astounding, really. Did they actually think Jesus was worried about bread?
For those of you here for the first time tonight, know that because I’ve been focusing mostly on what Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, I’ve skipped over most of the miracles, including this latest feeding of 4000. I also skipped Jesus feeding of 5000 back in chapter 6 since Jesus didn’t have a whole lot to say there either (although his actions clearly spoke volumes). If you’re unfamiliar with these stories, both basically have a celebrity Jesus engulfed by his fans with nary a concession stand in sight. Mark writes that Jesus had compassion on them because they were, as the Israelites of old, “like sheep without a shepherd” and so he teaches them about God. As his sermon runs on his disciples get worried about dinner, knowing that a hungry crowd can become an ornery crowd. Jesus suggests they feed everybody, which only freaks out the disciples since all they have is a few loaves and two fish and no money. Turns out that was more than enough for Jesus. He took what they had and miraculously stretched it to feed the whole throng with 12 baskets of food left over. I always wonder how he did it. Would the bread regenerate each time somebody pulled off a piece? Or did the whole loaf becomes some monster loaf of bread? Or did Jesus keep pulling it out of a basket like so many rabbits out of hat? Mark doesn’t say. He just says that everyone ate until full.
Whatever the mechanics of the event, the disciples had to be blown away. Bread from thin air? The only time they’d ever heard of anything like this would have been way back in Sunday (Sabbath) School where their rabbi would have taught them about the Israelites stuck in the desert being miraculously fed by God with bread from heaven. Hey, wait a minute. Hungry people in a deserted place with no food followed by a miraculous provision of bread, might there be some connection? Could Jesus be God in the flesh? Clearly the disciples weren’t willing to go that far since later in chapter 6 they were terrified to see Jesus walk on water. Mark writes that had they understood about the wonder bread they would have just shrugged since any God in the flesh should be able to walk on water too. But alas, a remedial lesson is required. Chapter 8. Another large crowd, 4000 this time, gathered with nothing to eat. Again, Jesus sets the table, only to have the disciples display the same remarkable density. They ask with no trace of sarcasm: “Where in this desolate place can anyone get enough bread to feed all these people?”
Even if it is possible for a man to witness 5000 people fed with five loaves of bread and forget that, what are the chances that twelve men all suffered similar dementia? Granted, we are talking about men here—remembering is not our strong suit, but still…. Some scholars suggest that the disciples didn’t want to impose on Jesus because performing miracles seemed to irritate him so. But it’s not feeding hungry people that irritates Jesus. What irritates Jesus is his disciples’ failure to put twelve and seven together. “You have eyes―can’t you see? You have ears―can’t you hear? Don't you remember anything at all?” He does the math all over again: “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Understand what? Twelve plus five is nineteen? There are twelve of us, seven days a week? What? What?
The disciples didn’t forget. They just didn’t get it. I can empathize. Was it a smokescreen? For followers of Jesus who believe he’s God in the flesh, understanding what he says means you have to do something about it. But I’m not sure the disciples believe that Jesus is God in the flesh. That’s coming soon, but for now they still can’t see it. They remember the numbers, they know the facts, they just don’t understand what it all means. I can empathize with that too. There are plenty of things I know that I can’t understand. For instance, I know that there are more plastic flamingos in the US than real ones, but I don’t understand it. I know that Robert Downey Jr. is nominated as best supporting actor for his role in Tropic Thunder, but I don’t understand that either. I know that economists insist that the only way to get our country out of its financial quagmire is to dig a deeper hole of national debt, but I don’t understand it. Likewise, I know that in spite of my sinfulness, God loves me anyway, but I don’t understand it. I know I believe Jesus is God in the flesh, yet I fail to love others as God has loved me. I don’t understand it.
The atheist described how funny it was to go into churches where you’re are asked to greet the people seated around you (not sure which church he’s talking about there). “Why do you have to tell people to talk to each other? Shouldn’t Christians naturally care about each other enough to greet each other without being told?” Later he tells the story of a buddy of his strung out on cocaine who had a come to Jesus and got clean. All these Christian people surrounded him and loved him and got him involved in their church and were really looking after him. He told everybody how God cured him of his addiction. But then about six months down the line this same buddy started doing coke again, though he kept going to church and leading a 12-step group. The crazy part, the atheist said, was that his buddy came to him with his problems now because he felt he couldn’t talk about what was happening with any of his fellow churchgoers. He worried they’d go all judgmental on him for being such a hypocrite, as if grace had a statute of limitations. I can empathize. I’ll hesitate to confess my own screw-ups because I’m not sure forgiveness is really out there. Or maybe it’s because I can be so unforgiving myself. Even though God forgives me all the time.
How do we fix this? How do we see like we need to see? How do we finally understand? How do we finally understand enough that we do something about it? Verse 22. Jesus and the disciples arrived on shore and some people brought out a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. So he took the blind man by the hand and then spit on his eyes. Saliva has historically been a common home remedy as well as a theme in ancient healing stories. It’s good for removing spots from your tie. When you cut your finger, you instinctively stick it in your mouth. The 4th century church father Ambrose wrote that saliva was a prototype of baptism. True fact: the Greek word for spit is ptooey. Jesus spits in the blind man’s eyes and lays hands on him and then asks whether he can see anything. The man looked and said he saw people looking like trees walking.
What’s surprising here is that unlike most healings in the Gospels which occur instantaneously, this one happens in stages. Jesus puts his hands on the man a second time and then “his eyes were fully opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” Given the heavy emphasis on “not seeing” previously conversation in the boat, you would have to be particularly myopic yourself if you missed the significance of this one. In reality, the movement from spiritual blindness to full sight is often gradual. Furthermore, the movement from spiritual blindness to full sight is never something you can pull off on your own. You need Jesus to see Jesus. “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus asks. There remains a ring of hope in that dangling question. Do you not yet understand? Not yet? The question isn’t so much a rebuke as it is invitation. Let us ask Jesus to spit into our eyes too.