Mark 8: 1 – 13 Jesus feeds the four thousand
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.’
His disciples answered, ‘But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?’
‘How many loaves do you have?’ Jesus asked.
‘Seven,’ they replied.
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterwards the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. 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.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
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Why does Mark tell us this story? He has already described the feeding of the five thousand. What does this story add?
In one way, it deals with an ‘explanation’ that is sometimes given for saying that the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t a miracle. The ‘explanation’ is that many of those present had actually brought some food, but had been reluctant to eat when others went hungry. Jesus’ dramatic gesture with the five loaves and two fishes overcame their selfishness and they shared – and everybody had plenty.
This time, though, Mark tells us that the crowd had already been with Jesus three days. We can’t assume that all of them had stayed the whole time, but as they were in a remote place it seems likely that many of them had been. They might have been carrying some food in the beginning, but surely that would all have been eaten by the third day? This time it must have been a miracle.
Another reason Mark may have included this story is that it emphasises the way in which Jesus was followed by crowds of people all the time.
Are there things for which modern people will assemble voluntarily and wait outdoors away from home for days? Political protests sometimes inspire that. Queuing for shopping sales can attract people overnight. Queuing for the last night of the Proms has been known to start five or six days in advance. In new democracies, people have queued night and day to be able to vote. In all these instances, most of the people involved want something passionately, anything from a fur coat they couldn’t normally afford, to a political objective.
What did the people assembled with Jesus want?
Perhaps some were looking for healing? Many might have been aware of a spiritual hunger that needed to be satisfied. Maybe many of them were drawn by Jesus’ reputation as a worker of miracles.
At all events, there they were, hungry and far from home. So Jesus said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.’ He was concerned for the people. He knew that many of them were far from home.
Jesus’ compassion can hold a lesson for us. When we are far from home, when we are tired and hungry, when we feel spiritually far from God; Jesus’ knows, and has compassion for us.
It would be nice if today’s passage ended here, but it doesn’t. It tells us of a challenge to Jesus by the Pharisees.
“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.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.”
Contrast the Pharisees with Jesus.
Jesus works a miracle because he has compassion on his listeners.
The Pharisees demand that Jesus gives them a “sign from heaven” to prove to them that God has sent him.
Hearing the Pharisees’ question, Jesus “sighed deeply” – and refused. I’m sure he would have wanted the Pharisees to come to faith, but giving them a sign from heaven wouldn’t have accomplished that. The Pharisees’ demand for a miracle is one that seeks to control the power that it sees. Faith only comes about by seeking God diligently. If the Pharisees had been with Jesus when he fed the four thousand, they would have seen the miracle they wanted.
There is a lesson for me in this. I am apt to question and challenge. I am very open to doubt. In many ways I am sceptical.
I must learn from the Pharisees’ experience that I will only grow in faith insofar as I am prepared to let Jesus lead me. Jesus is my Lord, and I must watch him at work if I wish my faith to grow.
Thank you for Jesus. Thank you for letting me come closer to him. Please help me to listen carefully to him, and obey him.
In Jesus’ name, Amen