The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”
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? 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.”
He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
~ Mark 8:14-21
I love the book of Mark! I feel at home in the world it describes because the disciples don’t seem to see any better than I do. I find that reassuring. But, I’m not sure that most Christians are reassured by that. In fact, I was a little afraid to have people read the first two posts. They’re gonna think that I’m just not a real Christian, because if I were, I would see clearly. And when I say I’m a pastor they will probably think that I’m a liberal postmodern blind-leading-the-blind charlatan!
So far no one has said that to my face. Most of the responses have been much kinder than I had imagined. Still people just aren’t sure what to make of my observations. Over the last year I have connected with some high school friends through an online Yahoo group. One of the discussion threads turned towards our tendency to romanticize and simplify the years we were in high school. We tend to believe that things used to be simpler; used to be better than they are now. This seemed like an opportunity for me to bring up this idea that I’ve been struggling with—that in many areas we both see and don’t see—and I offered to share my thoughts about how that affects faith. Most of the people in the group are not Christians but a few took me up on my offer, and I sent them an early version of the first two posts.
Okay, so I realized that what I had written might be a bit much to take without some explanation. So I prefaced each copy with a number of qualifications before sending them out. One of the email responses I got back was a good example of how Christians often deal with this conundrum of seeing but not seeing. My friend described his own conversion to the Christian faith. He likened his experience to the experience of the thief on the cross who looked at Jesus crucified and “saw” that this man was more than a man. He recognized that Jesus was “the True Lord.” My friend wrote, “No ifs nor ands. He believed!” It’s very natural for us, as humans, to want to base our belief system on something that is solid and won’t give way. What we believe defines us and has far reaching implications for every facet of our lives. Consequently, we want salvation to be a black and white, once-for-all, absolute reality that we can count on. We fear a faith that is vague or indecisive. We want a faith that is solid, one that has all the answers.
The email continued, “How close do you want to be? How much do you want to see?” And then a little later my friend added, “Is God working in your life? If not, then why? If He is then don’t stop. If He isn’t then search your heart because the problem isn’t in Him. Is it the Church you’re going to or . . . ?” My friend’s response was completely well intentioned. But he couldn’t help thinking that this blindness that I had described was not a struggle common to all who have faith, but was my fault for not staying close to Jesus, or getting involved with the wrong church, or listening to the wrong speakers, or reading the wrong books.. And the unexpressed assumption behind this thinking is that a follower of Jesus should have all the answers.
But that isn’t how Mark describes the disciples. In his gospel, he goes to great lengths to show that the disciples, arguably the ones who should have seen things most clearly, were continually getting it wrong. For instance, one day the disciples and Jesus were in a boat out on the Sea of Galilee. In the days leading up to this event the crowds had been swarming Jesus and the disciples wherever they went. Twice, the disciples and Jesus found themselves surrounded by crowds in a barren desert where there was no place to find food. When the crowds became hungry Jesus fed them miraculously. He took a few loaves of bread and some fish and multiplied it to feed five thousand men in one instance, and four thousand in another. After the second instance and immediately before boarding the boat for this voyage some religious leaders from the sect of the Pharisees came to test Jesus. They asked him to produce a sign from heaven (Mark 8:11). They wanted Jesus to prove he had the authority to say the things he was saying. Jesus wasn’t willing to give them the proof that they sought. So in the boat Jesus warned his disciples not to have the same skeptical attitude that the Pharisees displayed. He said, “Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”
Jesus’ words were admittedly cryptic and metaphorical. He used the picture of yeast infusing bread dough and fermenting, causing the bread to rise. Rising bread would have been a familiar sight, and though the disciples may not have understood the biochemical process, they would have understood that the presence of yeast changed the dough’s character.
So Jesus used the picture of yeast working through dough to describe the skepticism that was at work in the religious and political leaders. It’s interesting to note that although Herod and his supporters were not a part of the interplay between Jesus and the Pharisees Jesus still adds Herod’s name in the warning to his disciples. Why would Jesus have lumped the Pharisees together with Herod? What do Herod and the Pharisees have in common? Power. Herod had been appointed by Rome and was the political ruler of the region. The Pharisees were the ruling party in the religious sphere. So, although the insistence that Jesus prove himself without a shadow of doubt could be understood as simply the human desire for certainty, on the lips of the Pharisees and Herod it served another purpose. It was a tactic designed to let the air out of Jesus’ teachings and attack his authority.
The Pharisees and Herod certainly had much to lose. Many of those following Jesus hoped that Jesus was the long awaited messiah. Devout Jews believed that the messiah would come in power instituting a religious kingdom and throwing out the Roman government. Even if Herod didn’t believe in the coming messiah, he certainly would have recognized Jesus as a political threat. Jesus also threatened the spiritual power of the Pharisees. He did not work through the established religious channels. Instead he gathered crowds in the countryside. He was coming from outside the religious institutions, and the things he said and did questioned the accepted practices of the pious. In fact, as Jesus continued to preach and teach it became progressively clear that he was aligning himself against the religious powers. So they asked for a sign from heaven thinking that Jesus could not prove himself. Jesus simply refused to play their game.
When I was in Junior High I felt like God might be calling me into the ministry. My dad was a preacher and I was the kind of kid who always had the right answer in Sunday School. That was enough evidence for most people that I should become a pastor. I have to admit, it even seemed enough for me. Whether or not it was enough would be tested later, but in the meantime, the feeling that I was headed for the ministry had been growing—and had been encouraged by my Sunday school teachers and even the other students. There were always other career options floating in and out of my brain, but in tenth grade there came a crisis. My father had left the ministry to become an artist. My family moved almost 2000 miles from the Midwest to a small factory town east of San Francisco. Many of the things that had seemed sure as I was growing up weren’t so sure any more. I was still willing to become a pastor, but I wanted to know if it really was what God wanted.
I remember night after night shutting myself in my bedroom and praying; asking God to give me a sign that would give me direction. I had grown up reading stories of young people who had Jesus appear to them. In one a teen was sick and close to death. Jesus appeared at the foot of his hospital bed and told him not to worry. He wasn’t going to die because Jesus wanted him to become a pastor. Honestly, I wanted that kind of a sign; that kind of a call into ministry. And I never got it. Later I realized that what I had really been asking God was for Him to prove himself. Mine had not just been a crisis over what vocation to choose, it had been a crisis of faith. I wanted God to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was really real. And God wasn’t willing to play that game with me no more than Jesus was willing to give proof to the Pharisees.
Author’s Note: Grace Carol Bomer graciously allowed me to use her mixed media piece, Parachute Dummies, for this post. It is part of a series, Nets of God. You can see this and other works from the series on this gallery page. Her blog is firstname.lastname@example.org, and this post talks about the show that Parachute Dummies was in. You might also be interested in her web page, www.gracecarolbomer.com. On her CIVA page she comments, “I discovered images of World War II parachute test dummies on a site called Obsolete. They were haunting reminders of man’s broken condition. We are Parachute Dummies. But for the grace of God we can not fly.” She also includes some notes on how she constructed the work.