Beyond the Lectionary Text: Mark 8:1-13

by Joel Schreurs

As the great philosopher Yogi Berra once said: It feels like deja vu, all over again.

There are the hungry crowds, stranded in a “remote place” (much too far from the nearest McDonald’s).  There is Jesus and his bleeding heart, ever “compassionate” but also (from the disciples’ point of view, at least) ever impractical.  And then there are the disciples themselves–once again given the unenviable task of quieting the stomachs of a growling crowd with nothing more than a few stale crusts of bread and a can of sardines.

So much of the story Mark tells us in chapter 8 of his gospel seems to echo the story he has just told in chapter 6.  The disciples have been through all this before.  So you would think that they would know the drill by now.  You would think they would know how this story is going to end.  You would think that they would know that there is One standing in their midst who is willing and able to make bread appear for the crowds like manna from heaven.  You would think they would understand.

But of course, they don’t.  Because instead of handing their bread and fish back to Jesus and asking him to (once again!) provide the daily bread of those who have gathered, they (once again!) stammer their protests and do what they can to send the crowds back home.  As Jesus not-so-gently points out to them in verses 17-21, they still don’t get it.  But Jesus’ pointed question in verse 21–Don’t you understand?–only begs another: What, exactly, don’t the disciples understand?  Typically, interpreters of this passage suggest that the disciples (and by implication, Mark’s listeners) failed to understand that Jesus was able to provide for the needs of those who had gathered to hear him teach.  Certainly, that may have been the case.  But could it be that they also failed to understand that Jesus was willing to feed those who had gathered to hear him teach?

In their helpful book, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Brian Blount and Gary Charles observe that when Mark wrote his Gospel several decades after Jesus’ resurrection, he was like a man trying to organize a shoebox full of family photos into a slideshow that could be understood and appreciated by those who had not originally witnessed the events.  The challenge was that, although Mark could recognize the names and faces of the people in the photographs and knew the events they represented well, the old snapshots were not stamped with dates and times.  Therefore, as Mark worked to arrange the events in a comprehensible and meaningful way, he had to look beyond simple chronology and find other ways (usually theological) to order his material.  Blount and Charles argue that in Mark 7:1-8:21, Mark does this by grouping together a series of stories that reveal Jesus’ concern for the Gentile “‘outsiders”–and more specifically, his concern for Gentile “outsiders” vis-a-vis the Jewish “insiders”.  Mark then binds these stories together even more tightly through his use of “bread”’ imagery.  The first such instance of bread imagery (often obscured by contemporary translations) occurs in the beginning of chapter 7.  The second, and more significant for our understanding of Mark 8:1-13, comes near the end of chapter 7 in verses 24-30.

Of all the encounters recorded for us in the gospels, Jesus’ encounter with woman in Mark 7:24-30 may be one of the most difficult for modern readers to swallow.  A woman who “was a Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia” approaches Jesus and begs him to do something he has appeared eager to do for countless others–to drive a demon out of her daughter.  In response, Jesus says something that seems, well, unChristlike!  He says: First Let the children [Read: Jews] eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs [Read: Gentiles]Jesus’ response appears to reflect the prevalent attitudes of the Jews of his day: Namely, that the blessings of the Kingdom are primarily (if not solely!) for the children of Israel.  It is a harsh response, but this thick-skinned and quick-witted mother seems undeterred.  Lord, she replies, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.  The response is apparently enough to satisfy Jesus.  Jesus does as the woman asks, the child is healed, and modern readers are allowed to let out a collective sigh of relief.  Albeit a guarded one.  For Jesus’ encounter leaves the reader wondering: Must those outside the nation of Israel be satisfied with only the table scraps of the Kingdom?  Does Jesus see them only as dogs, worthy of nothing more than leftovers?  Or does he want to give them more?  A few verses later, in Mark 8, we get our answer!

As we observed at the beginning of this sermon starter, there is much in Mark 8 that seems to echo Mark 6.  However, there is also one significant difference between the two incidents.  In Mark 6, Jesus and his disciples were in an area whose inhabitants were primarily Jewish.  Those who get to enjoy this unexpected foretaste of the Feast of the Kingdom of God are children of Israel.  In Mark 8, however, Jesus has crossed The Sea of Galilee–to a region that was predominantly Gentile.  Mark notes that the people who flocked to Jesus came from “a great distance” (vs. 3), and one senses that he was speaking in terms more spiritual than geographical (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).  These people are “Gentiles” and “outsiders.” In the eyes of many of their Jewish neighbors, they are “dogs.”  And yet, Jesus makes the blessings of the Kingdom of God available to them, too.  And Jesus is not satisfied to give them only a few table scraps.  Instead, he joyfully invites them to share in all the abundance of his Kingdom.  He provides not just enough– but more than enough.  So much that there are even seven full baskets leftover!

The theologian Richard Mouw once said that one of the most important questions in all of theology is: Do you have a stingy God, or a generous God?  In this brilliantly crafted narrative, Mark’s provides his unequivocal answer.  He shows that contrary to what the disciples, the Pharisees, and even his own readers might think, there are none who are outside the reaches of God’s grace.  In Jesus, the blessings and the abundant life of the Kingdom are made available to all!

Textual Considerations

A friend recently commented that she had long been under the impression that Mark wasn’t much of a writer.  She had essentially been told that Mark had thrown his work together over a quick weekend with little thought about what he would say–or how he would say it (and the other gospels were essentially written to improve upon or even “correct” his sloppy style!).  His was, she said, “The Gospel for Dummies.”

My friend is not alone in carrying this perception.  However, we have already seen that Mark was a very careful writer (even if he is not a particularly verbose one!) and that his narrative is intricately woven.  It is impossible to fully comprehend what Mark wants to communicate in this pericope without looking back in the story.  But it is also impossible to comprehend his meaning without looking forward. 

In Mark 8, Mark once again uses some of his favorite vocabulary.  He notes in verse 6 that Jesus “took breads”, “gave thanks”, “broke them”, and “gave them to his disciples.”  Christian worshipers will quickly hear in these words an echo of another meal during which Jesus would again take bread, give thanks, break it and give it to his disciples (Mark 14:22).  Of course, this lexical overlap is not accidental.  Nor is it a sign of Mark’s limited vocabulary.  Rather, by establishing a lexical connection between these two meals, Mark again reminds us that though the blessings of the Kingdom are available to all, they can only come through the One whose body was broken and whose life was given for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.  Through him, those who are far off have been brought near (Ephesians 2), united into one body just as many grains of wheat are gathered into one loaf.

Illustration Ideas

A few years ago, Mike Jeffries, the CEO of the clothing company Abercrombie and Fitch, ignited a media firestorm after declaring that his company would no longer stock clothing for larger women in their stores.  When asked about their policy, Jeffries only fanned the flames of the public’s indignation.  “Are we exclusionary?” he said, “Absolutely…In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there the not so cool kids.  Candidly, we go after the cool kids.  A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.

Not surprisingly, people reacted strongly to Jeffries’ comments.  But at least one writer on Forbes.com was not ready to condemn them completely.  While this author was willing to concede that Jeffries’ words and attitudes may be repugnant from a moral point of view, he suggested that from a marketing perspective, they were brilliant. That is because with every obnoxious, exclusionary comment that Mike Jeffries makes (and he has made a few)–he strengthens the company’s brand identity, and he portrays his customers as a very select group.  Every time Mike Jeffries says, People who who are unattractive, overweight, unpopular, unlikable can’t wear my clothes, he sends a message about the people who can.  He says, My customers are the attractive, thin, likeable, popular people. My customers are a part of the ‘in’-crowd.  So now, when a sixteen year old walks into Abercrombie, plunks down mom and dad’s credit card–she’s not just buying a $40 t-shirt.  She’s buying a statement.   “See: I belong.  I’m not one of those losers.  I am a part of the in-crowd now.

That’s marketing.  And of course, teenagers aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to it.  Plenty of grown-ups also want tidy ways to identify who is “in” and who is “out.”  And those who follow Jesus are no exception.  For most of the church’s two-thousand year history, those on the “inside” have found ways to draw boundary lines to help identify who is on the outside.  And sadly, too many “outsiders” have received the message.

Mark, however, has a different message.  In Jesus, God has made the abundant life of the Kingdom is available to all.  Jews and Gentiles.  Insiders and Outsiders.  All are welcome at the Feast of the Kingdom of God!

In one of her memoirs, Anne Lamott shares the joy of discovering this for the first time.  She writes:

When [my son] Sam was six days old, I took him to my little church in Marin City, the church where I’d been hanging out for four years now….I got in the habit of stopping by the church on Sundays by staying in the back, in this tense, lurky way, and leaving before the service was over because I didn’t want people to touch me, or hug me, or try to make me feel better about myself.  After I got sober and started to feel okay about myself, I could stay to the end and get hugged….Anyway, the first Sunday after Sam’s birth, I kind of limped in….and everyone was staring joyfully and almost brokenheartedly at us because they loved us so much.  I walked, like a ship about to go down, to a seat in the back.  But the pastor said, Whoa, whoa, not so fast–you come up here and introduce him to his new family.  So I limped up to the little communion table in the front of the half circle of folding chairs where we sit, and I turned to face everyone.  The pain and joy were just overwhelming. I tried to stammer, ‘This is my son,’ but my lip was trembling, my whole face was trembling, and everyone was crying.  When I’d first started coming to the church, I couldn’t even stand up for half the songs because I was so sick from cocaine and alcohol that my head would be spinning, but these people were so confused that they’d thought I was a child of God.  Now they’ve seen me sober for three years, and they saw me through my pregnancy….Toward the end of my pregnancy, people were stuffing money into my pockets, even though a lot of them live on welfare and tiny pensions.  They’d sidle up to me, slip a twenty into the pocket of my sweater, and dart away. (Operating Instructions, pp. 26-28.)

Rev. Joel Schreurs is the pastor of First Christian Reformed Church, Denver, CO.