Jesus Is Our Abundance
[July 18, 2010] In this section of the Gospel according to Mark (6:6b—8:26), Jesus manifests Himself through the feeding of the thousands. In the feeding of the five thousand He manifested Himself as the abundance, plenitude, and fullness of God and our satisfaction—with leftovers. He is the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey, and also the manna that keeps us on our wilderness journey, new every morning. He is, in His own Person, the coming of the age to come, the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. He is this for the church even in the midst of persecution, peril, and hardship. We celebrate this with the Lord’s Supper.
But the Hardened Heart Does Not Understand
However, in the Gospel according to Mark the crowds and even the disciples had a hard time understanding this. Last week Jesus confronted some Pharisees from Jerusalem and said that with all their big ado about outward purity they miss the whole point of God’s Law. Their problem was their heart, and all their attention to rules only obfuscated this problem and made them deaf to the focus of the Torah (who stood in front of them). The disciples were “also in the same manner without understanding” (7:18). Before that (in 6:52), the gospel writer told us that the disciples too “did not understand concerning the loaves, but rather their heart was hardened.”
More Than Enough Leftovers (Mark 7:24-30)
Jesus Goes into Gentile Country
Not everyone was so hard-hearted. Jesus “rose up from there and went away into the borders of Tyre,” that is, He left the land of Israel and went into the bordering Gentile country. From Tyre He passed through Sidon, even further north (away from Israel), and then came down on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee “in the midst of the Decapolis” (7:31), also Gentile country. Rather than merely withdrawing (Matthew 15:21), He was journeying and seemed to be deliberately mixing with Gentiles (in spite of His charge to the Twelve in Matthew 10:5). There, within long-established Gentile communities, people were receptive of Him.
And a Gentile Woman Comes to Him for Help
When He was in the region of Tyre, having a meal in someone’s house, a Gentile woman comes inside, falls at His feet and begs that He cast out the demon that is in her daughter. The Gentile world, because of its association with idolatry, is dominated by evil powers, and individuals are assaulted by demons. The last time Jesus was in a Gentile region He was met by the man with a “legion” of demons. The woman’s situation, though maybe not common, is typical.
Jesus’ Initial Response
Jesus, though He could have, does not immediately grant her request. He says to her, “First let the children be satisfied, for it is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.” What did Jesus mean? The woman would have understood that by “children” Jesus meant the Jews and the little dogs are Gentiles. Also, when we who have been listening to the gospel hear the words “bread” and “satisfied,” we should be reminded of the feeding of the five thousand that took place in 6:30-44. This is a clue.
Remember the Pharisees
Since the previous story was about the predilection of some of the Pharisees for ritual purity, we are also reminded that the purity they sought meant strict separation from the Gentiles. We are reminded of the “Jews” in Acts who harassed the apostles wherever they went. These “Jews,” also called “the Circumcision [party],” are not identical to the Jews as an ethnic and religious group but rather they are those who were zealous to enforce separation from Gentiles. The Gentiles could not share in the promises to Israel! Any notion of that was offensive to them. Their interpretation of the prophets is that the kingdom would be rewarded to the Jews for their zealousness and then they would dominate the Gentile nations.
Their hardness of heart would prevent the mercy of God from reaching the Gentiles. They ignored (by explaining away) the prominent passages in Isaiah in which the Gospel does go to the Gentiles (see for example Isaiah 42, 49 and 51).
We today might not connect the Pharisees in 7:1-13 with the people who harassed the apostles, but to the early church it would be obvious, for they were the same people.
Nevertheless, the Gospel Is for the Jew First
Jesus, however, does not say to the woman that there was nothing for the “dogs,” only that the “children” were to be fed first. (This is different than in Matthew 15:22-26 where Jesus response to her addressing Him as “Son of David.”) In the Acts of the Apostles and in Romans (with a long explanation in Romans 9—11), Paul always went to the Jew first and then the Gentile.
But When the Gospel Meets with “Hardness,” It Goes to Others
The heart of many Jews (the brand of Pharisaism that we see in Mark 7:1-13) was hardened (see Romans 9:18; 11:7, 25). “Israel, pursuing a Law of righteousness, did not attain that Law. Why? Because they pursued it not by faith but as it were by works. They stumbled at the stone of stumbling. As it is written, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling, a rock of offense, and he who believes on Him shall not be put to shame’” (9:31-33). As a result, the Gospel has gone to the Gentiles as foretold by the prophets. It does not wait until the end, when Israel receives her Messiah. The Messiah (called Servant of YHWH in Isaiah) is already “a light for the Gentiles, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring the prisoner out from the prison, those who dwell in darkness from the prison house” (42.6-7), that He “may be My salvation unto the ends of the earth” (49:6).
The Woman’s Response
The woman answers Jesus, “Yes, Lord, but even the little dogs under the table eat of the little children’s crumbs.” In other words, You may feed the multitude of Israel with bread and fish, but were there not baskets of leftovers? Is there not enough for others? She understood that she was a Gentile, a pagan, one who did not worship God and did not deserve anything (though of course, not even Israel deserved God’s grace; they too were dependent on God’s election by grace). But He—Jesus—is the presence of God’s mercy and He is plentiful. He is more than enough—not only for the Jews with whom God made a covenant, but also for those on the outside. He is so abundant that there must be leftovers for those who deserve nothing. What not even the disciples could understand, she in her humility understood, and that understanding made her bold.
The “Leftovers” Come into the Home of a Gentile
Jesus says to her, “Because of this word, go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.” Mark’s gospel says that she went to her house and found her little girl lying on the bed with the demon gone out of her. This little reference to the inside of a Gentile house is unique in the gospels. The homes of Gentiles become the new setting for the Gospel.
The Deaf Gentiles Hear (7:31-37)
A Story Unique to Mark’s Gospel
This is followed by the story of a deaf and speech-impaired man whom Jesus healed. It takes place in the “midst of the borders of Decapolis,” so can presume that the man is a Gentile. The story is unique to Mark’s gospel and is paralleled by another story unique to Mark, the healing of the blind man in 8:22-26: The people entreat Jesus, Jesus takes the man aside, He uses His spit to heal the man, the man ends up hearing or seeing clearly, and Jesus charges them (or him) not to either tell anyone (or to enter the village). Almost everything in Mark can be found in either Matthew or Luke. Since these two stories are unique, they were placed here especially for their significance.
The Significance of Hearing
The Gentile world is deaf, yet when Gentiles call on Jesus, He opens their ears and they can hear. Jesus used to say, “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear,” and in frustration He asked His disciples, “Having ears to hear, do you not hear?” Israel does not believe because they do not hear (Mark 4:12). Yet hearing is granted to the Gentiles.
The Gift of Hearing Comes to Gentiles through the Word
The fact that Jesus uses His spit, associated with His tongue which signifies His Word, means that Jesus heals the Gentiles with His Word. We think of the story in Matthew and Luke of the centurion, another Gentile, whose servant Jesus heals with His Word. Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, He no longer heals (saves) by His earthly presence. This was reserved especially for Israel in the flesh. But through the Word and presence of the Holy Spirit, He is still equally present on earth. The Gentiles who are “far off” can still receive the wealth of His Person through His Word, and what they receive is undiminished by distance.
Gentiles Are Receptive of the Gospel
The Gentiles (unlike the first time when Jesus was in the Decapolis and they asked Him to leave) are utterly receptive. They recognize that “He has done all things well; He makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak.” Nothing is diminished for them.
Jesus Is God’s Abundance No Less for the Gentiles (8:1-10)
What Is “Left Over” for the Gentiles Are Not Mere Crumbs
What is left over for the Gentiles are not mere crumbs. In the following story the feeding of the five thousand is repeated. This time, however, the people are Gentiles and “some of them have come from a distance.” As the number five signifies responsibility (and hence, the covenant of God with Israel), the number four signifies the entire earth (the four directions, “every tribe and tongue and people and nation,” etc.) and hence the Gentile world. Likewise the numbers twelve (three times four) and seven (three plus four) both signify completeness, but twelve is associated with Israel while the number seven is generic.
The Twelve Did Not Expect It
The disciples still do not understand how abundant and plentiful Jesus is. “Where will anyone be able to get enough to satisfy these people with bread?” At first they could not believe that salvation in Jesus is so abundant that there was enough even for Gentiles.
The Blessing for the Gentiles Is Undiminished and Still There Are Leftovers
Jesus however satisfies the Gentiles across the Lake as much as He satisfied Israel (in Galilee). The crumbs that the Syrophoenician woman asked for are not less than the meal that the children eat. They ate and were satisfied. Even after feeding the Gentiles there are leftovers. In 6:43, in Galilee, they filled twelve hand-baskets with leftover bread and fish. After feeding the Gentiles, they fill seven full-size baskets. There will always be more.
Mark Connects This to Our Weekly Celebration of the Lord’s Supper
Moreover, the way Mark describes how Jesus gave thanks and broke the loaves and how He blessed the fish is meant to remind us of the church’s celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The Gentiles are invited to the Table, the Table at which we “eat” our Lord Jesus who gives Himself to us by His death and resurrection, and drink the cup of the new covenant.
Some Lessons to Remember
If we have been paying attention, there are things we should gather for ourselves from these stories.
The Autonomy of God’s Grace
God’s blessing is for those who believe the Gospel, but on that there are no limits. The Pharisees had a passion for holiness, for keeping the things of God pure. This is a worthy motive, but the heart can be easily deceived by its unconscious motives. While we cannot overestimate the importance of the holiness of God and the church is to practice discipline (that is, it has a boundary that it observes and protects), we must not get in the way of the sovereignty of God’s grace. Our temptation is to view the blessing that we have received as a matter of privilege rather than grace. We use the church’s boundary to practice a kind of religious tribalism. Our identity as Christians attaches to our self rather than to the superabundance and autonomy of God’s grace. We do not merit it and do not deserve it, and it has come to us by God’s—not our own—act.
Christian Tribalism Is a Denial of It
So what is this temptation to tribalism? The more intimate we become with each other the more difficult it is to receive newcomers. We may welcome them but it is difficult to include them. This seems to be a human enough problem—and it can be analyzed in that way—but the problem arises on a deeper level. It arises because we misunderstand our identity. We understand it in the “flesh,” not by faith. In other words, we make our identification horizontal rather than vertical, soulical rather than spiritual. In our hearts we have overlooked the grace of God that forms us. When this oversight affects our outlook, attitudes and demeanor, what is manifesting is the hardness of our hearts. We can rationalize our exclusiveness any way we choose, and we can even be tempted to clothe it in our concern for God’s holiness, but the reality is that our heart is deceiving us and protecting the interests of the false self. The problem is not our intimacy but rather our unbelief.
Receive One Another as Christ has Received You
In Romans 15:1-13 Paul speaks of how important it is to “receive one another as Christ also received you to the glory of God.” The kingdom of God operates in the church, and this indeed has to do with the holiness of God, but the inclusiveness of the church, its boundary, has to do with the glory of God. And the glory of God has to do with the demonstration of the superabundance of God’s grace (Ephesians 1:6-12) through the Gospel. Thus “the strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those who are the weak” (Romans 15:1), “bearing one another with all lowliness and meekness with longsuffering” (Ephesians 4:2), “bearing one another and forgiving one another, if anyone should have a complaint against anyone; even as the Lord forgave you, so also should you forgive” (Colossians 3:13). “As Christ has received you,” Paul says. Do we clearly perceive on what basis Christ has received us? It is by the superabundance of God’s mercy, demonstrated by the fact that the Gospel even comes to Gentiles such as us in the first place.
Share the Gospel on This Basis
On this basis we share the Gospel with others, with Gentiles who long for what the Gospel offers but whose minds have been blinded by the god of this age so that the illumination of the Gospel of the glory of Christ might not shine on them. If we attach our identity to something false, then we end up preaching ourselves and not Christ Jesus as Lord (2 Corinthians 4:4-5). Our own hearts must not be hard.
Are We Receptive of Who Jesus Is in His Fullness?
The Gentiles in today’s stories were all receptive of Jesus. They were amazed at Him and when He offered Himself to them they readily received Him. This is not always the case and often it seems to hardly be the case. We live in a society that has been inundated with “Christianity” and its familiarity with the forms and the themes blinds them to the unfamiliar truth of the Gospel. But the problem is not only on the outside. Is the church still receptive of Jesus? Do we recognize the abundance that is in the Person of Jesus? Or are we without understanding? Protestants have bypassed Jesus in their passion for mythic identifications, personal righteousness, culture and social reform. On all sides there is so much self-assertion. But Jesus is so small and limited in our minds. He has such a fractional part in our lives. He seems to be so little in our hearts. Paul warns us Gentile believers that if we do not continue in the kindness of God, we too will be broken off from the olive tree. “Do not be high-minded but fear” (Romans 11:18-22).
Do we understand the miracles of the loaves and fishes? Or do we barely know Jesus?
An Appeal for Prayer
Let us pray for a heart softened by the way of the cross so that we can love others—one another and strangers—as we ought. Let us pray for the Word that will open our ears so that we can hear God’s Word. Let us pray to perceive the abundance of the Person of Jesus so that our hearts can be enthralled with Him and we can open that abundance to others. Let us pray fervently for ourselves, for the church and for the world.