To Sigh Deeply by John Frye
I was looking forward to Mark 8:14-21 because I thought we could have some fun with it. And we could—at the disciples’ expense. It’s the closest we get to a Three Stooges episode in the life of the Twelve. Jesus has to walk the disciples through the numbers involved in the feedings of the 5000 and the 4000 people. How many people? How many loaves? How many left-overs? The disciples get the numbers right, but are utterly clueless when it comes to what those numbers signify. We must be careful of our own distant and enlightened smugness when it comes to this failure of the Twelve.
One word in the context of this story drained all the hilarity out of it for me. It is the word in Mark 8:12 αναστεναξας (“to sigh deeply”) which may denote grief, anger and a sense of exasperation. The Pharisees had asked for a sign that Jesus’ works were validated by God; a question that shouted their unbelief in him as God’s true agent of salvation.
In the present pericope (8:14-21) Jesus warns his Twelve about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. The emphatic word, “leaven,” is used twice. Jesus urges, “Look out for the corrupting influences of the unbelieving leaders!” The disciples hear the word “leaven” and think only of their immediate situation in the boat: “No one among us thought to bring bread.” Jesus’ concerned reference to the Pharisees and to Herod flies right over their heads.
Does Jesus again sigh deeply? The text doesn’t report it, yet I imagine it was agony for Jesus to ask the hard questions (which to us seem so humorous now). “Are you so blind? Are you so ‘out to lunch’? Are your hearts as hard as the crowds’ hearts and the Pharisees’ hearts and Herod’s heart? You witnessed two staggering miracles all about the abundance of bread and you’re mad at each other over one loaf?” I hear no humor in Jesus’ voice; I imagine tears in his eyes.
If mind-boggling miracles alone could lead to faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah, then the Twelve would be wearing gold stars of confident belief at this point. But they’re not. They are in a petty argument about a puny amount of bread. Unbelief does not collapse in the face of supernatural evidence. Unbelief does not succumb to the apologetics of logic in the face of that evidence. Unbelief is only cured by an immediate gracious act of God through the power of the Holy Spirit as a result preaching Christ and him crucified. Someone persuaded to believe in Jesus because of a well-reasoned argument always may be victim to a better argument.
As we will see next time, Peter finally speaks the right answer about Jesus’ identity but only with the help of God in heaven (see Matthew 16:17). Getting Jesus’ identity correct isn’t even enough. Just as important is getting his mission correct. He will become the crucified Messiah. A “does-not-compute” thought in that (Jewish) world.
What troubles me is this. When Jesus reflects on my understanding of his identity and his mission, does he sigh deeply? Can I get the supernatural facts right and totally miss the meaning of his life for my life? Do I really like the bread maker but not the cross taker? Am I living in a leaven-like environment of evangelical unbelief? I ask because I’m finding it hard to correlate Jesus’ command to love our enemies with current Christian declarations to “nuke the bastards into oblivion!” Do we evangelicals want to live hard-heartedly in the safety of American power and in the numbing satiation of the comforts of ubiquitous materialism? If so tell me, what’s so funny about that?