In the last chapter (and remember the chapter and verse divisions are a late addition to the Bible inserted to make reference easier) the stories were developing the theme of food and eating. After the feeding of the 5,000 Mark inserts a section on the Pharisees rules about washing hands before eating and worrying about which foods were clean or unclean. He contrasts this with the abundant and free feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness. Then there is the dialogue with the Syro Phoenician woman about dogs and crumbs under the table. Jesus says ironically that the food of the children should not be given to dogs. The woman replies with great wit and humility that even the dogs can gather the scraps under the table.
Now Jesus, still in Gentile territory, repeats the miracle of the miraculous feeding. This time 4000 are fed and seven baskets are gathered up. It is clear that this time Jesus is feeding Gentiles, not Jews. He is feeding the “dogs” as well as the “children”. This theme echoes throughout Mark’s gospel–the contrast between the Jews and the Gentiles and Mark makes the point the just as the Jews were fed miraculously in the desert, so Jesus feeds the Gentiles as well. Some commentators make a point about the number of baskets gathered up. In the first story twelve baskets are gathered which represents not only the abundance of God’s provision, but symbolizes the completion of Israel–the twelve baskets representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Meanwhile the seven baskets gathered up in the second story represent the completion of the Gentile church: in Revelation John writes to seven churches, there are seven sacraments and seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. This may be pressing symbolism too far! Suffice it to say that seven was considered the perfect or complete number (being the sum of the two complete numbers of 4 and 3) and therefore the seven baskets represent the fullness or completion of the Gentile church.
Some commentators also remark on the two different words for ‘basket’ in the two stories. In the first story the ‘basket’ is a small household basket whereas the word in the second story is for a large laundry type basket–big enough for a person to get into. The conclusion is that the abundance in the second story is much greater and that the Gentile church will surpass that of the Jews. Again–this may be reading too much into the story. The main point of the second miraculous feeding story is that Jesus is offering to the Gentiles the same graces and provision that he offers the Jews. As in the first story, the feeding of the 4,000 is a pointer to the Eucharist in which God miraculously provides for his people.
After he goes to a new region the Pharisees again go on the offensive. Having just seen, or at least heard of, two great signs of miraculous feedings they ask for a sign! Jesus is clearly totally exasperated with them. Once again we see his ironic–almost sarcastic attitude. He says they will not receive a sign. In saying this he is actually saying, “If you can’t see what is happening right in front of your eyes, then you wouldn’t be able to see a sign from heaven even if God himself opened up the heavens and came down.” It’s not so much that they will not be given a sign–the signs have been given left, right and center. Instead, they are unable to see the signs that are right in front of them.
Unfortunately, the disciples are not much better. Jesus makes a cryptic comment about the ‘leaven of the Pharisees and Herod” and they get the wrong end of the stick. Leaven, or yeast, was considered by the Jews to be like sin in the way is spread through dough–like an unclean thing. So Jesus tells them to watch out for the insidious, invisible evil of Herod and the Pharisees. They don’t get it, and Jesus goes on to blame them for being obtuse and blind.
This inability to see, hear and understand will continue to echo through the next few chapters as Jesus begins to foresee his ultimate destiny and passion.