Our Gospel tonight is full of misunderstanding. Jesus and his Disciples are frustrated, confused, and struggling to communicate with one another. To make matters worse, they are all stuck on a boat. It is an unpleasant situation. This Gospel passage would probably not be the best text to choose for a wedding, profession, or any other happy occasion. However, we do get to witness Jesus navigate through this misunderstanding and we have a lot to learn from how he handles it.
Just like any other misunderstanding, the background to this story is important. Jesus and his Disciples had just been confronted by a group of Pharisees. This group of Pharisees demanded that Jesus perform a sign to prove he was the Messiah. Jesus refused and chastised the Pharisees. Then he got on a boat with his Disciples and sailed away.
We’ve all been in similar group situations like this before, when there has just been a major confrontation and tension is in the air. No one is quite sure what to do or say and everyone is on edge. We are also told by the Gospel writer that the Disciples had forgotten to bring any more bread for their boat ride and there was only loaf of bread to split among the thirteen men. This is when the drama begins.
Jesus, still simmering from his confrontation with the Pharisees, tell his Disciples on the boat to “beware the yeast of the Pharisees”. Jesus is offering his Disciples very practical advice here. Jesus is warning his Disciples that the self-righteous mindset of the Pharisees is contagious, and like yeast, just a little bit of it can go a long way and give rise to all sorts of bad.
The Disciples completely misunderstand Jesus’ words. As soon as they hear the word “yeast”, they think Jesus is talking about literal bread. They think Jesus is admonishing them for not bringing any bread for the boat ride. This is common in tense situations, for group members to internalize what tension is in the air and become very self-conscious about what they have or have not done. Telling ourselves we have done something wrong gives us a narrative to hold on to rather than just sitting with the anxiety the group is experiencing.
Jesus, being the talented teacher he is, immediately picks up on his Disciples’ misunderstanding. He tries to explain himself and how ridiculous it would be for him to be angry about having little bread because he can always multiply more. Jesus reminds his Disciples that they have seen him firsthand multiply enough loaves of bread to feed thousands of people.
We have a lot to learn from how Jesus handles this misunderstanding. First of all, Jesus does not ignore the misunderstanding. Not only does Jesus immediately pick up on what his Disciples are confused about, but he also addresses it right away. It’s always tempting in times of misunderstanding to just not want to deal with it, to say you don’t have the time and energy to work through the conflict. Ignoring misunderstanding only leads to more misunderstanding down the road. Jesus does not do this and that takes courage.
Second, Jesus asks questions. In the span of seven verses, Jesus asks nine separate questions. Asking questions can be a powerful way to channel the aggressiveness we may feel during a misunderstanding. Good heartfelt questions can simultaneously get us closer to the truth while still expressing whatever emotions we are feeling.
Third and finally, Jesus moves on. Right after this Gospel passage ends, we are told that Jesus heals a blind man. Holding on to resentments over a misunderstanding is dangerous and gets in the way of us being servants of God. Jesus shows us that we need to constantly be moving on to stay focused on the work in front us, and that work is the will of God.
So tonight let us pray for the strength, patience, and courage to navigate through the misunderstandings in our lives, all for the greater glory of God, amen.
In my mid-twenties I worked for a non-profit agency in Boston’s Chinatown. The mission of the organization was to offer educational and social services to new Chinese immigrants and their families. Though generously supported by a base of donors, largely Chinese-American Christians, our budget was always tight. As the director of the organization’s English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I had just finished the long process of completing and submitting a complicated grant application that would give us access to some state funding. We did not receive the grant, and I was crest-fallen as I went into my regularly scheduled performance review with our executive director and founder – a charismatic, successful pillar of the community who had emigrated forty years ago. She worked her way through a long list of things she felt I could be doing differently. With each item, I began to feel a gathering energy of discouragement, like yeast molecules feeding on sugars of self-doubt and inadequacy. When she finally paused, I took a deep breath and asked – Was there anything she felt I was doing well? She let out an astonished laugh. “Everything! Your work is excellent!” I saw her face shift and her eyebrows furrow as she reasoned aloud that this must be a cultural difference. She took for granted that I knew what I was doing well. She had seen plenty of grant opportunities come and go, and had intended her feedback only to leaven my sense of resolve for the future by pinpointing areas for growth. After losing the grant, for which I felt personally responsible, I had needed a different kind of yeast: a balanced assessment that included reminders of my strengths, and her confidence in me, in order to make my dough rise.
Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?
Genesis 6:5-8; 7:1-5,10
Mark 8: 14-21
All of the world’s major Story traditions contain epic cycles of creation, the flourishing of life, decline, death, and renewal. Myths – stories that resound with the ring of Truth, whether or not they are based on factual events – mirror the processes of nature and the work of time. These stories enlarge what is small but also condense what is vast. This process allows the storyteller and the story-listener to make meaning of the cycle – which would otherwise remain too large to handle. The portion that is visible to us at any one moment – birth, growth, suffering, or death – would overwhelm us with its magnitude. Stories sift, sort, and distill until symbols cohere from the chaos: the waters of a great flood; a boat designed by God; a bit of yeast; a single loaf of bread.
When decline and death become the predominant experience of a culture or group, these stories become vital life-lines to a sacred past. “We have been here before,” the people can confidently say. “Let us remember; let our remembering bear us forward.” Some of the Psalms are almost entirely sustained acts of remembrance. Foundational memories recorded elsewhere in the Torah are set to psalmody not to be redundant, but to place them in the mouths of each praying generation. Including ours.
For the people of Israel, there is a power, a force, a God outside of nature and time. “The LORD sits enthroned abovethe flood,” the Psalmist sings. The Holy One is transcendent.
Genesis 6:5-8 and 7:1-5,10;
Christianity – contrary to popular opinion – is a religion of the heart. It engages us at the deepest levels of our being.