15 Then He charged them, saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
16 And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread.”
17 But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened?
18 “Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?
19 “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” They said to Him, “Twelve.”
20 “Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” And they said, “Seven.”
21 So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”
Yesterday I read a short column in the New York Times by a certain Tenzin Gyatso–you know, the 14th Dalai Lama–called “Many Faiths, One Truth.” The Dalai Lama claimed that the “one truth” that the existed across all faiths was that we should have compassion for one another. He cited his several meetings over the years with pastors and rabbis and imams, and even his short friendship with Christian monk and writer Thomas Merton. While I admire the Dalai Lama and his struggle for world peace and for independence for his homeland of Tibet, I found that his understanding of the Bible was, to be honest, rather shallow and plainly colored by what he wanted to find there. In essence, since the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism focuses so much on worldly peace and compassion, then that is what he saw in the stories of Jesus:
“In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.”
What bothers me about this is that very many well-meaning nominal Christians will read this short statement and assume that it’s true, that Jesus’ ministry was all about peace among men and relieving mortal human suffering. I am not saying that Jesus didn’t have compassion and love for humanity. The whole Bible is about God’s love and mercy and grace, and Jesus literally personified that Godly love. But to focus on Jesus’ miracles of healing and feeding people is to miss the point, which is that He came to bring people to a right relationship with God FIRST. Peace with our fellow men would then follow and flow out of the love and peace we have with God, but without that peace with God–i.e. without repentance and belief in the gospel–then no amount of good works (miracles, compassion, or charity) would make any eternal difference. We might temporarily bind a wound or fill a stomach, but the person’s soul would still be condemned to death.
In today’s verses from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and the disciples are on a journey just after Jesus has once again fed thousands of people from just a few loaves and fishes. As they are crossing over the Sea of Galilee, Jesus warns the disciples to be wary of the “leaven” of the Pharisees and of Herod. Of course, having read this same passage in the Gospel of Matthew (16:5-12), we know that Jesus is talking about being cautious not to be overtaken by the teachings of worldly teachers like the Pharisees and Saducees. But what about the loaves and fishes? The disciples understand the “leaven of the Pharisees,” but they still don’t understand the miracle of the loaves.
At this point, it is easy to see how one might be confused, and to see how one might give those miracles a superficial reading. After all, Jesus Himself said He felt compassion for the multitude:
2 “I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat.
3 “And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”
But reading this as a simple exercise in feeding people does a great disservice to the gospel. The people had continued with Him THREE DAYS… And they had NO BREAD to eat… And without that bread, some would faint before reaching home… Do you see it? Here, I’ll give you a hint:
47 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life.
48 “I am the bread of life.
49 “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead.
50 “This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.
51 “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”
Now, about those loaves… Jesus broke bread and gave it to His disciples to share with the multitude, to “feed the sheep,” so to speak. (John 21:15-17) And as the bread passed along from Jesus to the disciples an outward to the people who listened to Jesus, then the bread multiplied and fed everyone there with plenty left over.
Yeast is what makes bread rise. You can make bread without yeast, and it will be flat and rather dense, but with the yeast the bread will expand and be able to feed more people. Of course, yeast is a living creature, and it breeds and multiplies through the sugars and starches in the flour. Left to its own devices, a little yeast can become too much yeast. When Jesus was talking about the “leaven” (yeast) of the Pharisees, He was talking about the way their teachings seemed to rise and expand, how the “bread” of their teachings seems to fill people up, making them feel like they’ve eaten something that will save their life. But that was worldly bread, not the “bread from heaven” that Jesus was bringing.
Jesus took bread that had already been baked–i.e. that had no living yeast–and He made it multiply and feed thousands. The bread that Jesus brought was the gospel of peace with God, not the hollow teachings of men. Jesus broke the bread of His own life, and He expects His disciples (you and me) to share the good news of Jesus’ sacrifice with the world.
The loaves are not about worldly compassion and worldly hunger. Yes, Jesus fed thousands of people from almost nothing on two separate occasions, but He didn’t do so because they were begging in the streets. He fed them because they hungered and thirsted for righteousness, because they desired the truth about God’s grace, because they, without the gospel, might never make it home to God. Jesus had His Father’s compassion on the multitude who sought peace with God, and He came to feed them with the gospel, not with just a few loaves and fishes. To read these miracles and see only worldly compassion is to ignore the greater truth that, of all the saints and holy teachers who have ever lived, only Jesus was the Son of God who gave His life for the salvation of us all. THAT is true compassion.
With all due respect to the Dalai Lama, he is blind to the truth of the gospel of Christ. The Dalai Lama has eyes to see and ears to hear, but because he does not see Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, then he does not understand. He reasons about bread and empty bellies when the story is really about Jesus Himself and empty hearts.
The first time Jesus fed the multitude, there were twelve baskets of scraps left over from just five loaves of bread. And when He broke seven loaves, they had five bushel baskets left over. The gospel is like that: when we share it and pronounce its truth, then it multiplies in our hands, becoming far greater, filling far more people, filling far more souls than we might ever have imagined. At the Last Supper, Jesus broke the bread and handed it to His disciples, and said to them, “This is My body, which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” (Luke 22:19) We are to remember Jesus–not the miracles, not the healings, but Jesus our Lord and Savior.
The miracles of the loaves and fishes are not just about filling the stomachs of a hungry few, but about sharing the Bread of Life–who is Christ Jesus–with a hungry and hurting world. It is now our turn to do just as the disciples did, to break that bread of the gospel and share it with the multitude–and be sure to gather what remains and share that, too! We will undoubtedly show Jesus’ worldly compassion and feed a few folks real food along the way, but the important thing is that we feed their souls with the Word of God. Here, then, is the real “one truth” to be seen in the New Testament: worldly bread will fill our bellies for a while, but the Bread of Life will bring us eternal life.
Our Father in heaven, thank You for the gift of Jesus, the true Bread of Life who was broken for the sins of the world. May Your Word be multiplied and expand to feed the whole world. And may my humble voice be among those who share the bread of Your Word with this hungry world, so that Your voice may be heard to the ends of the earth and fill the empty hearts of the multitude. Amen.