So far, Mark’s story has focused on Jesus. What he said and did. Where he went. How people responded to him. Jesus has been the main subject, the man in the active voice, healing and teaching and performing miracles.

The rest of the gospel of Mark will remain focused on Jesus. He will always be the star of Mark’s story.

To this point in Mark, the Twelve have been “bit” players, members of a Greek chorus, stepping forward to speak a few simple lines and then stepping back into the anonymity of the crowd.

They don’t say much in the first five chapters of Mark.

  • “Every one is looking for you!” (1:37)
  • “Don’t you care if we drown?” (4:38)
  • “What do you mean, ‘Who touched me?’ They’re all touching you!” (5:31)

When the disciples do speak, it is because they are confused or afraid or incredulous, not because they have something worth saying (or, for that matter, hearing).

Although the Twelve are in every scene of Mark’s story, they are always in the background; straightmen for Jesus’s one-liners … foils for Jesus’ actions.

From this point on, however, Mark moves the Twelve to center-stage. He explores them, pokes at them, describes their mood and thinking. He wants to know how they respond to Jesus’ teachings. He wonders what’s going through their heads as Jesus takes on the Pharisees. He’s curious what they believe about Jesus himself.

The Apostles have long been heroes to us. We think of them as larger-than-life, giants-of-faith, spiritual supermen. We remember that they won a world, wrote Scripture, suffered martyrs’ deaths. We paint haloes about their heads and call them “Saint Peter” and “Saint John.”

We do so—rightly—because of their acheivements in Acts or on the basis of the epistles they penned. But don’t blame Mark for our haloes. The Twelve were no heroes to him.

In Mark’s story, the Apostles don’t come off as very … apostolic! He portrays them as fearful and timid and doubting and dense and petty. They don’t understand the parables. They don’t “get” what Jesus is doing and why he’s doing it. They completely miss every clue to the cross, no matter how obvious Jesus makes it. They squabble endlessly among themselves. They are children whom Jesus must constantly chastise and correct and instruct.

They answer Jesus’ call. They follow Jesus. They stick with Jesus even when his popularity wanes and opposition intensifies. But these are the only virtues Mark can find in the span from fishing boats to upper room.

In a word, the Apostles (as described by Mark) sound a great deal like you and me: ordinary people following an extraordinary Messiah and missing the point most of the time!

Feeding the 4000

During those days another large crowd gathered. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.

“Seven,” they replied.

He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. The disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. (Mark 8:1-9)

The first time Jesus feeds a crowd is in Chapter Six; the second time is in Chapter Eight.

The two stories are separated by a single chapter … and they are almost identical:

  • A large crowd gathers in a wilderness place.
  • Jesus teaches them for an extended period of time.
  • Eventually, stomachs growl and bodies grow faint … they need to eat.
  • But where can they find food for such a crowd? Certainly the disciples do not know.
  • Jesus asks the same question each time: “How many loaves do you have?”
  • Something happens that allows everyone to eat their fill.
  • The disciples use baskets to pick up the leftovers.

OK. There are a few differences in the two stories.

  • There are 5000 in the crowd of the first story and 4000 in the second.
  • The crowd has been without food one day in the first story and three days in the second.
  • In the first feeding, the disciples find five loaves and two fish as a starting point for Jesus; in the second, they locate seven loaves and “a few small fish.”
  • After the first feeding, they collect twelve basketsful of leftovers; after the second feeding, seven.

Apart from these minor differences (which really serve to emphasize the similarities of the events), you’d think Mark was telling the same story twice.

Which is really interesting, when you think about it. Mark is a short gospel … the shortest gospel by far! His telling of this story is lean, spare, abbreviated. There are many, significant event Mark does not tell us about. He says nothing of the birth narratives. There is not a word about the Sermon on the Mount. He chooses not to recount many of the parables and miracles the other gospel writers thought important to include. He does not tell about Jesus meeting Nicodemus or the Samaritan Woman or Zacchaeus. He chronicles none of the resurrection appearances.

Yet he tells about two crowds and two feedings and two occasions when the Twelve can’t figure out where bread is coming from!

You really expect the second story—the feeding of the 4000—to take a different turn.

Peter says to John, “Oh look! Another crowd in a wilderness!”

John says to James, “I think they’re getting hungry!”

James says to Philip, “Wonder where we could get bread to feed them all?” (Wink, wink … nod, nod … eyebrows raised towards Jesus … heads turning his direction.)

Philip says to Matthew, “Why don’t you see how many loaves we have on hand; you know that’s what he’s going to ask us next.” And to Thomas, “Might as well have the people sit down in the meantime.”

Andrew looks around. “Where are those baskets?”

Sadly, that’s not what happens at all. Identical setting. Identical crowd. Identical dilemma. And the disciples are as oblivious the second time as the first!

(Handwringing) “A hungry crowd! This is a remote place! Where in the world could we get enough bread to feed them all?”

(Panic) “We only have seven loaves for 4000 people. Seven loaves will never go around!”

(Exasperation) “What do you mean, tell them to sit down? What’s the point? We need to send them into town to buy bread!”

(Astonishment) “Look what he’s doing! How does he do that? All these leftovers!”

Once again, Jesus prays, breaks, and nods to the hungry crowds. Over and over for hours. Once again, the crowds eat their fill. Once again, the leavings are collected by the basketful.

And the disciples are just as perplexed, baffled, flummoxed, surprised, stunned, and amazed as the first time. By their reaction, you’d never know they’d been there and done that. It’s as though they suffer some sort of spiritual anterograde amnesia … an inability to learn and retain information about Jesus … every morning they are tabulae rasae all over again.

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