What’s wrong with these men? Have they spent too many days in fishing boats under the hot, summer sun? Have they fallen into the water once too often? Has the smell of fish rotted their brains?

These are the guys to whom Jesus will entrust his mission and ministry and message. If the gospel is to “go into all the world,” these are the men who will carry it there. If the world is to be “turned upside down,” these are the men who will do the tipping. These men will write gospels and holy letters and grand revelations. They will have visions and prophesy the future and raise the dead. They will preach before thousands and witness before kings.

And, in Mark, they couldn’t find their way out of a wet paper bag—spiritually speaking.

Mark is merciless as he portrays the inadequacies of the Twelve. He pulls no punches. He spares no feelings. They are fumbling, bumbling, clueless, and inept … the Inspector Clouseaus of faith. They are dull, dense, dumb, dippy, daft, and dim.

It is not irreverent or disrespectful to point out this aspect of Mark’s story. If Mark can write such things about the Twelve, we should be brave enough to read them.

In fact, Mark has an important point to make as he portrays these dull disciples. If we miss this point, we miss something central about our own discipleship. For Mark is not just talking about the Twelve … he’s talking about all of us. The disciples of Jesus have never (then or now) been chosen on the basis of superior intelligence or spiritual insight. The “sharpness” of disciples is not a defining characteristic. We are all disciples “in spite of” not “because of.”

The sooner we learn what spiritual doofuses we are, the sooner we will be ready to follow Jesus down the rabbit hole … to accept this upside-down Messiah and become his upside-down disciples.

And just to make sure we get that point, after two stories about crowds and bread, Mark tells us yet another “bread” story that, if you don’t cry, can only make you laugh. Surely, after two hungry crowds and two miraculous feedings, the disciples get it! Surely, going forward, there won’t be any confusion among the Twelve about bread where Jesus is concerned!

“It’s because we forgot bread”

The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

“Twelve,” they replied.

“And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

They answered, “Seven.”

He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”

Just after the feeding of the 4000 and just before this discussion in the boat, the Pharisees approached Jesus yet again with a demand for a sign. “Prove who you are!” they demanded. “Show us one good reason to believe in you … a miraculous reason!” Jesus—who was not a trained puppy—refused to jump through their hoops. If what they’d already seen and heard would not convince them of Jesus’ claims, nothing would. He turned and left, sickened by their lack of faith and continued pestering.

No doubt, Jesus was replaying this interaction in his head when he blurted out (to the disciples in the boat with him), “Watch out for their yeast! Be careful their doubts and demands don’t color your faith. Just a pinch of them and their thinking can ruin your whole loaf!”

The Twelve (stuck once again in the obvious) think he is speaking literally. Yeast. Bread. Only one loaf. The connection is clear, right? Jesus is addressing their miniscule food supply. He’s worried about getting hungry. One loaf for thirteen people! Barely a mouthful apiece!

How Jesus restrained himself from jumping into the Sea (or throwing them out of the boat) is a mystery. If ever he second-guessed himself and his selection of disciples, this would have been the moment. Regrets or not, Jesus was fed up.

“Really? That’s what you think I’m saying? After the 5000? After the 4000? After all those mouths? After all those leftovers? What must I do to prove I don’t worry about bread? Are you that blind? Are you that dense? Really?”

That man gnawing in frustration on the gunwales of the boat? Look carefully. That’s the Son of God driven to divine distraction.

We are in the Same Boat

The idea that you and I, as disciples, are acceptable to Jesus because we are brighter and better and nobler and more obedient than others … the notion that Jesus loves us because we understand correctly and act correctly and talk correctly … the conceipt that we make better disciples because we, above all others, “get” Jesus and his teachings and his commands … is laughable!

I understand the roots of such nonsense. We think these foolish thoughts because of our deep insecurities … because we have for so long suckled on the teat of works-righteousness and legalistic self-congratualtion … because—while you may not be able to fool all the people all the time—God is, fortunately, the gullable sort.

But, most of all, this kind of soteriological lunacy is convicting evidence that—at least, in our case—the apple doesn’t fall very far from the apostolic tree. We prove ourselves to be about as blind and bumptious as the Twelve by spouting this sort of nonsense. We demonstrate our stubborn disregard of Jesus and his teachings. We show our persistent confusion of the obvious with the spiritually profound.

The requirement of “perspicuity” is a gross misunderstanding of what Jesus is looking for in disciples. It is a gross misreading of the Gospels and the New Testament as a whole. And it represents a deep disrespect of the Twelve who followed Jesus in Mark—we, of course, would have been more competent followers than they.

May I suggest a few things Jesus is actually looking for in those who would be his disciples? Ready?

  • A willingness to follow Jesus even when we don’t understand, don’t get it, say stupid things, and miss the point entirely …
  • The humility to endure his rolling eyes and shaking head and head-banging-against-the-gunwales …
  • A certain tolerance to feeling small and inadequate and bewildered in his presence …
  • The meekness to let him correct us again and again and again …
  • The recognition that even the easiest, most obvious spiritual truths are often beyond our limited comprehension …
  • The awareness that our status with Jesus has little to do with us and our spiritual maturity and our wisdom regarding the ways of God and our proper parsing of Scriptures and our precise performance of pious practices, but has everything (rather) to do with him and his mercies and his constant, ready patience …
  • And an eagerness to let Jesus (in his own time, by his own power, for his own purposes) transform us into disciples who—in spite of ourselves—might change the world.

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