A homily on Mark 8:11-21 (ESV):
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
In an interview, published in 1974, with famed thinker Bertrand Russell, Leo Rosten asked Russell the following:
“Let us suppose, sir, that after you have left this sorry vale, you actually found yourself in heaven, standing before the Throne. There, in all his glory, sat the Lord—not Lord Russell, sir: God.”
“What would you think?”
“I would think I was dreaming.”
“But suppose you realized you were not? Suppose that there, before your very eyes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, was God. What would you say?”
The pixie wrinkled his nose. “I probably would ask, ‘Sir, why did you not give me better evidence?’ “
In Numbers 14:11, YHWH says to Moses:
“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?”
As we return to consider our passage from Mark 8, keep in mind that in the region of Tyre, Jesus has just performed a long-distance exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30). He has just healed a deaf mute in the region of the Decapolis (7:31-37). He has just fed at least four thousand people with just seven loaves of bread in a desolate place (8:1-10).
And yet, in the region of Dalmanutha, the Pharisees have the audacity to demand a sign from heaven, to test Jesus in a manner not unlike the Adversary tested him in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).
Why does this demand exasperate Jesus? Surely, given his recent actions, he is not averse to the supernatural in-breaking of God’s kingdom as demonstrated in his miracles. Instead, he astutely recognizes the incompatibility of this sign-seeking pharisaical power-play with true trust, true faith.
As Catholic scholar Mary Healy rightfully observes:
“to insist on irrefutable evidence is really a demand for control, as if to say ‘Force us to believe, so that we will not have to trust you or change our hearts.’ But faith that is compelled is not faith at all” (The Gospel of Mark, 153).
I am here reminded of the twin-error of fundamentalism and liberalism when it comes to biblical and theological studies: the insistence that we will only believe what is scientifically verifiable according to the standards we have inherited from Enlightenment Rationalism. The former group thinks everything can be verified, the latter group, very little.
Sure, OK, but we’re not fundamentalists or liberals, at least not on our good days. But, following the example of the disciples in the second half of our passage, don’t we often pine for various other kinds of bread while we misunderstand and ignore the true bread of heaven among us?
Will we be satisfied by God’s faithful provision of Word and Sacrament to nourish our faith? Or will we long for the more extraordinary manifestations? (As if Word & Sacrament were ordinary!)
Now, can we, should we long for miracles, for healing?
Can God, will God continue to work wonders, heal sickness, and reverse death in our midst?
But we must be constantly vigilant, first, that we do not begin to value the healing more than the Healer, the wonders more than the One who works them.
And, second, that we do not, like the Pharisees (and even the disciples, for a time!), close our eyes, ears, and hearts to the miraculous things that God, in Christ, is already and always doing.
Whether we can discern it or not, God is making the world right again. He will not be thwarted in this mission.
Friends, God knows that we need some sort of sign, that we cannot keep the faith on our own, unaided. So he has given us sign-seekers His very self, His very Son!
He will not bow down to our demands for verification, but he will graciously meet our every need. He will give us enough to trust him along the road to cosmic redemption, even when that road passes through the deepest, darkest valley of doubt.
So, as we rightfully pray that God’s Kingdom would come, that His will might be done, let us pray to be satisfied in our King, in God’s Son.