Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Just as Jesus healed many people of the same diseases and injuries, he also repeated some of his other miracles. And so, a short time after the feeding of the five thousand, we have the feeding of the four thousand.
The circumstances are different because it comes at the end of three days of Jesus ministering to the crowds. He feeds them because they may not have the strength to make it home.
During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, 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. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. About four thousand were present. After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha.
So, fewer people, bread (no fish) and seven baskets of broken pieces instead of twelve. Still they are very similar miracles with the same basic imagery: Jesus feeds us and Jesus supplies us with what we need. Again, this is not a banquet. It is just bread.
Bread was both the most common of foods, but it was also regarded as something almost too good to be true. They would grow grain in their fields and they would gather it by hand. They would grind the grain into flour with hand-carved grind-stones that were smaller than the wheel of a compact car. They knew how to keep cultures of yeast alive and they would mix the grain and water and yeast and see it rise. The rising of bread was almost seen as a supernatural event, multiplying the size of the dough, They would then bake the bread in small stone ovens. If you kept your jars of grain dry, you could make bread long after harvest, and once you made the bread, it could last a long time without refrigeration (which no one had). So, bread was a food that could see you through rough times. Both leavened (yeast) bread and unleavened flat-bread were essential to survival.
The list of common foods is relatively short. The New Testament mentions the following foods, wheat flour, barley flour, grapes, raisins, figs, carob pods, olive oil, fish, eggs (primarily chicken), milk (from goats, camels, cows, and sheep), honey, herbs (un-named garden plants) , cinnamon (from tree bark), locusts (an insect like a grasshopper), salt, and meat (from cows, goats, sheep, and some birds). From this short list, you might live a whole life with never a taste of honey. Meat was usually eaten at or after an animal sacrifice. The normal sacrifice was more like a communal cook-out than burning offerings to a cinder. A normal sacrifice involved the cooking of your food and then sharing the meal with the temple priests. Uneaten pieces of meat from sacrifices were often bought from the temple. People cooked meat at home, too, but it was only had at special occasions, because raising the animals was such a challenge and expense. So, people often lived on bread with either a little bit of fish, grapes, olive oil, or some gathered herbs.
The other semi-miraculous food was grapes. You could eat fresh grapes or dry them out to make raisins. You could crush the grapes and store the juice in stone jars. Grapes grow with a natural coating of yeast (that is still seen as a white powder on the grape-skin). When the grapes were made into juice, the yeast soon turned the juice to wine or vinegar. Since they had no refrigeration, both wine and vinegar kept very well at room temperature. They made no distinction between juice and wine. Wine just happened if you left juice alone for a while.
Keeping all this in mind, we return to chapter eight…
The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.” Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
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?”
In this passage, Jesus uses a metaphor that the completely goes over the disciples’ heads. Using the imagery of yeast and how a little bit of it transforms flour, Jesus is trying to say that a little bit of the Pharisees’ teaching can do a lot of harm. He is also suggesting that Herod causes needless pain and trouble.
The disciples come across as being foolish. They hear Jesus mention yeast and think that he means that they are out of bread (which is ironic after gathering up baskets of leftovers).
Jesus is frustrated and says, “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?”
He asks them about the number of baskets of leftover food after the two mass feedings. They answer “twelve” and “seven. “Do you still not understand?” Jesus asks.
It may be hard for us to understand, but both seven and twelve were seen as numbers that denoted perfection. Seven brought to mind the days of Creation and the days of the week. Among other things, twelve represented the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve Apostles. It was much later when years were split into twelve months and days were split into cycles of twelve hours.
The main point is that Jesus does not always give us what we might want, but he gives us what we need. In Matthew 6 and Luke 11, Jesus taught the “Lord’s prayer” which includes the words, “give us this day our daily bread.” This suggests again that our needs are met even though we might want more. Jesus is warning us about what the Pharisees and Herod might give us, but we should trust him to meet our needs.
Questions to Ponder: What is it that we need most from Jesus? How do our wants differ from our needs?