"How Is It You Do Not Understand?” (Mark 8:21)

This essay appears as the Commentary to the April 17th entry in Consuming Fire, the daily devotional version of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons. 

In the 8th of St. Mark our Lord feeds the multitude; it is the second such occasion recorded within two chapters of that Gospel.  In each He uses the bread of poor disciples and little boys, barley loaves, the fodder of Egyptian horses and asses, the crumbly and slightly bitter cakes, staple fare of poor struggling masses.  Lacking gluten, as has wheat, such bread is fragile; lacking yeast it does not rise, and if the wild spores should invade it, the barley loaf is worthless for it will upon the touch be reduced to fragmented morsels at the touch and be no loaf.  It is hard for the modern Western mind to understand what is the nature of this bread, these loaves, which the Lord would break.  They are not such as bread common to us, but very much are like the Lord Who broke them, was Himself shortly to be broken in the hands of the Father, feeding not a multitude but the whole of humanity with His own Self.

“He lifted up the loaves and gave thanks and He broke them.”  We know neither the outspoken words of His thanksgiving nor His inner communication with His Father and ours, only the words that tell us He gave thanks; but I see within the Man what the purest Heart driven Mind must have been saying; “These fish, and that bread, these are they which speak of Me; it is My body which shall be broken!” 

No man among the inner circle of disciples saw the greater meaning, thinking only of their bellies, did not see the correlation because they would not, had eyes which were yet to be opened, thus saw not the great lesson presented; and certainly none among the multitude gathered there perceived it any better.  They all alike supposed their hunger was a physical one; He knew it to be that of famished soul; they would be content with the good, their daily bread; He would give to them the best, which is the Bread of Life, His own very Self.  But they were not yet ready.  And this kindness of Christ is exemplary of how the God of all Love ever works among His children: Their needs are layered, and the priority they give to them is not His, yet He will not lay upon them His demands first if they are unable to meet them; He asks not of men what is impossible for them to do.  He will give sustenance into their bellies now if that is all they understand; He will give Himself as Sustenance on Golgotha even though they may yet not understand; He will meet their legitimate needs even though they have cart before horse, will by circumstances and in time show them their error and then help them to rectify themselves.  He will give them the lower bread until they hunger and thirst after the righteous Bread of Life.

How is it that you do not understand?” He asks them.  He must ask it, for they of themselves are not able to ask; they are sheep wandering, He is the Shepherd Who must guide them to the green pastures and still waters of heart and mind.  They are then in the boat (vr. 14), a single crumbly barley loaf among them, they now feel the gnaw of empty stomachs and grumble that there is insufficient bread to feed themselves.  Is not He, the Friend and feeder of multitudes of strangers, there with them?  Why are they tempest tossed when the Master of their turbulent souls is at hand?  By His question “Our Lord sought to rouse in the disciples a sense of their lack of confidence in God.”  These beloved of our Lord had “failed to see the central revelation” contained in the miracles: “the eternal fact of God's love and care and compassion.”  His question opened the portal of their minds, if but a little, to a central fact they had, in the squalor of Self-seeking, forgotten, that it was Love Personified which had broken the bread, using a lower thing to point to the higher, the highest, their very redemption.

There is no parallel verse in the other Gospel accounts which reflects the Lord's question; “How is it that you do not understand,” and St. Mark does not record their answer, if in fact they offered one. MacDonald says that after He turned the light of their thoughts and demands upon themselves “Then they did understand.  He who trusts can understand.”  Yet I do not think they understood very much at that time, if anything at all.  Their continuous bickering about who among themselves would be greatest in the Kingdom, their looking for the Lord to become King by force of arms, their flight from Him at His trial and crucifixion, for these and other reasons I tend to think they understood little of Who and What He Is, much less concerning themselves.  But the seed had been sown in them and would shortly begin to grow, and after His resurrection come to fruition.  For, in time, these poor disciples would become very much like their Master and turn the world of their day on its head.  Truly they who desired lowly bread and fishes would become fishers of men and share abroad the Bread broken for them; as He, they would feed the hungry that Divine Food which satisfies eternally the heart-hungering of all peoples everywhere.  When they had learned the truth of Truth, then they would understand...