The Loaves and the Leaven
GREAT crowds have flocked to Jesus in the Decapolis. Many came a long way to this largely Gentile-populated region to listen to him and to be healed of their infirmities. They have brought with them large baskets, or hampers, that they customarily use to carry provisions when traveling through Gentile areas.
Eventually, however, Jesus calls his disciples and says: “I feel pity for the crowd, because it is already three days that they have remained near me and they have nothing to eat; and if I should send them off to their homes fasting, they will give out on the road. Indeed, some of them are from far away.”
“From where will anybody here in an isolated place be able to satisfy these people with loaves?” the disciples ask.
Jesus inquires: “How many loaves have you?”
“Seven,” they answer, “and a few little fishes.”
Instructing the people to recline on the ground, Jesus takes the loaves and the fishes, prays to God, breaks them, and begins giving them to his disciples. They, in turn, serve the people, who all eat to satisfaction. Afterward, when the leftovers are picked up, there are seven provision baskets full, even though about 4,000 men, as well as women and children, have eaten!
Jesus sends the crowds away, boards a boat with his disciples, and crosses to the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Here the Pharisees, this time accompanied by members of the religious sect of the Sadducees, try to tempt Jesus by asking him to display a sign from heaven.
Aware of their efforts to tempt him, Jesus replies: “When evening falls you are accustomed to say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is fire-red’; and at morning, ‘It will be wintry, rainy weather today, for the sky is fire-red, but gloomy-looking.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but the signs of the times you cannot interpret.”
With that, Jesus calls them a wicked and adulterous generation and warns them that, as he told the Pharisees earlier, no sign will be given them except the sign of Jonah. Departing, he and his disciples get in a boat and head toward Bethsaida on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee. En route the disciples discover that they have forgotten to bring bread, there being but one loaf among them.
Having in mind his recent encounter with the Pharisees and the Sadducean supporters of Herod, Jesus admonishes: “Keep your eyes open, look out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Evidently the mention of leaven makes the disciples think that Jesus is referring to their forgetting to bring bread, so they begin to argue about the matter. Noting their misunderstanding, Jesus says: “Why do you argue over your having no loaves?”
Recently, Jesus had miraculously provided bread for thousands of people, performing this last miracle perhaps only a day or two before. They should know that he is not concerned about a lack of literal loaves. “Do you not remember,” he reminds them, “when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand men, how many baskets full of fragments you took up?”
“Twelve,” they reply.
“When I broke the seven for the four thousand men, how many provision baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
“Seven,” they answer.
“Do you not yet get the meaning?” Jesus asks. “How is it you do not discern that I did not talk to you about loaves? But watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
The disciples finally get the point. Leaven, a substance to cause fermentation and make bread rise, was a word used to denote corruption. So now the disciples understand that Jesus is using a symbolism, that he is warning them to be on guard against “the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” which teaching has a corrupting effect. Mark 8:1-21; Matthew 15:32–16:12.
▪ Why do people have large provision baskets with them?
▪ After leaving the Decapolis, what boat trips does Jesus take?
▪ What misunderstanding do the disciples have regarding Jesus’ comment about leaven?
▪ What does Jesus mean by the expression “the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”?