Mark 8 begins with Jesus again miraculously feeding a large crowd (~400o people) using only seven loaves of bread (Mark 8:1-10). While last time (Mark 6:33-44), he feed them from compassion, this time He feeds people who have followed Him for three days without any care for themselves. It shows us how Jesus takes care of those who follow Him (what we often call “Divine Providence,” recognizing that we don’t always have what we want, but He always provides us with what we need most. Also notable in this story is the fact that Jesus gives thanks (v. 6) before breaking the bread and giving it to the crowd. This is a translation of a Greek verb, eucharisteo, from which we get the word “Eucharist,” and its use here foreshadows what is to come at the Last Supper.
What follows this miraculous meal is a demand from the Pharisees that Jesus give them a sign from Heaven (Mark 8:11-13). Whether it’s chronologically accurate or not, the placement of this question following the sign He had already given – a miraculous feeding – shows us the stubborn, hard hearts that many of the Pharisees had. Jesus doesn’t give them a sign because first of all, He was performing signs all over the place and doesn’t perform miracles on demand, but more importantly, because He knew their hearts: they weren’t sincerely seeking the truth, but were doing so out of good will. Jesus tries to explain this to the apostles (8:14-21), cautioning them not to embrace the hard-hearted “leaven” of the Pharisees. He wants them to know that just as leaven permeates dough and expands bread, so too this attitude and teaching of the Pharisees might permeate and affect them. Sadly, the disciples didn’t understand:
“They weren’t educated; they weren’t even very bright, if we judge from their reaction to supernatural things. Finding even the most elementary examples and comparisons beyond their reach, they would turn to the Master and ask: ‘Explain the parable to us.’ When Jesus uses the image of the “leaven” of the Pharisees, they think that he’s reproaching them for not having purchased bread.
They were poor; they were ignorant. They weren’t very simple or open. But they were even ambitious. Frequently they argued over who would be the greatest when — according to their understanding — Christ would definitively restore the kingdom of Israel. Amid the intimacy of the last supper, during that sublime moment when Jesus is about to immolate himself for all of humanity, we find them arguing heatedly… these were the disciples called by our Lord. Such stuff is what Christ chose. And they remain just like that until they are filled with the Holy Spirit and thus become pillars of the Church.” -St. Josemaria Escriva
Next, Jesus performs a unique miracle: one which takes two stages to accomplish (Mark 8:22-25). He is approached by a blind man in Bethsaida who asks Him to be healed. So Jesus takes Him aside, spits in His eyes and lays hands on him, but the man is not yet healed. So Jesus lays hand again, and He is restored. Why isn’t the healing instantaneous, as in other stories? Well, Jesus was trying to cure the man’s weak faith. The more it grew and the man trusted Jesus, the clearer his sight became. Jesus works with the little faith that the man has, but encourages more out of Him… in the same way as He always deals with us.
As they travelled on from Bethsaida to Caesarea Phillipi, Jesus poses His disciples a most important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29), to which Peter responds “You are the Christ.” Left out of this passage is what Matthew writes, that Jesus goes on to call Peter “rock,” and commission him as head of the apostles (and the foundation of the Church (Matthew 16:18-19). This is likely due to the fact that Mark was writing the Gospel as he had heard it from Peter, who likely omitted preaching what might seem like self-praise.
Mark 8:31-33 contains Jesus’ first prediction about His passion and resurrection, which elicits a protest from Peter. Jesus rebukes Peter in very strong words, saying “Get behind me Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Mark 8:33). This shows us two things: first of all, how easy it is to go from recognizing Jesus as the Christ to no longer being on the side of God, but also that to reject the prospect of suffering is to miss the point. The devil had, during the temptation narrative, tried similarly to dissuade Jesus from the Cross… but the Cross (and redemptive suffering) was at the heart of why Jesus came.
Jesus words at the end of this chapter (Mark 8:34-38) bring this message to life. We are called to accept our Crosses and look to the life that matters – eternal life – without undue care for the comforts of this life.
“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” -Mark 8:34-36