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 miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, 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?”
— Mark 8:11-21, NIV
They wanted a sign.
We are accustomed to reading in the New Testament about how the Pharisees desired a sign, about how Jesus declined to give them a sign, and we congratulate ourselves about our superior insight that even if the Pharisees had been given a sign, they wouldn’t have believed. However, the joke is on us!
A person’s sense of reality has a marvelous way of incorporating unusual events. Our minds do not want to see the miraculous, and when they encounter miracles, they have marvelous powers of rationalization to incorporate the miraculous into the humdrum.
Moses worked signs for Pharaoh, but Pharaoh didn’t believe them. Okay, so there’s a plague of frogs. After all those insects, what did you expect? Nature does some pretty strange things sometimes. Do you remember all those birds we saw last year? For some reason they just shifted their normal migratory pattern. Okay, so the river turned red. It’s a big river; who knows what somebody may have dumped into it upstream? Maybe there was a war up there, who knows? And then of course the magicians duplicated most of the others.
When Mary saw Jesus in the garden on resurrection Sunday, she thought He was the gardener until He called her name. That’s understandable: if you watch by someone’s deathbed on Friday, and you bump into someone who bears an uncanny resemblance to her at Safeway’s salad bar on Sunday, you’ll probably assume that you are preoccupied with your friend’s death and that your subconscious mind is planting her face in every crowd. I doubt you’d drop your plate and start screaming about a resurrection!
When the women returned from Jesus’ gravesite on Sunday morning and reported the resurrection, the men thought they were imagining things. That’s only natural: men are accustomed to women’s “hysteria,” and women are accustomed to men’s exaggerated tales of conquest. When we hear such tales, our first reaction is to calm the person down. A child bursts in the door with an incoherent story about a very strange event; do we believe every word? Sit down, we say, catch your breath. Have a glass of milk. Would you like a cookie? Tell me that again, real slow this time. What is it that you thought you saw?
When Jesus appeared to the disciples, their first impression was that He was a ghost! So He ate some food to disprove that theory. If something doesn’t look right, we assume first that we’re seeing things, or that the light is odd. Only after we resolve all those possibilities do we take the more dramatic explanation seriously.
When NASA put a man on the moon and sent back television pictures to prove it, a public opinion poll revealed that most people didn’t believe it. They thought it was faked on a sound stage somewhere. Someone even made a movie based on that premise!
A fallacy is involved in this: we assume that because the effects of a miracle can be duplicated, the miracle is explained. For example, photographing men on a sound stage and photographing men on the moon may produce the same pictures, but it’s fallacious to assume that you’ve proved that the moon pictures were faked in that way. Accordingly, we reject all reports of miracles, not because a miraculous cause has been proven, but only because a naturalistic cause has been shown to be possible. By such standards no event will ever be deemed a miracle.
Yet we yearn for miraculous signs, even though they do not convince us. We try to invent miracles to convince others, even though we ourselves are not convinced by them. Haven’t friends of yours tried to invite you to their church with promises that “lives are changed” ? Have you ever seen a brochure promising “miracles and healings” at an evangelistic meeting? Have you ever tried to lure a potential convert with promises of “peace of mind” or an “assurance of eternal salvation” ?
Miraculous claims tend to repel rather than attract, and when you are attracted by them, what happens? If you attend the church or the evangelistic meeting with the miraculous claims, do you listen to the sermon? Do you reason through the message? No! You spend the whole evening waiting for the miraculous to occur, so you can try your hand at refuting them! When something happens that everyone claims is miraculous, you view it with a skeptical eye. You might conclude that the other witnesses are caught up in enthusiasm, but another explanation is possible and is probably true. Okay, so some disheveled fellow they call “Brother Bob” claims victory over alcoholism. Is he really cured? How can you tell after five minutes of sobriety? “Sister Sue” claims deliverance from cigarettes, but you know several people who quit on their own.
And so you leave that place, possibly having witnessed several true miracles, but recognizing none.
The Pharisees asked for a sign, but Jesus sighed and gave them none. Then He castigated the disciples for forgetting about the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand, which had just occurred. They had just witnessed two bonafide miracles and had so rapidly conformed them to their perceptions of normalcy that none of them stood up to the Pharisees and said, “You want a miracle? Where were you when He fed the five thousand? There were five thousand witnesses to that miracle! Where were you when He fed the four thousand? There were four thousand witnesses to that miracle! You have over nine thousand witnesses to miracles worked by Jesus and you want more?”
Now I know why Jesus was annoyed. Imagine working miracles for nine thousand people and even your followers forget! I’ll bet He sounded like my mother, “Nobody appreciates anything I do around here!”
You see, when you went to that evangelistic meeting that advertised miracles, you went with your skepticism in full gear. Your mind demanded a sign and refuted all it saw. You came home empty-handed, shaking your head about the gullibility some people can generate. But like the disciples, you overlooked the Bread. You did not listen to the sermon. You did not see the people being fed, and you did not partake yourself of what was offered. You were too busy being “scientific” and “modern” to see what was going on. You were too busy diagnosing Brother Bob’s sincerity to see the love and acceptance from the crowd. You were too busy congratulating yourself for finding an explanation for Sister Sue’s freedom from nicotine. You failed to see the miracles of the Word of God and the Love of God embodied in human flesh. You saw their lack of education, but you did not marvel at their wisdom. You critiqued their doctrine, but you did not see the Spirit. You witnessed things you would never see at a condominium association meeting, a department meeting at work, or a meeting of the city council. You were paying so much attention to the human aspects you did not see the divine. You were so busy refuting non-miracles that you overlooked the real ones.
So we ask Jesus for a sign. A miracle; something to show us the way. “Please lord,” we pray, “tell me what to do in this difficult situation.”
And Jesus just looks up at the sky in impatience. “You want a sign,” He says, “but you will receive none.”
Why? Because we were already given a real miracle, and we ignored it. We explained it away. We didn’t notice. One more miracle won’t make any difference at all if we don’t pay attention.