First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 9

William Loader

Pentecost 9: 2 August Matthew 14:13-21

Come to the feast! The feeding of the 5000 is a central symbol in the rich heritage of the Jesus tradition. It can be viewed from many angles and each is enriching. In Mark (6:30-44) it serves to celebrate the nourishment of salvation offered to Israel, just as the feeding of the 4000 (8:1-10) will celebrate the offer also to the Gentiles (see also 8:16-21). Matthew is not so happy to use the stories in this way. In his composition both feedings are nourishment of Israel, so he can remove the particular elements in the feeding of the 5000 which emphasised Israel. Gone is the description of the crowd being like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34). Matthew used it in 9:36. The numbering of groups of 100's and 50's in Mark which evoked memories of Israel's formation in the wilderness has gone. The disciples are, as usual in Matthew, more polite. Instead, Matthew emphasises the miracle and Jesus' healing ministry on site, an element not present in Mark. It enables Matthew to have the two feedings match each other, since he will make the healings by the sea into the setting for the feeding of the 4000 (15:29-39; cf. Mark 7:31-37 and 8:1-10), now atop a mountain, also a common feature in Matthew. The miracle is even grander in Matthew. He tells us 5000 counted only the men; there were women and children as well!

What were 5000 men (and it says, literally, men, males) doing in wilderness battle formation in an isolated place? It sounds like the actions of others of the time who gathered armies in the wilderness in the hope of repeating the liberation of the land under Joshua of old. Is this a new Joshua (Jesus means Joshua)? John's gospel even suggests there was a military response of sorts when the people tried to make him king (6:14-15). Perhaps the tradition about Peter's confession once stood much closer to this story (as it does in John 6): he also had that kind of messiahship in mind (Mark 8:27-31). Was Jesus staging such a symbol of liberation? If so, did he have military intentions? Hardly, unless the material has been sanitised without trace. Certainly there are traces in the story which suggest that Jesus was acting within the tradition of liberation, but there were many forms of liberation hope. One was to yearn for the kingdom.

Was there an actual feeding, an actual miracle? The tradition says there was. It makes a link with the Elijah/Elisha stories. Elisha's multiplication of barley loaves brought to him by his lad (2 Kings 4:42-44) have helped shape John's version of the story. Some may say we cannot really know what happened as a good way of avoiding the embarrassment that such magic is in the story which we could do with urgently in areas of need. Unrepeatable wonders like this are a tease to poverty and destitution. Others suggest the authors never meant the story literally or just left out the bit about everyone opening their own lunches and sharing. Say nothing about the miraculous in the story and your hearers will frequently assume you swallow all that is claimed. In principle the miracle is defensible philosophically. Random realities are fashionable in scientific reflection these days. Not to address the miracle itself in preaching may be irresponsible. I, myself, would let pastoral concerns dictate how I would handle it. Mostly one can at least acknowledge that not everyone will believe the story literally. I really wish it were something we could still do!

Certainly the meal is invested with symbolic associations. It foreshadows the great feast when all nations will gather in peace and reconciliation (Isa 25). Inevitably hearers then and now make connections with other meals in Jesus' ministry and his regular use of meal imagery (e.g., the parable of the great feast, killing the fatted calf, etc). We naturally think of the eucharist. Just before this episode Matthew, like Mark before him, had recounted the black eucharist of Herod Antipas where John the Baptist's head was presented on a platter. (Only) Matthew has John's disciples come and tell Jesus of the execution. In Mark the return of the disciples from their mission intervened. But in Matthew that lay too far back. Instead Jesus' departure by boat to a lonely spot is portrayed as a direct response to John's execution, which, for Matthew, is one of a piece with the disciples and Jesus. The feeding, in that sense, is like a requiem mass for John, a comfort for Jesus and his disciples at John's death. Maybe.

The feeding miracle evokes the many images of food and drink with which Israel spoke of God's word or law. John 6 will bring this together in the celebration of Jesus as the bread of life and his body and blood as food of eternal life. The image is at the heart of Christian worship. Now highly stylised by tradition it still echoes the richness of the imagery. Too often its link to Jesus' death has led people to miss its broader context. The last supper makes sense in the light of all the other meals including this one and they make sense in the light of the vision of liberation and reconciliation which inspired them. To receive him in bread and wine is also to participate in the vision and nourishment which makes it possible. There are very rich connections here.

Epistle: Pentecost 9: 2 August  Romans 9:1-5

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