26 October 2016

Matthew 15:32-39

“Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” (v. 32)

Psalm: Psalm 37:1-11


Attentive readers will have noticed that this is not the feeding of the 5,000! Both the Gospels of Matthew and Mark have two versions of this story, and the Gospels of Luke and John each have just the more familiar 5,000 version, with some interesting variations in the details. What is particularly distinctive about it is that it is the only miracle story to appear in all four Gospels, which suggests that it must have been very significant for the first generations of Christians. While some readers may try to find natural explanations (eg it was a spontaneous 'bring-and-share' supper) or supernatural ones (eg this was a divine miracle, with overtones of Holy Communion), that is, perhaps, to miss the real point of the story. As we noted yesterday, one of the things that the Messiah would bring was abundant food for the hungry - those who 'hunger and thirst' will be satisfied.

Matthew and Mark have two versions of the story for a reason, and both contain details that their first Jewish readers would have understood very well. Matthew sets this account of the 4,000 on a mountain, which is where the Messiah might be expected to feed the nations (Isaiah 25:1-10), whereas the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-20) are fed on the grass by the lake (reminiscent of Psalm 23). And these numbers are probably very significant: 5,000, and 12 baskets left over, point towards Israel, whereas 4,000 and 7 baskets left over may well symbolise the gentile (non-Jewish) nations. (There are other details too which are interesting - in the 5,000 Jesus blesses the bread in a typical Jewish way; in the 4,000 he gives thanks (verse 36), and the Greek word is the same as for 'Eucharist'). So Israel is fed first, and the gentile nations are fed second, which is just what Matthew's Jewish Christian readers would have expected.

Of course, we can make this story mean whatever we want it to mean, but maybe it's worth knowing what Matthew might have meant as well!

To Ponder

  • How helpful is it to understand some of the background to a familiar story such as this? Can its familiarity get in the way of reading it carefully?
  • As a modern reader, who do you identify with in the story? Why?
  • What is the significance of this story for you? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd David Rhymer

The Revd David Rhymer has done a number of things over the last 40-odd years - including teaching (science), publishing (theology), full-time ministry (Baptist and Methodist) and national Methodist Team work (training & development officer for Cornwall). More recently he has been responsible for a part-time theology degree course at Exeter University, and until 2017, was involved with teaching students preparing for ministry in the south-west.