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Proper 13A, Tr 2, Trinity 10, 31.7.05
Isaiah 55.1-5: you shall call nations that you do not know
Ps 145.8-9, 15-22: The Lord is loving to everyone
Rom 9.1-5: Paul maintains Jewish roots. Jews to be means of calling Gentiles, now tables reversed.
Mt 14.13-21: after Jesus heard John beheaded, Feeding of 5,000 men
Collect: make us ask such things as shall please you.
Post Com: God of our pilgrimage ... may [we] never wander from the way of life.
Summary: Feeding the 5,000 is a Jewish feeding; Feeding the 4,000 is a mixed Jewish-Gentile feeding, added to help move the Church outwards.
Since we are in Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, our gospel reading this morning has been from Matthew. Matthew is what one might call an up-dating of Mark, up-dated to speak to a somewhat different pastoral situation than that faced by Mark’s community, and even Mark had been forced to deal with a shifting situation, since he added a large section of material to what we may call his first edition. Mark issued his first edition around AD 65-70. This first shorter version is the one that Luke used when he wrote his gospel. Very soon after the first version of Mark, the large bit in the middle was added. This is Mark’s Gospel as we have it, and it is the version that Matthew worked from. It is this bit in the middle that Matthew keeps that I want to bring to your attention after we have a good look at some aspects of today’s gospel reading.
Our reading this morning includes the Feeding of the 5,000. It takes place in the springtime when the grass has turned green and they can sit on it. In the Holy Land the grass turns green at Passover time, so scholars have for many years recognized that this story is about the great Messianic Passover feast. Five loaves of bread are used. Why five? Because for the Jews there are three numbers that represent Israel, which all occur within a little over one chapter toward the end of the Book of Genesis. The numbers are 12, 70, and 5. Twelve for the twelve tribes of Israel, obviously this is matched by Jesus’ twelve disciples. Seventy, because 70 is the total number of people who went down to Egypt. Luke, incidentally, uses this number when he tells of Jesus sending out 70 persons. And finally the number five. Joseph takes five brothers to represent all Israel before Pharaoh. Again, Luke uses this number also, when the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to witness to his five brothers, but is told that they, that is, all the Jews, already have sufficient witness in the scriptures, and if they won’t heed the scriptures, they won’t believe if a man rose from the dead. Now, in today’s gospel we have the numbers 5 and 12: 5 loaves are used, 5,000 men are fed, and 12 baskets of fragments are left over, figuratively speaking, enough for all the Jews.
The feeding takes place in purely Jewish territory, of those
fed only the males are counted, another Jewish trait, and even the kind of
basket, called a kophinos, that is used to gather up the fragments is
associated with Jewish usage. So the Feeding of the 5,000 is a purely Jewish
Matthew keeps all the material that Mark added to his second edition, and that includes the story of the Feeding of the 4,000. When I started my doctoral studies 45 years ago scholars were bemused by this second feeding; they scratched their heads and generally said that it was just another version of the same feeding and they could see little point to it, for at that stage most of them viewed Matthew, Mark and Luke as being little more than arrangers and recorders of received tradition. If you wanted real theology, you had to go to John’s Gospel. But now we know differently.
When we come to the Feeding of the 4,000, the feeding takes place in the Decapolis: Deca-polis, Ten Towns. This Ten Towns area was settled in the 4th century BC by men with their families from the army of Alexander the Great, and it is an area where Jews and Gentiles live together. This time there are seven loaves of bread, and seven baskets of fragments. Now for Jews the number 7 was used to refer to the Gentile nations, since 7 nations were expelled from Canaan when Israel entered the Promised Land. And even the type of basket used, called a spuris, was a type of basket that anyone might use. This time the number fed are about 4,000, sex unspecified, with enough left over for all the Gentiles.
So we have moved from a purely Jewish feeding to a mixed Jewish and Gentile feeding. And the rest of the added material taken over from Mark is concerned with the conditions of the mission to the Gentiles. It includes Jesus declaring all foods clean, which opens the way for Jews and Gentiles to eat together.
There is a sense in which one might say that Mark’s first
edition was seen to be too inward looking, which is why the materials were added
to help the community to be more outward-looking.
It is quite possible to become tired of ones calling, or even to mis-read ones calling. As we read the various writings of the OT, we can detect the tensions between being a self-contained people on the one hand, and on the other hand being urged to look outwards and be concerned for others.
E.g. the prophet Haggai, stresses the need to rebuild the
temple after the exile as being the primary concern. And Ezra & Nehemiah’s
so-called ‘reforms’ in the 4th century BC after the return from
the Exile include the putting away of foreign wives – a real push towards
inward-looking ethnic purity.
Just as Mark’s addition, followed by Matthew, helps to set the church’s focus outward on the mission to the Gentiles, so likewise in the Old Testament there is a counter-stream against being inward looking in such writings as the tract of Jonah, which tells of his disgust at God’s sending him to preach repentance to the Gentiles, namely the inhabitants of Ninevah. When he finally does so, he is still unhappy that they repent and are saved.
Another such writing is the Book of Ruth, a real counter-blast to the concern for ethnic purity. In it the line of David, the great King of Israel, comes through a Moabite. And the scroll of Ruth was read at Pentecost, the missionary feast.
This outward vision is also present in our readings today.
In our reading from Isaiah the Lord says, ‘See, you shall call nations that you do not know’. Our psalm says, ‘The Lord is loving to everyone, and his compassion is over all his works’.
And in our reading from Romans, Paul is agonizing over his fellow-Jews who have not yet accepted the gospel. He goes on to argue that the calling of the Jews was to be the means whereby the Gentiles would be brought to God, but now God has reversed the tables, and through his kindness as shown forth by the Gentile Christians, the Gentiles themselves are now to be the means for bringing in the rest of the Jews. Even if things did not work out that way in the end, we can sense Paul’s tremendous desire to share the gospel of God’s love in Christ with all people.
It is easy to become discouraged and inward looking, to become a self-preservation society, so-to speak. But we who trust in God through Christ know that his Spirit will sustain us in the patience and courage of which today’s collect speaks, as we continue to respond to our calling to look outward in love and service to our neighbours here at St Mark’s.