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Proper 13, Yr A, Tr 1, (Trinity 6, 31.07.2011)
Gen 32.22-31: Jacob wrestles with God and is named Israel
Ps 17.1-7, 16: (I am innocent) when I awake I shall behold your likeness and be satisfied
Romans 9.1-5: Paul yearns for the Jews’ welfare
Matt 14.13-21: Feeding of the 5,000 (1229)

Creator God, you made us all in your image: may we discern you in all that we see,
and serve you in all that we do; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(All who intend to follow Jesus as God's way are invited to God's table.) 

       We all have our usual way of doing things.  It works well for us.  So what do we do when a new situation comes along that requires us to look at things in a new way and change how we do them? 

          Starting from today’s gospel and working backwards in time, I would like to help you see how the very early Christian community dealt with a major problem that might have split the young church down the middle.  If it had, you and I would not be here today.

          For example, we have heard in our reading from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome (Rom 9.1-5) that he is in anguish over his fellow Jews who have not joined him in following Jesus as the Messiah.  This is akin to the problems we as Anglicans are having at the present time over the status of women in the Church, especially women as bishops, and also traditional  attitudes concerning human sexuality.

          We are in Year A of the RCL so our gospel readings are primarily from Matthew.  Next year they will be from Mark, which is our earliest gospel.  When Matthew and Luke set out to write a gospel for their communities they used Mark as their model and base, but there is a striking difference between them.  Matthew follows Mark all the way through but Luke shows no knowledge of a big chunk of Mark.  For example, all three gospels have the story of the Feeding of the 5,000, which is our gospel for today, but only Mark and Matthew have the story of the feeding of the 4,000.  The very simple answer is that the version of Mark that Luke used was an earlier and shorter version of Mark.  So our Mark is, in effect a second edition.  When we compare the gospels side-by-side we can see that the part that Luke never saw begins at Mark 6.45 and ends at 8.26, that is it begins immediately after Mark’s account of the Feeding of the 5,000 and resumes with the story at Caesarea Philippi where Jesus asks the disciples whom do they think he is.

          This later addition contains far too much significant material to begin to put it all in one sermon, but basically it is all concerned with the outreach to the gentiles, that is, it would include us.

          Perhaps the main problem being faced was the issue of table fellowship of Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus.  So in these verses in Mark’s second edition Jesus declares that all foods are clean , so that the rules for kosher foods are set aside.  Just imagine what a shock it would be to you if all your life you had been told that certain foods were taboo, and now Jesus says that they aren’t.   He also sets aside special washing of hands, pots and pans as quite unnecessary (7.1-7).  This same point is further stressed when Jesus declares that nothing going into a person can defile but only what comes out of that person (7.14).  That is, the problem lies within ourselves and not in God’s good created order.  And to top it all, Jesus says to the pious Jews, ‘You abandon the commandments of God and hold to human tradition’ (7.8f.).

          Now we have just heard Matthew’s version of the Feeding of the 5,000, which basically just repeats Mark’s version, so let’s begin by looking at significant details in Mark’s story.  When it grew late, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowds away.  They can see the problem coming and they want no part of it, but Jesus orders them to feed them (6.37).  In Mark’s story they still baulk at the idea and say in frustration at the size of the problem, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread?” - Remember that one denarius was the wage for a whole day of labour.  So Jesus says, “How many loaves have you?”  They are still reluctant, so Jesus orders them twice more: “Go and see!” (6,38),  The answer is five loaves and two fish.  He commands the crowds to sit down on the green grass, and the rest of the story you know.  But there are some very significant details.

          If you go to the book of Genesis in the story about Joseph, you will find three numbers that become significant for the Jews.  They are 5, 12, 70.  When the Israelites go down into Egypt they are a total of 70 persons, the 12 sons of Jacob represent the 12 tribes of Israel , and Joseph takes 5 brothers as representatives of all Israel when he goes to meet Pharaoh.  Both the numbers 5 and 12 figure in our story, and this explains why we have five fish, five thousand fed, and twelve baskets of fragments left over.  Even the word used for basket, kophinos, is a type of basket strongly associated with the Jews.  So this is a feeding of Jews in Jewish territory with enough left over for all the twelve tribes of Israel.  The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, is that it is a feeding of five thousand males, since Jews only counted males when constituting a synagogue.  If you look at the end of today’s gospel, you will see that Matthew dots the eyes and crosses the tees by adding the phrase ‘not counting women and children’, just in case anyone missed the point.  When we remember that in this story Jesus has to order the disciples three times to get them moving, then it should come as no great surprise that in Mark in the very next verse after this feeding Jesus, for the one and only time, forces the disciples to get into a boat and head for Bethsaida, which means ‘House of the Provider’ (6.45).   They are such a recalcitrant and insensitive lot that they need ears to hear, and in the material that follows Jesus provides for real hearing at Bethsaida when he heals a deaf man with spit.  The spit apparently indicates that it is not easy to get people to really hear, a hearing that includes wholehearted obedience.      

          When we turn to the Feeding of the 4,000, it is in the Decapolis , a mixed Jewish and Gentile territory.  This time there are no commands.  Jesus simply says ‘I have compassion on the multitude’ and the disciples immediately respond.  They are ready to go even as they confess their own inadequacy in doing so.  This time there are seven fish and at the end there are seven baskets of fragments left over.  Now the number seven in Jewish reckoning was the number of gentile nations that the Hebrews pushed out of the Promised Land, and the type of basket used is a spuris, a kind of basket that anyone might use.   And this time it merely says that the number fed were about 4,000, sex unspecified.  Again we encounter another shock to a patriarchal Jewish upbringing when it is not simply men who are counted.  Jesus is presented as the on who breaks down barriers so that the Kingdom may come in its God-intended fullness.

          So where does that leave us?   Quite simply, we, too, are invited to the fellowship at the Lord’s Table, along with all those of whatever origin or background who intend to follow Jesus as God’s Way.