Saturday, 1 August 2009

Matthew and the Feeding of The Multitude

Isaiah 55
Psalm 145
Romans 9
Matthew 14

So, here we are: this is the summer.


I don’t know whether it is something to do with the street I live in but this time of year seems to me to be characterised by the smell of barbeques.

I must be deeply anti-social or I have some other personality defect but I don’t find chasing paper plates around someone’s garden, while balancing a cup of indifferent wine and avoiding ketchup stains and salmonella, a recipe for unbridled fun.

This time of year always puts me in mind of my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley. Have I mentioned my Auntie Doreen in Barnsley before? No? Well, you know the phrase “glass half full, glass half empty”? It makes no difference to her, she’ll drink it anyway. So, I called round one day and she was in a bad mood having bought two barbeque packs from B & Q.

“There” she said brandishing one in my face. “Look at the picture.” The picture showed a barbeque, all set up, with succulent food cooking nicely.

“What’s the problem?” I enquired tentatively.

“Well, look for yourself.” She said brandishing the open box again. “It’s a bag of charcoal. There’s no food.”

I explained gently, not wishing to make her feel stupid that it was just the cooking element of the barbeque she had bought and that no food was included what with B & Q not generally selling food.

She took it well, I thought, and then turned on her heel and headed for the kitchen. “I’d better get the other one out of the freezer, then.”

The Gospel, though not exactly describing a barbeque on the Galilean hills, tells of Jesus meeting the needs of his hungry followers. After hearing of his preaching in last week’s Gospel, we now begin a series of three Sundays whose Gospel readings tell of his miracles. The first of these is the miraculous feeding of the 5,000, one of the few miracles found in all four Gospels. Though the story is a shortened version of Mark’s account, it has Matthew’s distinctive focus with the Disciples portrayed as wondering how they will feed the people: here is Matthew’s theme of “little faith,” strengthened by Jesus.

When I was thinking about how best to approach this reading I had a look at a book by the Anglican theologian Canon Dr. Jeffrey John called “The Meaning in the Miracles.” He wittily relates how as a schoolboy two of his teachers had approached the miracles in contrasting ways and this really resonated with me because I had a similar experience when I first started teaching. One of my colleagues, Mr. Forest, a Biology teacher embodied the literalist or fundamentalist approach to scripture where everything was to be taken at the plainest level of meaning and must have happened exactly as it said. His response to this miracle would be to say “Well, it just goes to show that Jesus is God, doesn’t it?” Doubting that a miracle story happened exactly as it was recorded was tantamount to doubting the divinity of Christ.

Mrs. King, my first R.E. Head of Department, on the other hand, took the reductionist approach, wanting to “demythologise” the miracle accounts to reveal the morals within the stories. In this case the moral to her was that when Jesus fed the five thousand he and the disciples shared out what they had and their example encouraged others who had been holding back their own food to share theirs too. The “real” miracle was when everyone discovered the joy of caring and sharing with others.

She referred to him as a snake-handling Baptist and he referred to her as a wet, liberal Anglican.

I didn’t sit with them in the staffroom.

Life’s too short.

While their approaches seem diametrically opposed, they were in fact quite similar in the sense that they both treated the miracles as straightforward descriptions of events: they concentrated simply on what did or did not happen. Dr. John concludes that the real nature and purpose of the Gospel miracles is found in the depths and dimensions of meaning which are also conveyed in the account and these passed both the teachers – and consequently their students – by completely.

The problem with Mr. Forrest’s literalist approach where miracles simply exist to prove the divinity of Jesus is that it can say very little else about the event because it either rejects or simply doesn’t understand any symbolism at the heart of the Gospel events. The problem with Mrs. King’s reductionist approach as a call to greater charity is that it hardly sounds like good news and certainly not a tremendous demonstration of God’s free, miraculously overflowing generosity to his people.

What I discovered was there was no middle ground between them although before I gave up on them and went to sit with the English Department, I tried to argue that there was often a middle way where neither really had to give up their position in acknowledging the validity of the other’s point. That advice was clearly unwelcome. For where two or three are gathered together in my name….there will inevitably be an argument. (To paraphrase Matthew 18) And isn’t that a parable for the modern church where there is so much invested in being right at the expense of others?

But I digress.

So what is the language of miracles – specifically today the miracle of the feeding of the multitude? What are the theological nuances that both Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King never saw?

I don’t know whether you had realised that there is a second miracle of feeding the multitudes. This comes a couple chapters later in Matthew’s gospel – and in Mark’s Gospel too. I had always thought that this was another version of the same story that had got mangled in the telling and accidentally ended up as a second event. I don’t think that any more.

Certainly Jesus does the same thing but he does it in a different place, for a different people and with different numbers of loaves, fishes and people: these details are not the sloppy rememberings of another tradition but are themselves significant elements of two different events, and we know this because in Mark’s version Jesus questions the disciples very closely about the two feedings and gives them a hard time because they don’t get it.

“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you collect?” They said to him “Twelve.”

“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” And they said to him “Seven.” Then he said to them “Do you not yet understand?”

Well, if the disciples, sitting not five feet from Jesus, found the meaning obscure, perhaps we may be forgiven for not fully understanding it either.

What many commentators are now saying to us is that the first miracle is a feeding of the Jews and the second miracle is a feeding of the Gentiles.



Well, this interpretation of Jews and Gentiles is evidenced by the fact that the first miracle takes place in a Jewish area near the Sea of Galilee while the second takes place in an area called the Decapolis, a largely Gentile area. Two different words are used for “basket” in the accounts: one a word of Jewish usage and one a word of Gentile usage.

The number five from the first feeding is very much a Jewish number because of its relationship to the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law. The number four in the second feeding is a Gentile number because it refers to the four Gentile empires that had overrun Israel - the number of “beasts” in the book of Daniel. The number twelve in the first feeding refers to the twelve tribes of Israel while the number seven in the second regularly stands for fullness or completion in many scriptural texts: the mission to the Gentiles completes Jesus ministry.

These two stories must have been understood by Matthew and Mark as a prefiguring of the two stage preaching of the Gospel: “to the Jew first and then to the Gentile” as St. Paul later observed. The bread symbolizes the word of God: a standard association in Jewish thinking linked to the warning in Deuteronomy “You shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Two thousand years down the line and we don’t instantly recognise the subtext as the original listeners and readers would have, and that diminishes our understanding of the Gospel. There are so many layers to the miracle stories, and yet like Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King we persist in seeing the two dimensional – and arguing about it!

But there is more: perhaps the most obvious theological emphasis of this feeding miracle is to tell us that Jesus is the new Moses. Even with a sketchy knowledge of the Old Testament most people are likely to remember that Moses had done something similar with the manna in the desert and closer examination shows other areas of comparison. Like Moses Jesus crosses the water into the desert, sits the people down in companies and feeds them with miraculous bread in such abundance that there are basketfuls left over. Much less obviously, because the relevant Old Testament story is perhaps less well known, Jesus’ actions also recall Elisha. Some of the details of the feeding stories clearly reflect an incident in 2 Kings when Elisha takes an army into the desert and feeds them miraculously with a few loaves.

Taking Moses and Elisha together, the story seems to be telling us in an allusive way that in recapitulating what Moses did, Jesus is fulfilling the Law and in recapitulating what Elisha did, Jesus is fulfilling the Prophets. This feeding miracle is intended to teach us that Jesus is truly the one whom the Law and the Prophets foretold.

Some commentators go further: they see the bread as having a sacramental reference. The words and actions of Jesus over the bread are exactly the same as at the Last Supper. The association with Moses and the Exodus event point to a Passover setting and thus to the new Christian Passover, the Eucharist.

So, this Gospel miracle is also a deeply meaningful theological statement. Its meaning is Christological in that the miracle tells us something about Jesus; it is typological in that it relates to comparable figures of the religious past, Moses and Elisha; it is eschatological in that it relates to the end times, presenting Jesus as the fulfilment of the religious tradition; it is symbolic in its use of numbers and sacramental in its reference to the Eucharist. All these dimensions were important to the Gospel writers and should also be important to us. However, they are regularly missed in the “standard” approach to miracles because we have lost the skill of finding the keys to the N.T. in the O.T.

This miracle has all the flavour and literary style of the Jewish narrative known as haggadah, a genre of Jewish theological writing. We should not be surprised by this as Matthew and Mark were Jewish writers. They were steeped in the traditions of the O.T. and they derived their theological understanding from their Jewish antecedents. They recognised all these extra elements in the feeding miracles and understood their importance: Jesus did THIS and in doing so echoed THAT and each detail had such incredible theological significance that it had to be recorded because of the picture each layer helped to build up. Yes, this is most certainly a story of Jesus’ divinity and the reasons why are found in the detail: so they underlined these threads of prophecy-fulfilment, symbolism, typology, allegory and numerology throughout their Gospel narratives. These are the signposts which point to Jesus’ divinity and to the readers and listeners of the day they must have been akin to flashing neon lights which spelt out the truths, hopes, patterns and meanings and modern relevance of the scriptural past those elements represented.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy). Only all too often we have lost the key and therefore miss many of the nuances.

What should this mean for us today? When we read the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, how should we react? Well, perhaps the best response is the one provided by scripture itself, the discourse of Jesus on the Bread of Life in John’s Gospel:
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from Heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from Heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

What would Mr. Forrest and Mrs. King have made of it all, I wonder?

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