Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Breaking tradition by breaking bread (Matt. 14:14-16:12)

Photo by Nicholas Nichols

As noted in a previous post, chapters fourteen through seventeen of Matthew's Gospel talk a lot about bread

In 14:14-15:20, Jesus is followed by a great crowd (πολν χλον) to a great lake to feed a great amount of people with, presumably, great tasting bread (5,000+). Jesus then gets in "the boat" (ναβάντων ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities who had been asking, "Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread" (Matt. 15:2, ESV). (Although most English translations don't include the word "bread," including the ESV, the word is actually there in the Greek text: ἄρτον ἐσθίωσιν.) 

A lot of bread was being broken, and so was a lot of Pharisaical tradition.

In the next section (15:21-28) Jesus withdraws to Tyre and Sidon---a distinctively non-Jewish area---and is confronted by a Canaanite woman of great faith. Her faith is, in fact, greater than the Jewish authorities of the previous section. Her faith in Yahweh is so great that she gets excited about bread crumbs. While 5,000 Jews are being stuffed with loaves of bread, this Canaanite woman is satisfied with crumbs from her master's table. Immediately we can see the great contrast that Matthew intended his audience to see. The contrast is between a Canaanite's persistent acceptance of bread crumbs and the Pharisees persistent rejection of entire loaves of bread. The contrast is between a Canaanite's allegiance to the God of Israel--the God of the Bible--and the Pharisee's allegiance to that God as well. While the Pharisees prepare to attack Jesus over washing their hands before eating bread, a Canaanite sees the value of every speck of bread that her master allows to fall on dirty ground.

The Pharisees and scribes were looking for a fight. The Canaanite woman was looking for the Lord, her savior.

This episode is followed by a similar series of events (15:29-16:12) that just occurred, only with a slight twist of emphasis. After Jesus' trip to Tyre and Sidon, Jesus is followed by another great crowd (πολλο χλοι) to the same great lake to feed another great amount of people with, presumably, more great tasting bread (4,000+). The twist this time around is that Jesus is not feeding Jews; instead he seems to be feeding Gentiles. (This may take a few moments to explain, so I'll comment about this shortly.) Afterward Jesus, again, gets into "the boat" (πνέβη ες τ πλοον), crosses the lake, and is immediately confronted by Jewish authorities. Jesus then privately speaks to his disciples, warning them about the "leaven" of the Pharisees and the bread (ἄρτον) they've been feeding the children of Israel. This is neither coincidence, nor is it contrived history; it is a real life series of encounters between Jesus and his enemies. Like the prophets Elijah and Elisha before him, Jesus is gathering together a new school of disciples and preparing the way for another exodus from the land, as the land grows in its apostasy and becomes riper for judgment.

The shocking twist in the midst of this narrative section is Jesus' departure into Tyre & Sidon and his subsequent following of Gentile disciples. As I mentioned a moment ago, this needs more explaining. 

Notice carefully all of the narrative details recorded by Matthew. With the first feeding, Jesus multiplies five loaves. With the second feeding Jesus multiplies seven loaves. In total, that’s twelve loaves, just like the twelve loaves of God’s presence required by Law in the Tabernacle. Jesus was preparing a table of bread in the midst of his enemies and gathering together the people of God on both sides of the sea—the Jews of Galilee (5,000) and the Gentiles of the Decapolis (4,000)—to feast on and with the bread of life. This act of mission in feeding the hungry Gentiles even foreshadows the Eucharistic meal on the night of his betrayal. In 15:36, Jesus gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and hands it to his disciples, who then in turn distributes the bread to the remaining crowds. The only other time in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks is on the night of his betrayal (26:26-29). 

Still not convinced? Consider the following as well.

Throughout Scripture, the numbers five and twelve are associated with Israel, and here it is seen with the feeding of the 5,000. The numbers four and seven are associated with the world and with Gentiles throughout Scripture, and here it is seen with the feeding of 4,000. Also, with the feeding of the 4,000, we find something that is not found among the crowd of 5,000. Just before Jesus multiplies the 4,000 loaves of bread (15:31), Matthew says these new crowds “glorified the God of Israel,” which implies that previously they had not been glorifying the God of Israel because this God was Israel’s, not theirs. This makes perfect sense if these newly acquired crowds are Gentiles. As an additional note to confirm this fact, Mark’s account of this feeding (of 4,000) takes place in “the Decapolis,” east of the Sea of Galilee, which was a well-known Gentile territory.1 

How much more evidence do we need to acknowledge this distinction? 

I'll take one more stab at it, and I'll stick within the larger narrative of Matthew's Gospel too. All throughout Matthew's gospel he uses keywords, all of which are repeated in ways that link previously illustrated events in the Gospel. We find this again in this section. Jesus “sits down” (ἀνακλίνω) to eat bread with the children of Israel (the 5,000 of Matt. 14:19), and the last time this word for “sitting” is used in Matthew’s gospel was with Jesus’ conversation with the Gentile Centurion (8:11-12), saying: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table (ἀνακλίνω) with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness.” The “sons of the kingdom” at that time were Israelites. However, as we find out later on in Matt. 14, the Israelites who followed Jesus and ate bread with him (the 5,000) are distinct from those “sons” who would be thrown into the outer darkness mentioned in 8:11-12. The "sons" who remain in the Kingdom are those who eat bread with Jesus and his apostles. Only the "sons" who reject table fellowship with Jesus would be cast out. Those Jews who maintained table fellowship with Jesus and His disciples would be constituted part of the new Israel in Christ, and would be included with the Gentiles who would come from east and west to “sit” with the Patriarchs in the Kingdom.

This message of Matthew's gospel has implications for the Christian Church today. For example, with whom does Jesus break bread today? Or, perhaps another way of expressing the same concern is, with whom do Christians break bread today? Do Presbyterian Christians break bread with Lutherans today? If Jesus welcomes them to his table, they should be willing, because it's the Lord's Table spread before them, not a uniquely Presbyterian table or a Lutheran one. Do Baptists break bread with Roman Catholics, or Pentecostals with Episcopalians? Even though Jesus invites them all to his table, through baptism, some of them still come like the Pharisees with freshly washed hands holding a confrontational axe--always ready for a fight; others come persistently and humbly, satisfied even when they only find crumbs on the floor. 

Which of these characterizes the attitude and perception of your church? 

Which of these characterizes your fellowship with the baptized Body of Christ?

Jesus broke tradition by breaking bread, blessing it, giving thanks, and distributing it to great crowds that followed him--crowds of Jews and Gentiles. Christians of all denominations would be wise in breaking their own Pharisaical traditions too, in order to recline at table with Jesus. Even if bread crumbs are all that's left over for some who seek after Jesus, such would be infinitely better than the outcome of those who are filled with the leaven of Pharisees.

1.  I want to extend my thankfulness to John Barach for pointing these details out to me. For those who may be interested, Pastor Barach has a treasure trove of other biblical insights on his blog:

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