[August 5, 2012] After Jesus’ “sermon” of the seven parables, a new section of Matthew’s gospel begins. This section, in my view, extends from 13:54 to 20:34 and is about the church, or as we shall see as it fully develops, the church in the light of the kingdom of the heavens. Like every other section of the gospel it begins with a narrative subsection, in this case 13:54—16:20, which is followed by a teaching subsection. The teaching subsection is further divided in three, each being punctuated at the beginning by one of Jesus’ announcements of His coming passion.
The narrative subsection reaches a climatic conclusion in 16:13-20 when Peter says to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus responds, “Upon this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This climax makes it clear what theme is guiding both the narrative and the teaching that follows.
Commentators are uncertain about how to subdivide the narrative subsection. The structural clues are not as well pronounced as in other portions. Recognizing that Matthew has woven this passage together to flow more or less seamlessly, I nevertheless intuit thematic shifts in the underlying metaphors as the subsection moves towards its pronounced conclusion. In 14:33 we have a “weak” confession; in 16:16 a much stronger and climatic one, but this may only indicate direction. More obvious in terms of structure, there are two very similar feeding stories: 14:15-21 and 15:32-38; with reference to them in 16:5-12. The first feeding is introduced by 13:54-58 and 14:1-13a. The second feeding concludes the tempest (14:22-33) of 15:1-20 and 15:21-28. Two of the healing sessions precede the feeding miracles and are connected to them. The healing session in Gennesaret seems to be related to the story of the tempest, as its outcome. Without being dogmatic, I propose that we can handle 13:53—14:21 as the introductory “cycle”; 14:22—15:39 as the next “cycle”; and 16:1-20 as the concluding “cycle”—recognizing that the thematic flow between them is interlocking, overlapping and fluid.
Jesus Returns to Nazareth (13:54-58)
In the previous section (11:2—13:53) we find the crowds not comprehending Jesus and being poisoned with regard to Jesus by the teachings and attitudes of a particular school of zealous Pharisees. Jesus speaks of His frustration with them. Their unwillingness to repent will leave them in a worse state than if He had never come. Yet, He says, even pagan gentiles, as Isaiah foretold, will put their trust in Him. He tells seven parables that have to do with their apparent inability to hear and see Him.
The seven parables form a solid unit. Preceding the first parable, in 12:46-50, Jesus’ mother and siblings had come looking to speak with Him and Jesus had asked, “Who is My mother and My siblings?” Stretching out His hand toward His disciples He said, “Behold, My mother and My siblings! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in the heavens, he [or she] is My brother and sister and mother.” Jesus was making a statement that the basis for His family is spiritual and moral, not the entitlement of blood.
Now, as if in response to their seeking Him, He goes to Nazareth where they live. And we see what the problem is. That sense of entitlement—they marvel at His wisdom and works of power; He is one of their own—blinds them to who He is and they are offended at Him. These two incidents, then—the passage that immediately preceded the parables (12:46-50) and the passage that immediately follows (13:53-58)—correspond to each other like bookends.
The negative thing that these “bookends” bring forth is the blindness and deafness that lays heavy on the people: “Seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” While it is not an indictment of Israel as such—it is not as simple as that, for the great movement of the church in the first century will come forth from Israel, and the rest of Israel will be recovered in the great Rabbinical movement that follows shortly thereafter—yet in the years preceding the Jewish Wars and in which those wars took place, we can agree with the apostle Paul “that hardness has come upon Israel in part” (Romans 11:25), which will effect the coming in of the gentiles. That hardness will result eventually in the parting of ways between Rabbinic Judaism and the Messiah’s Qahal (the church). That tragic division and misunderstanding will result in the “shutting up of all in disobedience,” that in the end, “God might show mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Neither Israel nor the church will come out of this struggle unscathed. Yet He—Jesus—stands above this wrestling, a wrestling that has shaped the history of the world, and in shaping Western history has brought forth the modern world, and brought us to the brink of disaster. The Day of the Lord is rushing to meet us. “If God did not spare the natural branches, neither will He spare you [gentiles] … [if you do not continue in God’s kindness] you also will be cut off.” And you will—for this reason—be cut off, when “the fullness of the gentiles comes in.” The Day of the Lord will be a time of judgment, when all our delusions will be brought to light; but it will also be a time of God’s mercy to all.
More than His works of power (in which Jesus resembled the Galilean prophets Elijah and Elisha), Israel recognizes the wisdom of Jesus as a prophet, that is, the power of His words. Yet He is almost too close to them for them to see Him. He cannot receive honor in His own country and His own house; that is, among His familiars. If He had descended from heaven the way the Gnostics desired, and did not issue from an earthly mother’s womb, they would have recognized this “Revealer.” But Jesus is of the earth as much as He is of heaven. His mother spoke for the entire creation, for the earth and its sentience (its life), for all humanity and for chosen Israel, when she consented in faithfulness to be the earth-mother of the Son of God. For some reason we are offended—I say we, not just Israel, for the history of the church proves our complicity—that Jesus should be so earthy, so fleshy, so common, so familiar and close to us. It has always seemed so—well—“filthy” and we have always wanted to sanitize Him. His mother was immaculately conceived, that is, her parents conceived her without concupiscence so that her birth was not defiled by the juicy desires that defile the human race. And she conceived Jesus without any of the “filth” of our desires, the juices that such desires bring forth. But the eternal Son of God “became flesh.” He took on His mother’s flesh; fed by her placenta and nourished by her milk. His mother’s hymen broke and He came into the world out of the primordial waters of the womb, her own water. The juiciness of His humanity is unavoidable. His passion for us is certainly divine, coming from the divinity of His Person, but it is also altogether human. We are offended, and cannot hear His word.
On the one hand, some people want to deny His virgin birth. It is inconceivable that He should have come into the world without a male taking the initiative. That He should have come on His own, outside of male control, having only the substance of His mother, offends them. (Yet was it not Abraham’s initiative with Hagar that caused the covenant to be signified by the circumcision—a judgment on the prerogative—of masculine energy?) On the other hand, some people insist on the perpetual virginity of His mother. They imagine that the reason for His virginal conception was its avoidance of sex; that the purity of Mary’s holiness was preserved by her never having “gotten any,” that is, her never having enjoyed the emotional and physical pleasure of sexual indulgence. Mary conceived without a male taking the initiative—the act of God was not dependent on a human source and was not subject to human control and domestication—and she rightfully enjoyed (we hope) the pleasure of her sexual drive and feelings thereafter as a healthy aspect of her deep spirituality. How else could she have fulfilled the role of raising her Son to be such a fully embodied, sensitive and passionate human? In Jesus God becomes far too intimate for comfort; and so we are offended by Him.
This is the negative side of this episode. There is also a positive one, if we connect it to the episode that preceded His telling of the parables. For Jesus stretched out His hands toward His disciples and said, “Behold, My mother and My siblings! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in the heavens, he [or she] is My brother and sister and mother.” While many are offended, His men and women disciples give themselves to Him; they are committed to His Person and submit to His lordship even though—as He keeps showing them—they can barely understand Him. They love Him.
This episode then brings up, though in a negative way, the great theme of this section: Jesus’ real family, the church, a family of which He is the mother, to which He is giving birth through His word (His seed).
The unbelief of Nazareth corresponds to how Israel also met Moses when he came to them from Midian and announced that he was sent to lead them out of Egypt. Yet as Moses did not reject Israel but proceeded to confront Pharaoh and to bring them through the Red (Reed) Sea and to the foot of Sinai where he is given the pattern of God’s House, so Jesus does not reject Israel but proceeds to the cross. Out of what He accomplishes on the cross, the church—a habitation of God—will be brought forth, and eventually when the Kingdom comes, “all Israel will be saved.”
The Deadly Feast of the World (14:1-13a)
While Jesus is in Nazareth (“at that time”), Herod is wondering who Jesus is, the answer to which is brought forth privately (for the time being; 16:20) by Peter in 16:16. But Herod is thinking of Jesus only as one imbued with the spirit of the Baptist, as Elisha was imbued with the spirit of Elijah. We do not know of John performing miracles, but Herod nevertheless concludes that “because of these works of power operating through [Jesus],” Jesus must be John raised from the dead. Perhaps Herod imagined that Jesus took over the role of John and was the new head of the Baptist movement. It meant, if nothing else, that he had to keep a close eye on Jesus as he had on the Baptist, and Herod found it easiest to keep a watch on John by confining him to his prison. He feared the consequences of executing John outright, for “he feared the crowd because they held him for a prophet”: he might have a rebellion on his hands. Imprisonment was by far the more practical choice.
But it was not to be. For Herod was as much a slave of the world as a petty ruler in it. As he celebrated his birthday surrounded by the rich and powerful of his domain and with whom he had a connection, as they sated themselves on enjoyments, he watched the unnamed daughter of Herodias (it was Salome) dance before him. To impress his courtiers, he promises to give her whatever she would ask. The history of interpretation has paid a great deal of attention to this woman—allowing their repressed imaginations to be titillated by the scene—when Matthew does not. It is the manipulations of Herodias to which Matthew calls our attention. A feast it is, and in a most grisly fashion rife with symbolism, the bloody head of John the Baptist is served to the compliant girl on a dinner platter and given to her mother. The meaning seems to be this: the elite of the world, whom Herod and Herodias and these wealthy courtiers represent, feast on the flesh and blood of the prophets and those who are faithful to God. They are an annoyance to them—that is all—and can be disposed of at will, for they are the ones with power, or so the wealthy of the world believe. The holy ones of God are trivial to the world; they are cheap and easily wasted. The image with which the story presents us is even more revolting that this, though. The prophet’s head severed from its body, his brain and eyes and ears and mouth, are served on a dinner platter and given to the king’s wife during a feast in honor of the king—a king who felt powerless to stop this, even though he in fact commanded it to be done. (The allusion to cannibalism—the consumption of their fellow human and the delusion that they can thereby effect the cessation of his truth …) It is a hideous and diabolic image.
In stark contrast, while Herod is honored in this way, Jesus (He has just told us) is “a prophet without honor in his own country and in his own house.”
This is the only story in Matthew’s gospel that is not centered round Jesus. In that way it seems like an intrusion into the narrative, yet here it is, near centrally placed, and we are made to ponder it. Perhaps it is the foreshadowing of what is to come. When Jesus is told of what happened (the narrative stream last had Him in Nazareth), “He withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place privately.” We are reminded of Jesus’ withdrawal to Gethsemane to pray in view of the death He was facing in Jerusalem. In 16:21 Jesus will announce to His disciples for the first time what He must have already known, “that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed.” Herod Antipas, whose maniacal father callously killed the children of Bethlehem as Pharaoh killed the children of Israel, is of the same ilk, the same power-craving “generation” as the elders and chief priests and their Temple scribes, i.e., the Jerusalem aristocratic elite. They will dispose of Jesus by handing Him over to Pilate as a mere annoyance, and Pilate too will trivialize Him, choosing to make an example of Him to give an object lesson to the pilgrims who swelled the city of Jerusalem during the Passover celebration.
The world trivializes God’s holy ones, and in doing so, it commits acts by which it “feasts” on their flesh and blood. The prophet John will describe a woman who represents the world as “drunk with the blood of the saints and with the blood of the witnesses of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6). The feast of Herod and Herodias is a picture of the feast that the world offers its slaves (some of whom think they are powerful). Not only does the world feast on God’s holy ones, in its diabolical nature it feasts on humanity itself and on all life. In our own day the world is destroying the environment in a frenzied feast of the rich and powerful that they may reap the profits of people having oil and natural gas even though it will destroy them and destroy a great portion of life on this planet, as it is already doing. Nor is this an isolated example. Humanity’s stripping of the planet’s forests and poisoning of its waters is the world, the world of Herod and Herodias, the world of Pilate and his compliant elders and chief priests.
The world stands in stark contrast to the kingdom of the heavens and its picture here serves that function, to highlight the light of the kingdom of the heavens against its darkness. The feast in Herod’s court is presented here as a contrast to the feast of Jesus, the feast of the kingdom of the heavens, an extreme opposite to the feast of the world.
The Feast of Jesus (14:13b-21)
Jesus is in a desert place away from the associations of the world, and there the crowds find Him. Unlike the worldly court of Herod in which there is a need to impress others (and therein be subject to and controlled by them), Jesus is moved with compassion for the crowds; and instead of inflicting injury and death, He heals their infirm. At Herod’s table the elite few eat and can eat to excess, but their greed knows no satiety; whereas Jesus feeds the indiscriminate crowds of mostly poor with loaves and fish, “and all ate and were filled,” and instead of eating to excess with waste, they gathered twelve hand-baskets full. In Herod’s court the rich reclined in an artificial palace; at Jesus’ table the people reclined on the grass, on the lap of the earth (and perhaps the earth welcomed it).
When I interpret the Scriptures I find allusions and associations and try to discern what is being suggested. I try not to get stuck on the literal sense as if that were all, but I try to locate its “suggestive” sense in the wider context of the narrative. This is what I have done all along. With this passage, I continue this procedure, always trying to intuit the underlying spiritual line.
If we found allusions to Moses in the story that took place in Nazareth, that suggested where the narrative was heading, and keeping to that, associated Herod’s persecution to Pharaoh’s, Jesus’ feeding of the more than five thousand in the wilderness reminds us of the manna that fed the children of Israel as they left Egypt and Pharaoh behind them. John 6 makes this connection, and it is hinted at in Matthew’s gospel by this series of associations. In the Gospel according to John Jesus does not just give the people something to eat, He is the bread of heaven which the Father has given them, that gives life to the world. The wilderness symbolizes our journey through life and the church’s journey until His coming again.
In the Gospel according to John the metaphor is carried from Passover to the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (Succoth). Not only is Jesus—His incarnation, the giving up of His soul, His living again, His ascending up where He was before, His sending the holy Spirit—the manna for those in the wilderness, He is also the blessing of the Promised Land, the life abundant with milk and honey on the other side of the Jordan. (John’s gospel stays on the theme of Tabernacles—the wilderness journey and entry into the Land of Promise—through to chapter 10.) Jesus’ feeding of the more than five thousand is also suggestive of this—that He not only fulfills the blessing of the Promised Land, to be awarded to Israel upon its faithfulness to the Covenant, but His presence among them is the promised blessing. It is as though He is faithful on behalf of Israel; the place of blessing is where He is; it is He who imparts the blessing of the Promised Land; and He Himself is the blessing. How can this be without replacing the blessing of the earth with a disembodied “spiritual” blessing? The blessing that He is, and the blessing that He brings, is the divinization of creation, which is the liberation of creation from its human-imposed bondage to futility, not our liberation from the creation.
Jesus took five loaves and two fish and “looked up to heaven and blessed them.” With so little He fed well over five thousand men, women and children. In the same way, Jesus blesses us. What we offer Him is our small, old and broken humanity, and He takes us into His hands and blesses us with the blessing of heaven, and we are multiplied, as the grain of wheat in 13:23 “bears fruit and produces, one a hundred, one sixty, and one thirty” grains of wheat. In both cases this is numerical growth, but the blessing of Jesus as He takes us to Himself is not only quantitative but qualitative. It is the blessing of an abundant life, the abundance of the Promised Land while we are still in the wilderness of this world. The abundance is the presence of the divine life in our createdness. This is grace: we really have nothing to offer except the offer itself. All that God gives us is gratuitous, without cost. We offer our faith, our fidelity and loyalty and fealty, but we cannot sustain it; we cannot even make it happen, apart from God’s grace (the immanent holy Spirit) making it happen and bringing it about and into fruition. Then the little hand-basket of loaves and fish that we offer is multiplied a thousand-fold and there are twelve hand-baskets more.
This could just as well be a picture of a small gathering of believers as the local church. They may feel themselves to be so small and so ungifted. Yet the blessing of Jesus, bringing down on them heaven’s blessing, the blessing of the Father (i.e., the holy Spirit), makes them spiritually what they cannot be otherwise. The heart is changed, and what they are spiritually is fruitful, fruitful for the transformation of their soul, but also life-giving to others. Thus, this fruit of love is on the one hand soulical and on the other hand interpersonal (in the Trinitarian sense of personhood).
The five loaves and two fish can remind the Jew of the five books of the Torah and the two sections of the Tanakh, the Law and the Prophets. Jesus’ coming—the revelation of who He is—blesses the Scriptures, not fulfilling them so that they are over and passé, but making them full and always fruitful. The twelve hand-baskets full, that remain after all have eaten and been satisfied, must speak of the Twelve Tribes, whom the Messiah will reunite.
“Having taken the five loaves and the two fishes, Jesus looked up to heaven, and blessed: and having broken the loaves, He gave them to the disciples and the disciples gave them to the crowds.” In 26:26, “as they were eating, Jesus, having taken the bread and blessed, broke it and gave it to the disciples.” The parallelism of these words connects the feeding of the multitude with the Lord’s Supper. It is a picture of the church and of the gathering of the church in His name as they break bread and share the Supper together. This may, in fact, be its central meaning. The fellowship of the church is the feast of the church in the presence of Jesus as they feast on Him, in complete opposition to the cannibalistic feasting of the world. The meal of the loaves suggests His humanity; the fish (having died) suggest His sacrifice. The church is the community of the poor who find in Him healing and satisfaction; it is the flock of sheep in the wilderness which the Shepherd gathers and feeds. He is their center and the supply of all that they need. He asks nothing of them; it is a picture of the grace of God in the church. The story reminds us of the church’s Lord’s Supper which itself exhibits the essence of the church.
Finally, it is a picture of the kingdom. The church is founded on the grace of God for the sake of the kingdom. Those who come to Jesus by grace come under the government of the kingdom. They do not earn their place in the church, nor do they earn their redemption or the gift of eternal life, but the enjoyment of the kingdom is a reward and must be won at great cost by the loss of the (constructed and falsely insular) soul. But one day, when the revelation of Jesus Christ is manifested universally (whatever this may mean—cosmically, historically, spiritually), the people of the earth, even the creatures of the earth, will be blessed, not the rich and powerful and mighty but the poor and needy. Not those who assert themselves (and the world they represent) against Jesus and all that is holy, but those who know they are oppressed by the world, who know they are under God’s judgment, and who look to God for mercy. The disciples take the loaves and fishes and (they) give them to the crowds. The crowds, whom the Bible commentators are so quick to dismiss as rejected by God, yet who still flock to Jesus even though they do not understand His word, even though they neither hear nor perceive what He is saying, are not abandoned by Him, but in the end, He gathers, heals and feeds them. This is the age to come, and they are the nations in Revelation 20-21 who surround the Holy City (the Holy City being the Bride of Christ) and enter its gates of pearl and eat the leaves of the Tree of Life. The church, when it has matured—well into the age to come—will be the means through the rest of creation is redeemed. Jesus says to the disciples, “You feed them.” What we impart today can only be a faint sign of the blessing that one day we will impart.
“In the desert,” “when evening was come,” Jesus fed those who came to Him. In the context of the Gospel according to Matthew, the story is a picture of the church in this age, existing in the world by the presence of Jesus (“I am with you until the consummation of the age” of 28:20) in stark contrast to the way of the world (Herod and his guests), as the true family of Jesus, His mother and brothers and sisters, on the basis of grace alone, feeding on His goodness and finding satisfaction in Him.