[August 3, 2014] Last time I raised a controversial topic in the churches, the issue of Biblical interpretation taking place within the context of cultural change and the question of same-sex marriage. This time I want to address a broader issue—the relationship between what Jesus kept referring to as the kingdom of heaven and the crowds in the Gospel according to Matthew.
In the Gospel according to John the author is concerned with those who “believe into” Jesus, in contrast with those who resist believing, and the nature of the believer’s new birth from God. From this, the Christian worldview has dichotomized humanity into those who believe and those who do not, the “unbelievers.” John’s gospel was written about 90 AD/CE while the church was floundering after the loss of its original apostolic leadership in a terrible persecution and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (about 65-70 CE). When Jesus did not return as expected, confusing teachings arose in an attempt to address the question of what the church’s proclamation was all about. John’s gospel emerged from the hand of an early disciple (not one of the Twelve) who had taken Jesus’ mother into his home after the crucifixion of Jesus. Very quickly it was recognized as an authoritative interpretation of the Gospel. Nevertheless, its originality cannot be overestimated.
On the other hand, Matthew’s gospel, in my minority view, was the earliest gospel written (probably about 52 CE, 22 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus). It was written near the beginning of the church’s outreach to gentiles. The church was involved in a fierce conflict with a particular school of the Pharisees and their zealous supporters who were alarmed at the degradation of “pure” Judaism by its association with gentiles and Jewish sinners. Eventually their intransigence and intolerance led to the Jewish War. It was a course of destruction which Jesus had predicted. And at the time that Matthew’s gospel was written, Jewish riots had broken out in a number of cities throughout the Roman Empire that were manifestations of this conflict. This was the setting in which Matthew composed his gospel.
Matthew writes about the kingdom of the heavens (kingdom denotes not only the realm but the reign—the kingship—of the heavens, heavens being plural in the original). Jesus is the drawing near of the rule of the heavens. The assumption is that God rules over all but that the world is in rebellion against God. The drawing near of God’s reign is the act of God’s overcoming humanity’s rebellion. The coming of Jesus—the Gospel (the story of his coming)—is this act.
- In 1:1-4:17 we see the emergence of the kingdom of the heavens: Jesus’ birth and coming onto the public stage of Israel. “The people that lived in darkness have seen a great light; on those who lived in a country of shadow dark as death a light has dawned” (4:16). This public stage is “Galilee of the nations,” where lived patriotic Jews in a predominantly Jewish area with scattered gentile towns, and where devout Jews lived alongside non-observing Jews.
- In 4:17—8:1 we see the sphere of the kingdom: it is Jesus himself and the sphere of those who enter into a particular personal relationship to him, the relationship of disciple. Rather than the concept of “believer” (as in John’s gospel), the disciple is one who has given Jesus her or his complete allegiance and commitment.
- In 8:2—11:1 we see the mission or apostolate of the kingdom: Jesus goes from town to town presenting himself as the coming near of the kingdom and sends his disciples out as apostles to proclaim its coming.
- In 11:2—13:53 we see the reaction to the kingdom: Jesus experiences misunderstanding and rejection and estrangement and explains people’s mixed reception of him by a series of parables.
Now, beginning at 13:54 and stretching all the way to the end of chapter 20 we see the relations of the kingdom. Here Jesus reveals the church as his qahal, the messianic assembly within Israel (chapter 16:13—19:1), after which he talks about the household relations of marriage, children, property and age before he gives a final description of the inversion of rank in the coming judgment of the disciples and performs an act of healing that depicts the salvation of all Israel when the Messiah comes in glory.
In Matthew’s gospel we see a repeated pattern of narrative followed by a relatively lengthy “sermon” which issues from the preceding narrative. In this section the narrative portion is 13:54—16:20. Instead of the sermon, as we have in chapters 5—7, 11, and 13, Matthew divides the teaching portion into three, each introduced by Jesus predicting his passion (16:21; 17:22-23; and 20:17-19). For the next few weeks we will be focusing on the narrative portion (the 7th through the 10th Sundays after Trinity).
The narrative begins with Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth and receiving a poor reception. “Don’t we already know this fellow? Didn’t he grow up among us?” They felt that he could not be anything novel and so “they would not accept him” (they tripped on him and fell, the passive imperfect of skandalizō). “And he did not work many miracles there because of their lack of faith” (13:54-58).
This narrative depicts the first relation of the kingdom, the relation of “familiarity,” which blinds us to what is new. This story picks up from 12:46-50 when his mother and brothers stood outside the crowd and wanted to speak to Jesus. Jesus did not recognize his relation to them on the basis of kinship: “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” Indicating his disciples he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Of course, Jesus was not rejecting the members his family but was saying that the only real familial relationship he has to them can only be on the basis of their relationship to his Father in heaven. For him, kinship ties are irrelevant. It is the relations on the basis of the kingdom that matter.
The point of Jesus’ visit to home (where he probably was following up on his family’s desire to speak to him) is that earthly familiarity tends to blind us to what is there in front of us. The images in our mind that we have constructed on the basis of our memories and associations replace the reality that we are actually looking at. People think they know Jesus and on the basis of this familiarity they cannot see him. It is ironic. Of course, this is what happens in “Christendom,” especially in its so-called post-Christian forms.
Then we have the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. This horrible little story shows how the rich and powerful can trivialize the presence of the kingdom in their midst, and not only despise the kingdom as of no consequence, but become its enemy—inflicting death. Like the story of the feeding of the five thousand, this is also a story of a meal. It is a worldly feast in which Herod is celebrating his birthday with prestigious guests, people who are rich and influential in the world. In an effort to maintain appearance and keep up a good impression on his peers, Herod actually serves the severed head of John the Baptist on dinnerware to his daughter-in-law who serves it to her mother, the symbolic meal of this class of people. They dine themselves on the slaughter of God’s people!
Here also, as in 13:55-56, is a home—the household of Herod, Herodias his wife (who was his brother Philip’s wife), and her daughter—and they, like the neighbors in Nazareth, trivial the kingdom’s presence in the person of its forerunner. But this time the people are not commoners who are merely blind and do not believe. They are the rich and powerful. Their trivialization of the kingdom becomes diabolic. The principalities and powers of this world that is in rebellion against God feasts on the death of God’s servants.
Here then the relation is between the “world” and the kingdom, and it is neither neutral nor harmless. It is antagonistic. This should not be forgotten by modern Christians, even though the rich and powerful might use religion to justify themselves or as a piece of their public relations approach. Not all the rich, however, are enemies of God’s kingdom, some are friends of Christ and his church, and Christians also need to remember this. But it is the nature of wealth and power to be subservient to the diabolical powers of the world’s gestalt.
Keep in mind, when we come to the meal in which Jesus feeds the crowds, that the celebration in the hall of Herod was also a meal. These two meals stand in contrast to each other.
First, however, let us consider the contrast between, on the one hand, Herod, Herodias, her daughter, and all his guests, and on the other, the large crowd in 14:14 that Jesus took pity on.
When Jesus heard the news of John’s death, he withdrew by boat to a lonely place where he and his band of disciples could be by themselves.
In 14:1-2 Matthew tells us that Herod heard about Jesus’ reputation and had even said to his court, “This is John the Baptist himself; he has risen from the death, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” Though Herod had treated John as of no consequence, someone who could be murdered on the whim of his daughter-in-law (there was a grudge between his wife and John, as Matthew tells us in 14:4), he was also afraid of John on account of the people (14:5). Because he was aware of John’s influence on the common people, he kept John safely out of the way in prison yet had not executed him lest the people cause him more trouble than he wanted to deal with (for the people considered John a prophet, 14:5). However, this fearful man was more afraid of the opinion of his peers than of the reaction of the common people, and John ended up dead. Nevertheless, even after John was decapitated, Herod was still afraid of John—his phantom rose before him in the person of Jesus.
He probably saw Jesus as some sort of a threat to him. John was not going to stay dead. He had risen in order to haunt him. Yet Jesus did not condemn Herod’s marital relation to Herodias as John had done (as far as we know), and so that excuse to arrest Jesus did not exist. Nevertheless, as the Pharisees in Luke 13:31 told Jesus, “Herod means to kill you.”
Perhaps it was with this in mind that Jesus took his disciples out of the way and crossed Lake Galilee. He had decided to let things cool down in the royal court. In fact, after this, Jesus was no longer publicly active in Galilee, Herod’s territory. They cross back to Gennesaret between Capernaum and Magdala for only a brief time before they head north to the region of Tyre and Sidon in Syria, back to the far side of the lake and then on to Caesarea Philippi and the slopes of the Hermon range in Lebanon. Jesus no longer goes on itinerant tours from town to town but spends most of his time with his band of disciples.
It was Jesus’ desire now to be alone with his disciples but the crowds did not allow this. People caught sight of where their boat was going, word went quickly around the towns, and crowds of people went after him on foot (14:13). The crowds arrived at the boat’s destination before the boat even came to shore. “As [Jesus] stepped ashore he saw a large crowd.”
What was Jesus’ reaction? “He took pity on them and healed their sick.” To the gentiles Jesus was a magician-sage; to the Jews he was a faith-healer. From the very beginning Jesus’ teaching ministry was accompanied by his ministry of miraculously healing the sick (see the summary in 4:23-24 and then immediately in chapter 8 when the narrative picks up again).
Evening comes and the disciples, rationally and with undoubtedly genuine concern, come to Jesus and make a suggestion, figuring that Jesus must not be paying attention. “This is a lonely place, and time has slipped by,” they tell him. “So send the people away, and they can go to the villages to buy themselves some food.” Apparently Jesus has no intention of quitting. He tells them, “There is no need for them to go: give them something to eat yourselves.” What? they must be asking themselves. Doesn’t Jesus see the size of this crowd? “All we have with us is five loaves and two fish,” they tell him.
Jesus must be amusing himself at this point with his disciples’ befuddlement, for of course he is fully aware of the size of the crowd. One can see that knowing grin of his. “Bring them here to me,” he tells them. He then gave orders to his disciples that the people were to sit down on the grass. They were going to have a huge picnic. He, also sitting down on the grass, “then took the five loaves and the two fish, raised his eyes to heaven and said the [Jewish] blessing. And breaking the loaves he handed them to his disciples, who then gave them to the crowds.” To their amazement they kept passing out more and more loaves and fish until all the people were feed. Indeed, “they all ate as much as they wanted.” When the disciples collected the scraps that were left over, they filled twelve large baskets full—far more than they started out with. They ended up feeding thousands. Without counting the women and children (it figures; they probably made up the majority of the people) someone counted about five thousand men.
In the wilderness, the devil tempted Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus refused to use the power of his anointing to do this. “Scripture says ‘Human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (4:4). He would not rely on himself, even though he was, as the tempter reminded him, “the Son of God” (pronounced by God at his baptism in 3:17 when the Spirit came upon him to anoint him with power). Yet here Jesus feeds the poor, or rather God does. (Thus this is a demonstration of what the reigning of God does in his presence.)
Like in 5:1 we have Jesus in the center, the disciples before him, and then the vast crowd, only unlike 5:1 the crowd is not in the background but is the focus of Jesus’ attention. I would like us to spend a few minutes considering who the crowd is, for they stand in stark contrast to Herod’s court and guests. The crowd (or crowds) have been with Jesus from the beginning, coming to hear him and bringing to him their sick and demon-afflicted. Unlike in Luke, where the circle of disciples goes far beyond the Twelve and the band that Jesus keeps around him, and are sometimes called a crowd, in Matthew the crowds are never called disciples. The disciples refer to a close band, those who have committed to Jesus their allegiance and fidelity. The crowds are not disciples. Nor are they the church (16:18; 18:17). They are the ordinary people, most with no commitment to Jesus.
I would like us to consider this scenario for a few minutes. Who are the crowds? And what is their relation to the kingdom in the person of Jesus as mediated by the disciples?
This is an important question because of the way Christian tradition tends to dichotomize humanity between believers and unbelievers, the saved and the damned. Here the crowds are distinguished from the old neighborhood, for whom Jesus is too familiar to be worthy of their attention, and the rich and powerful. They are the common people who neither had the privilege of seeing Jesus grow up from boyhood nor have the privilege of being rich and influential. They occupy small worlds of their own with important concerns of their own but concerns that have no weight in the larger scheme of “society.” They are not completely on the inside, like the disciples, but they are not completely on the outside either, like Herod and his friends.
They are probably mostly Jews, having come from the Jewish villages of Capernaum. Yet, as I discussed elsewhere, the parallel crowd of four thousand that Jesus fed in 15:29-38 might have been more predominantly gentile, which would make sense after the intervening stories in 14:22—15:28 which allude to the kingdom’s openness to—and even yearning for—the gentiles. The crowd then is more generic than Jews or gentiles. It includes the common people of whatever stripe.
Matthew says in verse 14 that when Jesus saw them “he took pity on them” (New Jerusalem Bible) or “he was moved with compassion for them” (Recovery Version, Living Stream Ministry). The word is splagchnizomai and Matthew used it in 9:36 and uses it again in 15:32; 18:27 and 20:34: twice with respect to the pitiable situation of an individual and twice with respect to the pitiable situation of the crowds, and once (here) where it stands by itself with respect to the crowd. Jesus pitied them. In 9:36 he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.
In 4:16 Jesus’ coming is a great light dawning on the people’s darkness. These people are those who live in the land of Galilee, “Galilee of the gentiles.” In 4:23—5:1 Jesus begins his itinerant tours of Galilee and people from “throughout Syria,” and crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordan flock to him with their sick, those who are in pain, those afflicted by demons, epileptics and paralytics, coming to him with hope that he will heal them, and he does. He does not just heal them but he announces to them the Gospel—the good news—of the nearness of the kingdom, of which his acts of healing are the sign, and as he instructs his disciples in 5:1 they gather around to listen—they are not excluded from what Jesus has to say about living under the kingdom (the “Promised Land” of being in relationship to him as a disciple). For while they are not yet in the Promised Land, they are still the crowds and not the disciples, they have been touched by the graciousness of God’s presence in the kingdom. The kingdom of the heavens affects them—it is not confined to the church—and they have are being blessed by it even though they are not yet in the blessing of it (the beatitudes of 5:2-9). We continue to see the generosity of Jesus’ presence, the presence of the kingdom of the heavens, towards individuals, in the midst of the people, as we move through chapters 8 and 9. Then in 9:35 Matthew repeats what he said in 4:23 in another summary statement, as if to embrace everything from 4:24—9:34 inside this bracket.
The “crowds” then are ordinary and common people, poor people, farm laborers, craftsmen and tradesmen, women and children, those who are ailing and the people who care for them, and people in every kind of situation of need. It includes Jews but also gentiles and the outcasts from common society: lepers, Roman soldiers, tax collectors and sex workers, demoniacs who have been abandoned by their families, the unclean (a woman with a continuous flow of blood) and the sinful. Though not mentioned the crowds also include Samaritans and pagans, and those whom we today would call lesbians and gays and bisexuals, and intersex and transgender people (eunuchs) and queer. And yes, also the handicapped and impaired, the “ugly” and obese.
In 9:36-37 Jesus steps back and looks at this multitude to whom he has been ministering and sees how great it is. “When he saw the crowds he felt sorry for them because they were harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is rich but the laborers are few, so ask the “Lord of the Harvest” to send out laborers to his harvest.” Jesus saw them all as God’s harvest and seeing them in the state they were in, he could say that the harvest is rich. Yet they were without a shepherd. The leaders of Israel who ought to have been ministering to and caring for them were not. Not only were they not being cared for, but they were having a terrible time taking care of themselves. They felt harassed and oppressed by their leaders, by the economy, by their unaided circumstances, and by their husbands, parents, family, peers and neighbors. They struggled, both in the practicalities of life but also emotionally. This would have been particularly true of the minorities in all their intersectionality. As a result, they were discouraged, dejected and sometimes felt hopeless. And there were so many of them.
Jesus was meeting some of the needs of those who came to him. He was healing them and loving them, though he was not changing their economic or social circumstances, only how they saw them. The people would leave him and their struggles would continue and new ones would arise. So Jesus sends out band of twelve to announce the good story of his coming and to be his presence wherever they go—having authority over unclean spirits with power to drive them out, and with the ability to cure all kinds of diseases and all kinds of illness, and even to raise the dead. The anointing that was upon him he extended to them wherever they went in his Name. Wherever they went, the kingdom went.
And this mission, to be the presence of Jesus, announcing to people his coming near to them, gave the people a foretaste of the “coming” of the kingdom of the heavens, the transfiguration of the whole of creation. In the discipleship manual that we call the Gospel according to Matthew, this section, chapters 8—10, depicts the calling of the church, of all disciples, of all believers, even if not all are sent out as itinerants, to be this presence from town to town.
In 11:5 we have another description of the crowd: they are the blind, the lame, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases (the “lepers”), the deaf, the grieving (for whom their dead are restored to life) and the poor. In 12:20 it includes the gentiles: non-Jews which, by the way, does not just mean white folk but also kinds of people on earth, all the ethnic and racial variety that makes up the “descendants of Noah.”
By the time we come to chapter 14 then we should know who this crowd is, and we should know how Jesus feels about them and how he treats them. He does not berate them for their shortcomings or failures or put them down in any way. He treats all humanity as sinners, yes, but also as profoundly and innately good and possessing that dignity of the image of God, and as the special objects of God’s love. Indeed, it seems as if God yearns and pines for them, as if the desire of God is to take them all in, all without exception. This is what Jesus conveys through his attitude and acts and his prophetic words drawn from the comforting words of Israel’s prophets. He means these acts and words for them, and not just his disciples whom he calls and gathers to share his labor.
Even the aristocratic classes and the Pharisees, though sometimes the enemies of Jesus, though they receive Jesus’ severe words of censure on account of their influence and responsibilities, do not escape the love of God. They are not in view here, however. They are not the “crowd,” though they are included in the background and sometimes we can see them in the cracks (e.g., Joseph of Arimathaea). They tend to be secret admirers of Jesus, maybe even disciples, but because they have so much to lose, they keep this under wraps. Because their adherence is so compromised, they are afraid to confess it publicly.
Why is Jesus’ attitude—his interest and openness and generosity—toward the crowd so interesting? Because it ought to be our own (the church’s, and every church’s and each Christian’s), and it isn’t. How far should we go to make it our own? The crowds flocked to Jesus because of his reputation. They expected him to receive them, to pour the generosity of the divine gift of his anointing on them. And they were not disappointed. We, on the other hand, have a reputation that is much the opposite of this. People think we are judgmental and intolerant and, if they are willing to approach us as Christians, they often feel defensive, expecting us to criticize and condemn them. Sometimes they feel rejected by God because of our condemnation of them. A gay couple living together, a sex-worker trying to survive, a drug-addict, a woman who has had an abortion or is contemplating one, a transgender person just trying to get to that more natural-feeling place where they no longer feel suicidal, the list could go on. It is my hope that no one feels that way towards me or towards you. Yet that is our collective reputation, and it is not hard to search on YouTube and find examples of preachers who fulfill Paul’s words in Romans 2:24 (citing Ezekiel 36:20): “It is your fault that the Name of God is held in contempt among the gentiles.” May our individual examples and the examples of our congregations create a different response from our neighbors. May they sense the presence of Jesus in our lives, acts, attitudes and words.
What about this attitude of Jesus? How far does it go? In the Gospel according to Matthew what Jesus enacts here is not the Lord’s Table, though as John correctly shows, it alludes to it. The Lord’s Table is shared among the disciples, the believers of Jesus, to remember him and to reconstitute themselves as his presence in the world. This crowd is not a crowd of disciples. And yet the resemblance between Matthew’s record of the institution of the Lord’s Supper and this superabundant meal shared with the crowd is unmistakable. One alludes to the other, though not directly, rather, instead of one pointing to the other, they both point forward to something else: the eschatological feast of the coming kingdom. Just as Jesus’ acts of healing, by demonstrating the nearness of God’s kingdom, announce its eschatological and universal coming (parousia: presence), so does this act of feeding the crowds.
This particular motif is picked up by Luke in his gospel, which emphasizes food and things related to food, and Jesus’ eating with people, all kinds of people, whether Pharisees or tax collectors and sinners. Even in the resurrection stories, it is prominent. Nor is it only Jesus. Jesus sends out the Twelve and the Seventy to break bread in people’s homes.
A poignant example of a meal is in Acts 27 when Paul urged the pagan seamen during a storm to have something to eat. “For fourteen days,” he said, “You have been in suspense, going hungry and eating nothing”—while keeping people like Paul alive—“I urge you,” he continued, “to have something to eat; your safety depends on it. Not a hair of any of your heads will be lost.” With these words, Luke (who is also on the boat) tells us, Paul took some bread, gave thanks to God in view of them all, broke it and began to eat. They all plucked up courage and took something to eat themselves. “In all we were two hundred and seventy-six souls on board that ship,” and the people all ate what they wanted. This was no miracle as we think of such, yet the language corresponds to the story of the feeding of the five thousand, even with the enumeration of people after the meal. In a meal that resembles the others, Paul encourages these rough gentile seamen and Roman soldiers, who are helping him and keeping him alive, to eat according to their need and reassures them of God’s protection. God was not protecting them merely for his sake but for their own (“not a hair of any of your heads will be lost”). He was fellowshipping with them in a way that assured them somehow of God’s acceptance of them and gave them hope. Though apart from the thanksgiving which Paul said over the meal, everything else about the scene is entirely secular. Yet here was the presence of God’s kingdom, Paul witnessing to the pagans God’s interest in them, and generosity to them, and love.
The meal in the countryside that Jesus shared with the crowds, a meal that was abundant by a miracle of God, resembled the Lord’s Table celebrated by the church. It included all in the embrace of its fellowship, and demonstrated to all the blessing of God, God’s notice of them and generosity to them in their need. This happens too at the Lord’s Table, where it is expressly connected to the Person of Jesus and his passion. With the five thousand, the Person of Jesus is also central and is the basis of the blessing. The fact that the crowd is not church is interesting because this embrace of the crowd, and again in 15:32-38 when he feeds the four thousand, is the climatic narrative that leads up to the revelation of the church. In chapter 16 Jesus speaks of giving to the Pharisees and Sadducees the sign of Jonah who preached to the gentiles of Nineveh, gentiles who turned to God and whom God saved from destruction. In the following story Jesus warns the disciples against the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” their Jonah-like attitude that refused to enlighten the gentiles about how God is “tender, compassionate, slow to anger, rich in faithful love, and who relents from inflicting disaster.” It is in this connection that Jesus reminds his disciples about “the five loaves for the five thousand and the number of baskets you collected” and “the seven loaves for the four thousand and the number of baskets you collected.” He was not only talking about bread either!
This is what immediately precedes the revelation of the church, the Messiah’s qahal within Israel, and it is the clue to understanding the referent of Jesus’ words when he said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Somehow the church exists for the crowds, it anticipates the future of the crowd; it is a sign of the Messiah’s intention for them. This is not in a triumphalistic sense, as if the future that God has for the world is for the church to be coextensive with it, that the entire world will be rounded up into the church. No, the church is not the kingdom of God. It bears witness to it and shares the good news of it with the world, just as the disciples gave bread and fish to the multitudes. Only in this sense, but truly in this sense, the church—as those to whom the kingdom is promised (if they are faithful) and who celebrate the fulfillment of the kingdom already in Jesus—is a placeholder of the people with respect to their share in the coming kingdom.
Our mission is to be the presence of Jesus in the world and to share the bounty of God’s grace with the world—not in a stingy way, holding it back until people conform to some righteous standard of our own that we cherish as God’s own, but to be open-handed—in anticipation of the explosive expansion of God’s generosity that will happen on the day when the revelation of Christ becomes universally manifest.