Read the passage here.
Once again, we are looking at a significant section of text. As often happens, there’s much more to say about it than we actually have time for. And it’s impossible to get a good grip on these verses without understanding what’s going on in the verses around it and the greater context of the whole gospel. So what we’re going to try to do is get a sense of what’s going on in this text – why is it here? How does it help us understand what Jesus is doing and the Kingdom He is establishing? And then what do we do with that?
The first vignette (vv. 29-39) tells us about a second miraculous feeding by Jesus. Previously, in chap. 14:13-21, we saw Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand men, plus women and children. Our passage today is almost identical except that the crowd is four thousand men, plus women and children. Given the similarities, why are both reported?
A clue to this might be found in Matthew’s use of the phrase (v. 31), “And they praised the God of Israel.” It’s argued that this indicates that the people to whom Jesus was ministering in this episode are Gentiles. This is further bolstered by the presumed geography: Earlier in the chapter, we see (or we can surmise) that this part of Jesus’ ministry takes place in predominantly Gentile regions – we see that Jesus has gone to Tyre and Sidon. (This is the account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman). And we don’t see Jesus explicitly returning to Jewish territory until a little later.
Further, when we consider this previous passage, in which the faith of the Canaanite woman is honoured, in contrast to the faith of the Scribes and Pharisees, we could see this as an further indication of the mission of God, in Jesus the Messiah, is moving beyond the boundaries of the people’s expectations (i.e. beyond Israel).
Now, just by way of “this is something interesting,” I came across something that’s worth thinking about.
When we look at the account of the feeding of the five thousand, back in chapter 14, we read:
17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.
18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.Matthew 14:17-21
In our passage today, the account of the feeding of the four thousand, we read:
34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked.
“Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.”
35 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36 Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.Matthew 15:34037
So in the first account (chap. 14), we have five loaves and twelve basketfuls left over. In the second account (chap. 15), we have seven loaves and seven basketfuls left over. Now it’s easy to read too much into this kind of thing (though, perhaps not), but in the Israelite imagination, the number five is often reminiscent of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses – the Pentateuch being constitutive of the people of Israel. And the number twelve is usually associated with the twelve tribes of Israel (which is why, most likely, there are twelve disciples).
In the second account, the number seven is prominent. And the number seven is, perhaps, associated with the seven days of creation. That is, seven is associated with all of creation.
So what we might be seeing is that the feeding of the five thousand is associated with the ministry to Israel, God’s chosen nation. And the feeding of the four thousand is associated with that ministry being extended to all creation.
Note, that I’m not 100% convinced by this – that Matthew was making a theological point through his use of numbers. For example, we would want to ask the question of the significance of five thousand and four thousand men. But it seems interesting nonetheless.
And, in line with what we have talked about regarding geography, we might be seeing further indication of Jesus’ ministry, as the Messiah, as extending beyond the boundaries of Israel. His Messiah-ministry is not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
After the feeding of the four thousand, we get an encounter with the Pharisees and then a response/reflection with the disciples. First, the encounter with the Pharisees:
16:1 The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.
2 He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ 3 and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. 4 A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away.Matthew 16:1-4
Now, we’re not going to say too much about this encounter except to say that we’ve seen exactly this type of thiing earlier in Jesus’ ministry. In chapter 12, we see this:
38 Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.”
39 He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here. 42 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, and now something greater than Solomon is here.Matthew 12:38-42
We may remember that in chapter 12, Jesus talks about how even the Ninevites, and the Queen of the South, both examples of non-Israelite peoples, responded positively to the work that God was doing. The indictment against the Pharisees, who presumably are part of God’s people and should be able to recognize the work of God in Jesus is severe. Because, unlike these non-Israelites, the religious leaders can’t see or understand God’s work in Jesus.
But, in our passage today, Jesus’ judgement against the Pharisees doesn’t end there. He continues in a dialogue with His disciples (16:5-12).
5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 “Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
7 They discussed this among themselves and said, “It is because we didn’t bring any bread.”
8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.Matthew 16:5-12
So, it seems to me, Jesus doesn’t just judge the Pharisees and Sadducees as wrong or ignorant; He judges them as dangerous. He doesn’t just condemn them for not understanding. He tells the disciples that these are folks the disciples have to watch out for.
Now what I’m doing here is summarizing. But if we understand Jesus’ comments in Matthew 12 as an indictment of the Pharisees as to their inability or unwillingness to see the work of God in their midst – that is, the inability or unwillingness to see the validity of Jesus’ Messiahship; and if we see (in particular) the feeding of the four thousand as Jesus’ extending His kingdom work to (especially) the non-Gentile world; then perhaps we can see the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees as that teaching or influence that precisely rejects Jesus’ work to bring the Kingdom to all of creation – that is, how they can potentially keep people from seeing Jesus. In this particular context – that is, what’s going on in these several verses – Jesus’ messiah-work is extending to the Gentile world. But generally speaking, we can also recognize how the Pharisees and religious leaders have all along not recognized, and even rejected, Jesus’ messiah-work.
Now, in the post-resurrection and ascension world in which Matthew writes his gospel, this becomes especially important as people are probably wondering, “were the Pharisees right all along?” Given that Jesus is now gone, people have to be wondering if the religious leaders were right to criticize and oppose Jesus. And Matthew’s answer is emphatically, “No, the religious leaders were wrong. Jesus was and is the Messiah and it’s the religious leaders who did not recognize what He was doing. In rejecting Jesus, they rejected the Kingdom of God in their midst.” And in Matthew’s world – that is, in the time of his writing – the apostles that Jesus has left behind, those disciples who are sent out to preach the good news, are not just going forth to preach the good news, making disciples of all nations in a vacuum. Rather, there are those who are trying to lead people to a different gospel. A different good news.
As is often the case, we have seen these themes before in our study of Matthew, so I don’t want to needlessly go over old ground (there’s good reason to do so, we’re just not going to today). Hopefully, by now, we have a somewhat clear picture of the teachings, attitudes, and methods of the religious leaders that Jesus was so opposed to. And hopefully, we have a fairly good picture of the kind of Kingdom that Jesus was proclaiming and inaugurating (think, for example, of the Beatitudes that we talked about).
So what I want to say is hopefully not too harsh, but makes sense in light of what we’ve already looked at. But it seems to me that the religious leaders (the Pharisees, Sadducees, the scribes) were largely about making God’s kingdom as difficult as possible for as many people as possible (that may not be the best way to say it). Now, to be fair, I don’t think this was the actual goal, but I think this was the effect. By standing in for God, in effect, with all the rules, judgements, criticisms, processes and procedures, I feel like (I suspect) they kept far more people from experiencing the wonder of God’s grace than were actually able to take hold of it.
To perhaps clarify what I mean, consider Jesus’ example in the feedings. If I can take some interpretive license, it seems to me that the feeding of the five thousand (to the Israelite nation) and the feeding of the four thousand (to the Gentile world) demonstrate God’s providing abundance. They were about providing more than enough to a people who were hungry, to a people who had nothing. God didn’t just give, He gave abundantly.
Now I know that, for many people, it’s been hard in these past months to appreciate abundance. For some of us, it’s been much longer than that. We find ourselves in the midst of a world where everything is so hard; where we struggle sometimes to find the basic necessities of food, shelter, safety and security, love and acceptance. And we’re told that if we want these things, we just need to work harder, work smarter, plan better, or just get lucky. And if this world is all there is, that makes perfect sense.
And a thing I’ve said before and I want to say again is that for many people, for many of us, perhaps like the Pharisees, our God is too small. We settle for a God who does only the things we want, in the way that we expect. We only see bread, when God is bringing the Kingdom.
It’s not wrong to want (indeed need) food, shelter, safety and all the other things. But if that’s where it stops, we will miss out on the abundance that God has in mind. If all we want is to be proven right, so that everybody else is proven wrong, we will miss out on the magnitude of God’s love and mercy for all of creation.
So as we continue to work our way through Matthew, indeed as we continue to pay attention to Scripture, and as we seek to be the people of God in this time and this place, and as each of us seeks to make our way in this world, I hope we are getting a sense of, learning to seek and receive, all of the more that God has purposed for us.