Gnostic America

The Seventh Sunday after Trinity: Jesus’ Feeding to the Gentiles

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In the historic lectionary, Jesus’ miraculous feedings come up twice. On Laetare (“Rejoice!”), the fourth Sunday in Lent, comes the feeding of the 5,000. On this week comes the feeding of the 4,000. The emphasis in Lent is one of the glories of the historic lectionary. In the midst of the forty day/year desert wandering of Israel/Jesus/the Church, we hit an oasis. That oasis is manna/bread/communion. For that we rejoice.

This Sunday’s Gospel carries over those same themes, but there is some suggestion that this feeding involves gentiles, whereas the feeding of the 5,000 was for Israel. In the feeding of the 5,000, they had come from a day’s journey, that is, relatively close. Whereas in this feeding, “some of them have come from afar,” that is, from outside of Israel: gentile lands.

We can get into some of the number symbology as well. The five of 5,000 corresponds to the five books of the Torah, whereas the four in 4,000 calls to mind the four winds, or four directions, four being in the Bible an “earthly” number (interesting that the Old Testament for this week is the Genesis account of the four rivers flowing from Eden). Same with the five loaves with twelve baskets left over, versus the seven loaves with seven baskets left over. Five, again, refers to the Torah, and the twelve baskets left over equipt each disciple with plenty of bread for the twelve tribes of Israel; whereas seven is a universal number.

Symbology can take us so far and can be abused, but it’s always something to look at. Our modern eyes are numb to what was an important way of communicating for the Biblical writers. Our modern eyes are habituated in newspaper reading, history books, and science papers, non-fiction reading purportedly only about the facts. Because the Gospels are true, accurate, consistent, and without error, we surmise they must read like a newspaper article – we apply modern standards of accuracy on the Biblical account.

But the Gospels can be true, accurate, consistent, and without error operating under different standards, Biblical standards, standards that can include more symbolical ways of writing. This shouldn’t disturb us, and also opens up deeper ways of reading the text.

If the two Gospels differ in focus – one for Jews, the other for gentiles – they are both united in many more features.

Both occur out in the wilderness, or a “deserted spot.” This invokes Israel’s wandering in the wilderness. The wilderness has several layers of meaning.

On one hand it reminds us of the “dust to dust” curse on the land, the thorns and thistles. It’s the end point of God’s judgment and curse against mankind, as many of the prophets proclaimed; it’s the haunt of demons, which Christ confronted when He went out there.

On the other hand we’re reminded that dust is the material from which God created all life in the first place. So we’re back to square one, recognizing that we are nothing but that the “Lord and Giver of life” draws from the dust to enliven and sustain us. Israel had to learn to trust in God to provide daily manna. The disciples of Jesus too learned how He can provide sustenance in the wilderness. And we need to learn to rely on the Lord’s providential care in the wilderness that is this life.

Of course, from the moment Jesus gave up bread in the wilderness saying, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word proceeding from the mouth of God,” we have learned of the deeper meaning of the feedings in the wilderness. Man lives by the Word of God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Those who eat that flesh have eternal life. This Jesus taught in John 6 quite blatantly, but the Eucharistic interpretation is hinted at clearly in the other Gospels’ accounts of the feeding miracle as well.

We see it in the verbs. “He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude.” Took…gave thanks…broke…gave to His disciples.

In Mark the words said of the bread in the Last Supper account are, “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’”

The verbs here are: took…blessed…broke…gave to His disciples. The difference between “blessed” and “gave thanks” are interchangeable, even as they are in the Gospel accounts of both the feedings and the Last Supper. Lets take a look:

Matthew’s 5,000 feeding: “And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples.”

Took…blessed…broke…gave to His disciples.

Matthew’s 4,000 feeding: “And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples.”

Took…gave thanks…broke…gave to His disciples.

Matthew’s Last Supper: “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples…”

Took…blessed…broke…gave to His disciples.

The New King James Version. (1982). (Mt 26:26). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Mark’s 5,000 feeding: “When He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples.”

Taken…blessed…broke…gave to His disciples.

Mark’s 4,000 feeding: “He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples.”

Took…gave thanks…broke…gave to His disciples.

Mark’s Last Supper: “Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”

The New King James Version. (1982). (Mk 14:22). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Took…blessed…broke…gave it to His disciples.

Luke’s 5,000 feeding: “He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples.”

Took…blessed…broke…gave to His disciples.

Luke’s Last Supper: “And He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them.”

Took…gave thanks…broke…gave it to His disciples.

Luke’s Emmaus account: “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.”

Took…blessed…broke…gave it to the two disciples.

John’s 5,000 feeding: “And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples.”

Took…given thanks…distributed to the disciples.

St. Paul’s Last Supper account: “[He] took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it.”

Took…given thanks…broke it.

To summarize. “Blessed” comes up in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s 5,000 account; Matthew and Mark’s Last Supper account; and Luke’s Emmaus account. “Give thanks” comes up in John’s 5,000 account; Matthew and Mark’s 4,000 account; Luke’s Last Supper account; and St. Paul’s Last Supper account. If you’re keeping score, that’s 6 to 5 in favor of “blessed.”

Bottom line, it’s interchangeable. Bigger point, it’s alluding to the Eucharist. The wandering in the wilderness is without down an action prophecy or action parable about the place the Eucharist has in the life of the church. And from that parallel we learn delightful things about the Church – it’s in a wilderness; it must rely on the Lord’s providence; it is fed by those whom Christ equips and sends out; it is satisfied to the full; it is the Lord’s supper; there is a “giving thanks” or “blessing” that goes with it, a thankfulness to the Lord for His gifts; the bread alone is not what feeds, but the Word proceeding from the mouth of God (or as John puts it, the Spirit gives life.)

And in this week’s Gospel, we learn that gentiles are included in it as well.

It’s a profound point that Jesus’ healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter is sandwiched by these two feeding accounts – the 5,000 feeding to the Jews precedes it shortly and the 4,000 feeding to the gentiles comes shortly after. Remember what Jesus had said? Israel’s “bread” shouldn’t be given to gentile dogs. And what did she say? At least gentiles should get crumbs. She passes the test, Jesus praises her faith, and He opens up shop for the gentiles. And then we get the feeding of the 4,000, with seven baskets left over. The gentiles get their crumbs.

Why? Because as another theme common to all the accounts says, Jesus had compassion on them, on her. Just as He does on us.

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