Matthew 15:29-39

THE BREAD OF LIFE

Matt. 15:29-39

And Jesus left there, and went to the Sea of Galilee; and he went up into a mountain, and he was sitting there; and great crowds came to him, bringing with them people who were lame and blind and deaf and maimed, and laid them at his feet, and he healed them, so that the crowd were amazed when they saw the dumb speaking, the maimed restored to soundness, and the lame walking, and the blind seeing; and they praised the God of Israel.

Jesus called his disciples to him. “My heart is sorry for the crowd,” he said, “because they have stayed with me now for three days, and they have nothing to eat. I do not wish to send them away hungry in case they collapse on the road.” The disciples said to him, “Where could we find enough loaves in a desert place to satisfy such a crowd?” Jesus said to them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few little fishes.” He gave orders to the crowd to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves and the fishes, and, when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they gathered what remained of the fragments, seven hampers fun. Those who ate were four thousand men, apart from women and children. When he had sent the crowds away, he embarked on the boat, and went to the district of Magadan.

We have already seen that when Jesus set out on his journey to the districts of the Phoenicians, he was entering upon a period of deliberate withdrawal that he might prepare himself and his disciples for the last days which lay ahead. One of the difficulties about the gospels is that they do not give us any definite indication of times and dates; these we have to work out for ourselves, using such hints as the story may give us. When we do, we find that Jesus’ period of retiral with his disciples was very much longer than we might think from a casual reading of the story.

When Jesus fed the five thousand (Matt. 14:15-21; Mk.6:31-44), it was the spring time, for at no other time would the grass be green in that hot land (Matt. 14:19; Mk.6:39). After his discussions with the Scribes and Pharisees he withdrew to the districts of Tyre and Sidon (Mk.7:24; Matt. 15:21). That in itself was no small journey on foot.

For the next note of time and place we go to Mk.7:31 “Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the region of the Decapolis.” That was a strange way of travelling. Sidon is north of Tyre; the Sea of Galilee is south of Tyre; and the Decapolis was a confederation of ten Greek cities on the east of the Sea of Galilee. That is to say Jesus went north in order to go south. It is as if to get from one end of the base of a triangle to the other he went right round by the apex. It is as if he went from Edinburgh to Glasgow by way of Perth, or from Bristol to London by way of Manchester. It is clear that Jesus deliberately lengthened out this journey to have as long as possible with his disciples before the last journey to Jerusalem.

Finally he came to the Decapolis, where, as we learn from Mark (Mk.7:31), the incidents of our passage happened. Here we get our next hint. On this occasion when the crowd were bidden to sit down, they sat on the ground (epi (GSN1909), ten (GSN3588), gen (GSN1093), on the earth; it was by this time high summer and the grass was scorched, leaving only the bare earth.

That is to say, this northern journey took Jesus almost six months. We know nothing about what happened in the course of these six months; but we can be perfectly sure that they were the most important six months through which the disciples ever lived; for in them Jesus deliberately taught and instructed them, and opened their minds to the truth. It is a thing to remember that the disciples had six months apart with Jesus before the testing time came.

Many scholars think that the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand are different versions of the same incident; but that is not so. As we have seen, the date is different; the first took place in the spring, the second in the summer. The people and the place are different. The feeding of the four thousand took place in Decapolis. Decapolis literally means ten cities, and the Decapolis was a loose federation of ten free Greek cities. On this occasion there would be many Gentiles present, perhaps more Gentiles than Jews. It is that fact that explains the curious phrase in Matt. 15:31, “They glorified the God of Israel.” To the Gentile crowds this was a demonstration of the power of the God of Israel. There is another curious little hint of difference. In the feeding of the five thousand the baskets which were used to take up the fragments are called kophinoi (GSN2894); in the feeding of the four thousand they are called sphurides (GSN4711).
The kophinos (GSN2894) was a narrow-necked, flask-shaped basket which Jews often carried with them, for a Jew often carried his own food, lest he should be compelled to eat food which had been touched by Gentile hands and was therefore unclean. The sphuris (GSN4711) was much more like a hamper; it could be big enough to carry a man, and it was a kind of basket that a Gentile would use.

The wonder of this story is that in these healings and in this feeding of the hungry, we see the mercy and the compassion of Jesus going out to the Gentiles. Here is a kind of symbol and foretaste that the bread of God was not to be confined to the Jews; that the Gentiles were also to have their share of him who is the living bread.

THE GRACIOUSNESS OF JESUS

Matt. 15:29-39 (continued)

In this passage we see fully displayed the graciousness and the sheer kindness of Jesus Christ. We see him relieving every kind of human need.

(i) We see him curing physical disability. The lame, the maimed, the blind and the dumb are laid at his feet and cured. Jesus is infinitely concerned with the bodily pain of the world; and those who bring men health and healing are still doing the work of Jesus Christ.

(ii) We see him concerned for the tired. The people are tired and he wants to strengthen their feet for a long, hard road. Jesus is infinitely concerned for the world’s wayfarers, for the world’s toilers, for those whose eyes are weary and whose hands are tired.

(iii) We see him feeding the hungry. We see him giving all he has to relieve physical hunger and physical need. Jesus is infinitely concerned for men’s bodies, just as he is for their souls.

Here we see the power and the compassion of God going out to meet the many needs of the human situation.

In writing of this passage Edersheim has a lovely thought: he points out that in three successive stages of his ministry, Jesus ended each stage by setting a meal before his people. First, there was the feeding of the five thousand; that came at the end of his ministry in Galilee, for Jesus was never to teach and preach and heal in Galilee again. Second, there was this feeding of the four thousand. This came at the end of his brief ministry to the Gentiles, beyond the bounds of Palestine–first in the districts of Tyre and Sidon and then in the Decapolis. Third and last, there was the Last Supper in Jerusalem, when Jesus came to the final stage of the days of his flesh.

Here indeed is a lovely thought. Jesus always left men with strength for the way; always he gathered men to him to feed them with the living bread. Always he gave them himself before he moved on. And still he comes to us offering us also the bread which will satisfy the immortal hunger of the human soul, and in the strength of which we shall be able to go all the days of our life.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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