So much gratitude today to all the preachers who are learning to preach online now. It’s so hard, and since I’m not a preacher, I don’t get to practice much. Thanks to my home congregation for letting me give it a try.
Today’s sermon includes the lectionary reading from Matthew as well as additional texts. Here there are:
- Matthew 7: 7-11: from the Sermon on the Mount
- Matthew 14:13-21: The Feeding of the 5000
- Matthew 15:21-28: The Healing of the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter
- Matthew 15: 29-38: The Feeding of the 2000
This week’s readings come from the Gospel of Matthew, where they tell stories from Jesus’ earthly ministry. The second and last passages are sometimes both called “The Feeding of the Multitude.” They look a lot the same, but there are some significant differences. It’s the story in the middle—of the faith of the Canaanite woman—that, I think, allows the stories to change.
Let’s start with the first story, from Matthew 14.
La Multiplication des Pains by James Tissot, 1886-1894.
In this passage, Jesus is in Galilee, teaching to a Jewish audience, and he uses five loaves and two fish to feed 5000, which was probably an undercount since it likely only included the men in the crowd. When he suggests this dinner plan to his disciples, they, predictably, object that it’s not possible. But it happens anyway. The nature of the miracle here is not exactly clear. Was this bread self-regenerating, so when you tore a piece off, it grew back, like a star fish? Did it grow in the stomach in some miraculous way, like one of those toys, one of those tiny sponges you put in water and it grows into a dinosaur, so the crowd could take just a pinch but it would fill them up? Or was the miracle in the dish the disciples served it from? Was it a truly bottomless bread basket, the kind your favorite Italian restaurant can promise but never actually deliver?
I think there may have been a different miracle in the works. We don’t know, of course, but Biblical scholars have suggested that the crowd would have done what was typical for them when they set out for the day: they would have packed their lunches. Just like we pop a granola bar into the diaper bag or a peanut butter sandwich into our glove compartment, they would have carried some food with them. In a place without a real restaurant scene and no vending machines, people would have been used to carrying their own food, probably in an inside pocket of their tunic, where it would have been kept safe from dust and dirt.
But in a crowd this large, full of people who were ill and poor, not everyone would have had enough food. And that would have led to an awkward problem: if you had packed a meal, would you have brought it out and eaten it in front of hungry people who had none? Would you have shared it with them? How many pieces could you have cut your sandwich into before the bites were too small to really fight anyone’s hunger? Who would you have chosen to share with? And, really, why should you have to? You remembered your lunch, after all, and you have that lunch because you worked hard for it. And yet, to be selfish with food—that was a violation of the rules of Jewish hospitality.
Jesus tells his disciples to just start sharing the bread they have. And, in doing so, they modeled the solution to the problem the 5,000 faced. Some people had and some people had not, and the disciples showed them that those who had should share. When the people saw this, they responded with generosity and, in their generosity, they discovered that they had an abundance—12 extra baskets of bread!
Perhaps there is a supernatural explanation. I want to believe in a never ending bread basket. But perhaps the miracle was an ever harder one to pull off: teaching people to share what they had, with confidence that it would be more than enough.
From here, the disciples and Jesus move on, eventually arriving near Tyre and Sidon, the passage described in Matthew 15:21-28. Again, we get the sense that he is on retreat, but, again, he is interrupted by someone else’s needs. A Canaanite woman—not only not Jewish, but the generations-old enemy of the Jewish people—asks for his help. Her daughter is possessed by demons. This must make the girl difficult to manage, and how many parents, when their children become too hard, toss them out? But this woman loves her daughter so much that she runs a gamut: she has to walk past the disciples to get to Jesus. We are about to find out how unfriendly there were. But she braves this because of her desperate love for her child. We see this image over and over in the gospels: women who want to know Jesus being intimidated and dismissed by his best friends. But she persists, placing herself squarely in his way.
Jean-Germain Drouais’s The Woman of Canaan at the Feet of Christ (1784)
She approaches Jesus boldly, shouting. She asks for mercy. She recognizes Jesus’ authority as well as his Jewish lineage. Remember that she is not only not Jewish—she is from a people group the early Israelites believed that they were told to destroy. We see here her humility but also her courage and her faith: she approaches him anyway because she believes that he can heal her daughter. There is simply no other reason to risk this encounter.
Jesus responds with silence. But this isn’t ignoring her. I think it’s the silence that teachers use while we wait for our class to think through a problem. It’s an old college teaching trick: to not give the students the answer, to let the silence stretch out awkwardly until, finally, one of them says something. Otherwise, you train your students that you’ll always jump in with the answer that they should be wrestling for.
And so Jesus waits for them. He waits. He waits. And then—they get it wrong.
“Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” They see the evidence of her need—her desperate shouting—as a burden to them rather than a burden to her that they can relieve.
Jesus tries to help them out. “I was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel,” he states—that is, only for the Jews. But this statement is a trick. Look back at verse 21. Where are they? In Tyre and Sidon. These are not Jewish regions but Gentile ones. He came here on purpose. When he says, “I was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel,” he is articulating the prejudices and limitations that his disciples have. Look around! is what he is really saying. If I weren’t here to minister to people like this woman, why would even I be in this place?
She helps him in his illustration, stepping forward and humbling herself before him as a person of faith before her Messiah. The disciples remain silent. Perhaps they are starting to sense that their previous answer was wrong, because Jesus isn’t sending her away. But they can’t seem to imagine that Jesus really means what he says: that walking with him means walking to unfamiliar place to heal people you consider your enemy.
Jesus tries to help them out. He gives them a hint, like teachers do. “Should dogs eat bread that was intended for children? Is that fair?” We often focus on the word dog here, which is so startling. In no other passage do we see Jesus hurting an already-hurting person. I think, then, for that reason, we shouldn’t assume that is what he is doing here. Instead, he is, again, putting into words the prejudices of his disciples. He is about to heal this woman; therefore, she must be a child of God, just like the Jews he has been healing, and not a dog, like they have been taught she is.
The other key word here is bread. It’s the little hint that the teacher gives to the students. C’mon! The answer has to do with bread. Remember how we just talked about bread?
John Reilly The Feeding of the Five Thousand (1958)
The word bread should remind him of his earlier lesson, from Matthew 7, which is part of the Sermon on the Mount. “If a child asks a parent for bread,” Jesus asks, “the parent will give him—” “A stone!” you can imagine the disciples yelling back. “No, no, no,” says Jesus. “Let’s try again: if a child asks for a fish, the parent will give him—” “A snake?” the disciples wonder. Of course that is not how the passage goes! Jesus assures us that a parent will provide bread and fish, not stones and snakes, to their children, and, likewise, God, who is the perfect parent, will also care for us. But the metaphor there—that God will care for us—relies on us understanding the literal point, which is that we care for each other. If someone searches, they find. If they ask, Jesus answers. If they knock, he opens the door. If they need bread or a fish, he gives them food.
The word bread should also remind them of the 12 baskets that they gathered up just a short time before. In the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, they were practicing for this moment. The lesson of that miracle is that There is always enough in God’s kingdom. Not only are there “crumbs for the dog,” there are entire loaves for the dog! When the disciples fed those 5,000 Jews, they didn’t ask if they were deserving, if they were worthy, if they were faithful. They just knew that they were hungry.
How much more, then, they should embrace this woman, whose faith allows her to brave their scorn!
Despite practicing this, literally, FIVE THOUSAND TIMES, the disciples still didn’t get it right.
Bénédite de la Roncière’s depiction of the feeding of the multitude draws from life in Cameroon.
We know that Jesus was tempted by Satan in the desert, but I bet there were other times when he was tempted. Tempted to leave these sorry disciples in the desert and walk on. He could have chosen the Canaanite woman, who had faith before she ever saw a miracle, as his disciple, and instead he got this junior varsity team of jokers who can witness 5,000 miracles and, still be as Jesus says in Matthew 15:16, “so dull.”
But they are disciples because they need to be discipled, to be formed in the faith. And I shouldn’t get frustrated with them, because God has been good to me every day of my life. That’s far more than 5,000 times I have gotten to witness God’s love for me. And every day I see God’s mercies and kindness and healing, and every day I risk making the same mistake the disciples made: to try to limit God’s love to only those people I consider worthy—and I define their worth according to how close they are to my identity. It’s not a surprise to me that this is one of the greatest struggles the disciples face; it is also the greatest struggle the church today faces. We are convinced that we should respond to God’s gracious and abundant love by setting limits on who we share it with. We expect God to miraculously make more bread, but we fail to perform the miracle of sharing it ourselves.
The point of this story is not that the disciples should be nice to someone they think of as inferior. It is that their idea of inferiority must fall. AND that requires no change at all on the part of the person they had previously labeled as “less than.” She doesn’t have to do anything at all to prove her worth or value or dignity. She arrives with it; they simply have to see it. All the work is on their end.
Jesus doesn’t ask the Canaanite woman to be less Canaanite. He sends her away with her daughter, out of sight of both of them, healed. He doesn’t send her away with a to-do list about how she needs to change her culture or her language or her history or her way of being in the world. Her Canaanite-ness is okay by Jesus.
Instead, he teaches the disciples that they must abandon their ethnocentrism, their bigotry, their prejudice. As with every story Jesus tells, it is the people with the most power who have to change the most.
The only demand we see here is on them, not on her.
Do they get it?
Look at what happens right after the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter. Jesus and his disciples engage in another festival of healing. Three days of healing! They are restoring health and, in the process, healing spirits and repairing relationships. And the people they are healing, they are the people of Tyre and Sidon—right where they found the Canaanite woman! The people they are healing are not Jews. They are Gentiles, but they rush toward Jesus with desperation and faith, and he has compassion on them. Compassion means co-suffering. This means that, fundamentally, he identifies with their pain because he understands their bodies to work the same way as his. He says, in this compassion, We have the same bodies. This is radically different than how the disciples thought of the Canaanite woman—as a dog. His compassion affirms their bodies, even the ones they have been told are so broken that they have become outcast, which is an act of radical equality. These people are so committed that they stay for three days to be healed. Now, after three days, they need food. So Jesus, seeing this need, addresses it. He tells his disciples to feed them. And they, again, point out the obvious: they’re in the desert, with no bakery nearby. Jesus asks them, “How much bread do WE have?” Again, he is saying, “The solution to this problem starts with our generosity.”
Eularia Clarke’s The Five Thousand (1962)
Last time they were confronted with this logic, the disciples argued back, saying that feeding a crowd of several thousand people with just a few loaves wasn’t possible.
This time they don’t. Maybe by now they are starting to trust Jesus.
But what is more remarkable to me is that they obey him even though he is telling them to feed thousands of people they have been socialized to believe are beyond redemption. Did Jesus come for only the lost sheep of Israel? No, he tells them in his command that they heal and, now, feed these hungry Gentiles. Do even dogs get crumbs? We’re not talking about dogs, he says. We’re talking about people whose bodies are as precious to God as our own. It’s time to stop talking about them as outside of God’s love or God’s kingdom. And, once again, he does not tell the Gentiles to stop being Gentiles, only the disciples to stop being racist.
And they learned this lesson because of the faith of the Canaanite woman. They learned it from her like they weren’t able to learn it when they fed 5,000 people like them. Believing that God loved people like themselves didn’t deepen their faith; seeing that God loved people unlike themselves did.
An icon of the Canaanite Woman by Brother Robert Lentz, OFM
God is gracious to us as we learn to love each other better. God will show us grace 5,000 times even if we don’t see it–and then show us grace once more, until we understand how it works and how to extend ourselves. God gives us people unlike ourselves in our lives to help us grow in grace. The Canaanite woman came looking for healing for her daughter and, by extension, for her family, despite great risk to herself, including humiliation from the words of the disciples. Her courage produced deeper faith from the disciples, who, slowly, slowly, slowly, learn to expand their hearts. May we be inspired by her courage and able to see and hear and serve those who call us to greater grace.
Detail from a mosaic at the Burnt Church of Hippo. The church was rediscovered July 2019 after its destruction by fire in the 700s. The fire created a layer of ash that preserved its mosaics, many of which depicted bread and fish. The church is about 1 mile from the Sea of Galilee.