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Friday, August 4, 2017

Multitudes, Miracles and Mercy

The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul's Anglican Church
Seventh Sunday after Trinity, 2017


Our Gospel for the day is the story of an incredible miracle: the feeding of the four thousand. This miracle is recorded only in the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Mark. The other Gospel writers do not make a note of this amazing account, yet it is interesting that all four Gospels tell of the feeding of the five thousand. One can only surmise why…

Also, various differences abound between the two miracles. Some commentators have noted the difference in emphasis on Christ’s taking action, as opposed to the feeding of the 5,000, where Christ posed the question and the Disciples responded. In this case, Christ notes that the crowd has been with Him so long without food and has compassion on them. When He fed the five thousand, his motive for compassion was that they resembled sheep without a shepherd.1 In addition, other differences abound, such as the contrast between this group's being commanded to sit on the ground, whereas the five thousand sat on grass, because “there was much grass in the place.”2 This indicates to some scholars l that the locale was different, much more desolate, and/or it was a different time of year.3 In addition, the numbers here noted were fewer (four thousand vs. five thousand) and available supply of food larger (seven loaves vs. five and “a few” small fish vs. two).4

While these are interesting contrasts, they do not highlight the key difference between the two accounts. We must go back to St. Augustine to see the biggest contrast, namely that the people fed in this story were not primarily Jews, but Gentiles. This is significant. In this account, Jesus and his disciples have been passing by the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Decapolis. This region was comprised of ten cities of primarily Hellenistic culture. They were acquainted with the Jewish culture near to them, but were not tolerant of it. This was due in part to the Semitic practice of male circumcision, which they regarded as idolatrous, because it created imperfect physical specimens. The Jews, for their part, looked at the Greek emphasis on male/male relationships with horror and disgust, considering them as pedophiles and sodomites. Thus, one can see that this was a fertile breeding ground for conflict.

Yet, into this area, Christ spread his abundant mercy and compassion. Previously, in the 7th chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Christ healed a deaf man and a Syrophoenician woman, both Gentiles. He also castigated the Pharisees for their failure to notice the difference between ritual defilement and actual defilement, I.e. the difference between eating so-called “unclean” foods vs. defiling words and actions that come out of people. Now in this arena of Gentile activity, He confronts the Disciples’ own cultural bias: their complete distaste for the Gentile world. We have seen that this particular group has been with Christ for three days without food. He had been healing them of various ailments and diseases; evidently their utter need for this outweighed their need for food. Christ in His mercy observed their desperation for food, while noting that He didn’t want to send them away, for fear of many fainting on the way home. Yet, when Christ asks His Disciples about this, their response to Him is to answer with a question, almost flippantly, Mark 8:4”And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?”

Have they already forgotten the miracle feeding of the five thousand, which had previously occurred? Did they really not know Who was with them? Obviously, not. In addition, one commentator thinks that they were not that concerned about this group simply because they were Gentiles. Their attitude was, “Send them away”, or as Marie Antoinette once purportedly said to the malnourished French peasantry, “Let them eat cake!” While there is doubt she really said this, there is probably much less doubt as to the Disciples’ concern for this Gentile crowd. After all, they were Gentiles, possibly even Greeks, and thus a lower class of humanity. They were not the Chosen Ones.

Jesus Christ, in all His mercy and loving-kindness, does not make this distinction. All He knew is that here were four thousand souls, Jewish or not, who were very, very hungry. So in similar fashion to the feeding of the five thousand, he had the people sit, took what food was available, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples for distribution. In the end, all eat and are satisfied. How glorious that simple meal must have been! Looking at the entire situation, how glorious must have Christ’s Presence among them! If one is able to hold together a crowd of 4,000 people for three days without sustenance and yet without coercion, how incredible this is. Only one man could do this, Jesus Christ.

We should give thanks for this account of Scripture. We should give thanks for it because it indicates our inclusion in the heavenly family. It indicates without doubt that we “wild olive branches” have been grafted into the true Vine of hope and salvation.5 Finally, if for no other reason, we should give thanks because it also foreshadows the great sacrifice at Calvary yet to come. If Christ had not meant to save us Gentile sheep, this feeding wouldn’t have happened. It is even more remarkable in the face of Christ’s own words, when He said, Matthew 15:24 24 "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."

This statement seems incredible at first, but it was necessary for Jesus to be sent to Israel first. Not only to fulfill all Biblical prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, which is critical, but also that the Jews be given the first chance to hear the Good News. In the impenetrable mystery of God, they chose to reject it; at least their leaders did. This too was meant in some strange and mysterious way.

It is only fitting that God’s Chosen People have the bittersweet duty of offering up the One, Perfect, and Complete Sacrifice, Jesus the spotless Lamb of God, even if they didn’t know it at the time. In fact, most Jews still don’t recognize it, because it has not suited God the Father to remove the “veil” over their hearts and minds. Their leaders meant Jesus’ death as a means of ridding themselves of a problem. It was Caiphas the Chief Priest who said, “…it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not”.6 Unbeknownst to them, God also had a plan of ridding the world of a problem, the problem of sin.

We Christians know that we are indeed free from sin; not that we don’t commit it, for all of us sin everyday in some fashion or another. Yet, we are free from sin because we are able, because of Christ’s sacrifice, to renounce sin’s power over us. Yes, we sin, but we can confess, repent and receive absolution through Christ our Lord. In time, as we continue this lifelong process, we sin less and less as we grow in holiness.

Will we ever cease from sinning? No, we will cease from sin only when we pass from the Church Militant on Earth into the Church Expectant and then finally, into the Church Triumphant in Heaven. Then, truly, you and I will rest from labor, from sin, and even from repentance. We shall be glorified; we shall be perfected.

We are not there yet. We still have the daily battle against the World, the Flesh and the Devil. We, like the disciples, have to battle with our own biases and our distastes for people and the things that they do. We too have to struggle against these things and we have to defeat them in the Name of Christ.

We challenge you to examine your motives and your impulses for these considerations. If they are godly, cherish them and be led by them. If they are not, cast them away. Life is too short to be spent in unworthy judgments. The life to come is too long to be forfeited, or to be lived in some inferior state, even in Heaven, due to unshriven earthly sin. This is a serious consideration.

Some two thousand years ago, Christ began the process of breaking through sin, prejudice, and ill will. He challenged his own disciples’ beliefs. He affirmed his own magnanimous, all merciful nature. He extended, almost by proxy, our possibility of salvation. He fed four thousand people.

Mark 8:8 So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets.”







1 Coffman Commentaries, http://www.searchgodsword.org
2 John 6:10
3 Cofman, op. cit.
4 Ibid
5 Rom 11: 17-21

6 John 11:50

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