Matthew 15: 29-39
29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured them, 31 so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in the desert to feed so great a crowd?” 34 Jesus asked them, “How many loaves have you?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 Then ordering the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish; and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And all of them ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 38 Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 After sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
Throughout Matthew’s narration we have been invited to know who Jesus is by both his teaching and his acts of power. Faith in Matthew’s gospel is an openness to the presence of God’s power in Jesus, yet through the remainder of the gospel there are only isolated stories of Jesus demonstrating God’s power to the crowds. This final summation of Jesus’ healing and feeding of the crowds gives us a final demonstration of Jesus’ power over the disabilities that prevent people from full inclusion in the kingdom’s benefits and invites them to participate in a final feast on this mountain. Matthew has prepared us to answer the question of “who is the Son of Man” by hearing his teaching, parables, and acts of power. Some will encounter these words and action and be moved to praise the God of Israel who has shown power in their need and set a feast for them on this mountain and others, even after all that has been shown, will continue to demand some additional sign of Jesus’ connection to the kingdom of heaven.
The scene evokes the imagery of the people of God coming together on Mount Zion bringing together imagery in Isaiah 25 and 35. From the image of Isaiah 25 we have the feast on the mountain:
On this mountain the LORD of host will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Isaiah 25: 6-7
And Isaiah 35 has the closest parallel to the healings that are being received in the wilderness:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
Then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. Isaiah 35: 5-6
But this is not Mount Zion, and there are a number of connections with the previous story, where the Canaanite woman’s daughter is healed, to indicate that this crowd which is worshipping the God of Israel is a non-Jewish crowd. In Matthew 14: 13-21, Jesus provided bread for the children of the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and here all the nations may be finding that the crumbs provide an abundance where all can be satisfied. Perhaps on this mountain we are truly seeing a vision of a feast of rich foods for all peoples.
Thematically the concept of great in relation to the crowds is emphasized throughout the narrative: There are ‘great’ (Greek pollos) crowds with ‘great’ (pollus) other problems (in addition to those lame, maimed, deaf and blind); the disciples wonder how they are to get bread ‘so great’ (Greek tosoutos) so that they can feed a crowd ‘so great’ (tosoutos) to which Jesus replies, “How great (Greek posous) bread are you having? Even though different Greek words are used than the ‘great’ (Greek megas) faith of the Canaanite woman, thematically we are encouraged to link these two stories. In contrast the disciples, the little faith ones (Greek oligopistos) see only the seven bread and the little (oliga) fish. The indication that the ‘great’ crowds worshipped the God of Israel also suggests that this may be a Gentile crowd since they syntax opens the possibility they are worshipping another nation’s God. The Psalms and the Hebrew Scriptures can use ‘the LORD, the God of Israel’ as a title for their God (this title is also used in Luke 1: 68 by Zechariah at the beginning of his praise to the Lord the God of Israel). Yet, referring to the God of Israel without ‘the LORD’ (indicating the name of the God of Israel) is unusual in the bible and unique in the New Testament.
The feeding of the 4,000 is strongly connected with the story of the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness (14: 13-21) and the Last Supper. (26: 26-29) If this second feeding story points to Jesus’ compassion for a Gentile crowd, the same emotion he expresses for the crowd in the previous feeding narrative, then we may also be seeing the broader impact of one Gentile woman making a space for herself within God’s covenant with Israel. Especially as the verbs in verse thirty-five are identical to the verbs used in the Last Supper in Matthew 26: 26: took the bread, gave thanks (Greek eucharistesas– where the term eucharist comes from), broke and gave. Matthew will end with the disciples being sent to ‘all nations’ but here we see a foretaste of the feast where Jews and Gentiles can both be feed on the abundance of the broken bread.
Anna Case-Winters suggests that the disciples are learning,“they seem to understand they are to feed the crowds; they only ask where they should get sufficient food to do so.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 205) Previously they could emphasize they had ‘nothing here’ but five loaves and two fish; now they can realize that when Jesus asks ‘How great bread they have’ they can acknowledge ‘seven and a little fish.’ After everything the disciples have seen the movement from nothing to a little may not seem like much, but Jesus takes what they are able to offer. They will continue to misunderstand Jesus at times, but they are able to be corrected and they remain important to the feeding of those who gather around Jesus. But, with these final healings and feedings, the acts of power that Jesus does will recede as the community of disciples are forced to answer the questions “who do you say that I am?” and “what will it mean to be a follower of Jesus?”