A banquet, a picnic and a wrestling match

Signpost for Sunday 5 August 2014: Gen 32:22-31; Ps 17: 1-7, 15; Rom 9: 1-5; Matt 14:13-21

Loaves and fishes, fighting with angels or God, you’ve heard it all before. But hearing it in church so often means I too often miss things.

I’m usually focused on the loaves, fish and five thousand, looking for an interpretation, so I usually don’t really hear the very first words of the reading “Now, when Jesus heard this,” (Matt 14:13) that’s what makes him jump in the boat and go off to a lonely place. ‘It’ is the news of John the Baptist’s death, the whole head on a platter business. Jesus’ cousin has just been murdered by a man who was lusting after his own step-daughter. Well that’s what I think – look at Matt 14:6 isn’t that rather a euphemism?

So Jesus quite reasonably wants some time alone to get over this, to mourn even. When the crowds followed him, were they just following him because he’s the charismatic healer and preacher they long to see or might they have wanted to comfort him? People in ancient Palestine didn’t usually mourn alone, did they? Who knows for sure?

What might be more significant is that the feeding of the five thousand is not just a miracle we can ponder over, it’s a kind of feast – and a very different kind of feast from the one that’s just gone before, and which resulted in John losing his head.

It was Herod’s birthday party (Matt14:6) so we can be pretty sure it was a sumptuous feast, even though Matthew only mentions heads on plates not food on plates. And who do we think Herod invited to his birthday feast – pretty obviously it would have been a feast for the local big shots and the rich, his chosen few.

Jesus creates a feast on the spot that is the absolute opposite – it’s for everyone who came, none of them were formally invited. And look at Matt14:14. How do you think Herod would have reacted to a bunch of uninvited guests? Jesus’ impromptu feast follows his acts of compassion> Herod’s formal meal ends in violence. The meal that Jesus provides is far from sumptuous. Nevertheless Matt 14:20-21 makes it clear that everyone had more than enough to eat.

This contrast with between Herod’s lavish shindig and Jesus’ humble picnic is clear in the other version of this story too (Mark 6:37-44). One small detail differs in Matthew’s version: Jesus blesses and breaks only the bread, the disciples actually only hand out the bread, we don’t hear a word about sharing the fish. Even the language of Matthew 14:19 is interesting; is this a deliberate echo of the eucharist that Matthew emphasises for his first century readers? Seems quite likely.

Just time for one thought about Jacob the wrestler. He wrestles either God or an angel doesn’t he? Well, the scholars tell us that the Hebrew clearly says “man,” not angel, not God as it does in English (Gen32:24). And one scholar (John C. Holbert, Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas) says the Hebrew word for wrestles is “ye’hbek”. He asks, could it be a wordplay on Jacob’s own Hebrew name Y’acob? Was he wrestling with himself? Good question.

Paul

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