NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verse 32: Jesus called His followers to Him and said, “I feel sorry for these people. They have been with me three days, and now they have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry. They might faint while going home.”
On the earlier occasion, when Jesus fed the 5,000, we noted that He started teaching in the morning and it went until late afternoon. But now, with the 4,000, Jesus sees the need for food after the crowd had been with Him for three days. I doubt that they all came without bringing along some sustenance, but they may not have envisioned staying there for three days. It also may be a factor, in that this crowd was 1,000 fewer than the first group, with some of them having to return home for various reasons, especially those who had already been healed.
Could it be, that our Lord recalled what His royal ancestor did after finding a person who had not eaten for three days: “David’s men found an Egyptian in a field and took him to David. They gave the Egyptian some water to drink and some food to eat. The Egyptian had not had any food or water for three days and nights, so they gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins. He felt better after eating.”1 But as for the disciples, they were more concerned about the supply rather than the service. You would think, they had learned something from the other miracle where Jesus fed the 5,000, but apparently they saw this as different. Maybe, because they had more bread and a smaller crowd to feed.
Early church scholar Theodore of Heraclea comments on how this crowd found themselves it this predicament of needing to be fed. He writes: “In this way, by His speech, Christ had so inclined their souls that even they had become forgetful and had taken no care to provide for food or other necessary needs. They had not grown weary, even in the desert, of being with Christ. But Christ understood the weakness of our nature and that we require food for the health of our bodies. He makes preparation even for this, that it might be evident that He is concerned not only about our souls but about our bodies as well. For He is the Creator of both soul and body. He is not merely the Lord of one or the other, as the insane thought the Manichaeans hold.2 They teach different creators, one for the soul and another for the body.”3
Verse 33: The followers asked Jesus, “Where can we get enough bread to feed all these people? We are a long way from any town.’”
Now, in spite of what happened before with the 5,000, after Jesus told His disciples to feed this multitude they still ask Him where were they going to get the resources, seeing that this spot was quite a walk away from the nearest towns. So it appears that our Lord’s request came as a surprise to them. This may suggest that over the three days people were coming and going, so there seemed to be no need to consider such a picnic in the boondocks. In this case, we might say that in addition to all the healing miracles that Jesus performed, He had one more before the crowds were dismissed.
Bishop Hilary asks his readers to look more closely at this incident. He writes: “Do you see the mystery? The Lord has compassion on this hopeful following of believers and says they have been with Him for three days! Lest they weaken in the course of their worldly lives, in their workaday world, He wants now to feed them with His food and fortify them with His bread. In this way, they can complete the formidable task of the entire journey, for the disciples were complaining that there was no bread in the desert. Indeed, they had previously absorbed the lesson that nothing is impossible with God. But what certain events are meant to teach us can exceed the measure of our understanding.”4
Verse 34: Jesus asked, “How many flatbreads do you have?” They answered, “We have seven flatbreads and a few small fish.”
Even though this crowd was smaller than the first one, there is more food available. This was because instead of taking one small boy’s lunch, no doubt there were some in the crowd who had not eaten all they brought along for the occasion. But as in the first instance, it appears that these small flatbreads and tiny fish were a common meal for the people in that area. You would think that after Jesus had multiplied five small flatbreads and two sardines to feed 5,000, there certainly would be no trouble for Him to do the same with seven flatbreads and several sardines to feed 4,000. But when Jesus asked them what they had, they gave the same I-don’t-think-this-will-work response as the first time.
Chrysostom says in his homily on this text: “Observe, in this instance, that Jesus does not proceed immediately to the miracle but calls them out even into the desert. The multitudes who had come for healing did not even dare to ask for food. But He is here seen to be the goodhearted and caring one who gives even to those that do not ask. He said to His disciples, ‘I have compassion and will not send them away hungry.’ And in case someone might say that they came having provisions for their stay, He noted, ‘They have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat, so that even if some came with provision, it has by now been consumed.’ Therefore, Jesus did not do this on the first or second day but only when everything had been entirely consumed, in order that having first been in need, they might more eagerly receive the miracle of food. He offered them compassion, saying, ‘In case they faint in their journey;’ He implied that both the distance to food was great and that they had nothing left. Then disciples asked if You are not willing to send them away hungry, ‘Where are we to get bread enough in the desert to feed so great a crowd?’ Jesus responded, in order to stimulate their faith and make them more compassionate: ‘How many loaves do you have?’ But even then they did not fully understand the motive of His question. That’s why afterward, He said to them, as Mark relates, ‘Are your hearts so hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? Having ears, do you not hear?’5”6
So we can see by what Mark had to say, Jesus was very disappointed that after His disciples had seen the miracle with the 5,000 they still couldn’t believe for 4,000. Why is it that even today, no matter how many times God’s people have seen Him move and observed His power in action, they treat each crisis as though it’s the first time they’ve asked for help and guidance. It doesn’t mean that we should become passé or unconcerned in our attitudes when going to the Lord for help, but how much more rewarding if the disciples had come to Jesus and said: “Lord, we saw what you did the last time with the 5,000, we’ll see how much food we can find and bring it to You for Your blessing so we can feed these 4,000.”
Verses 35-36: Jesus told the people to sit on the ground. He took the seven flatbreads and the fish. Then He gave thanks to God for the food. He broke the flatbreads into pieces, which He gave to His followers, and they gave the food to the people.”
We notice that in both cases, Jesus blesses the meal before breaking the bread. According to Jewish custom, the following prayer is said before eating, “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings bread forth from the earth.” There is also a custom of saying grace after the meal that is derived from the Torah: “So you will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless Adonai your God for the good land He has given you.”7 And so the benediction usually goes, “Blessed are You, O Lord, for the land and for the food.” Since Jesus prayed before dispensing the bread, Christians have adopted the custom of praying before a meal, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to thank Him after we are finished eating.
The prayer that Jesus prayed is not written here, but I have little doubt that He followed a tradition His listeners were familiar with. The reason for this may be, that if He were to use a prayer or chant with which they had no acquaintance they might have thought He was saying some magical formula, especially since the bread and fish began to multiply right before their eyes. So then, the loaves and fishes were being multiplied as they were being passed around. This is a lesson every preacher and teacher should learn. Take what you have for the congregation or class to Jesus first, ask Him to bless it before you share it with the group that has gathered to hear, so they can then take it and share it with others. That way, a sermon preached to 500 people, could end up feeding thousands of people.
Verse 37: All the people ate until they were satisfied. After this, the followers filled seven baskets with the pieces of food that were left over.
Again we notice a difference between the first feeding and the second. The larger crowed had twelve baskets of leftovers while this smaller group had seven. But the main point is that on both occasions we find that the people ate until they were content. In using the formula mentioned before, the number of baskets with leftovers may be representative of the actual number of men, women and children who were fed; 12,000 the first time and 7,000 on this occasion.
Bishop Hilary sees some spiritual applications between what occurred here on this hillside and what is done through the church to sinners he calls Gentiles. He writes: “They brought forward seven loaves of bread. The Gentiles received no salvation from the law and the prophets. However, they live because of the grace of the Spirit whose sevenfold light, as noted by Isaiah, is a gift.8 Therefore through faith in the Spirit the Gentiles receive salvation. They recline on the ground, for they were not subject to any works of the law or the flesh but were called in their earthly condition to the Spirit of the sevenfold light. The unspecific number of fish signifies the variety and dispensing of gifts and charisma, by which a diversity of graces satisfied the faith of the Gentiles. Moreover, the fact that seven baskets are filled indicates the overflowing and multiplied abundance of the Spirit of sevenfold light. What He generously gives, abounds. Having been satisfied, the gift becomes ever more richly endowed and full. The fact that four thousand men gather together refers to a multitude of countless people from the four corners of the earth. In terms of the future, a calculated number of people are satisfied in as many thousands of places as there are thousands of believers who hasten to receive the gift of heavenly food. Having been fully fed, the crowd is dismissed. And since the Lord remains with us all the days of our life, a great number of Gentile believers go on board the ship—namely, the church.”9
Verse 38: There were about 4,000 men there who ate. There were also some women and children present.
Says Theodore of Heraclea: “Jesus does this not only once but also a second time, in order that we should know His strength. This strength by which He feeds the multitudes when He wishes and without bread finds its source in His divinity. He does this in order to bring them to believe that He is the one who earlier had fed Israel for forty years in the wilderness. And Jesus not only fed them with a few loaves of bread, but He even produced a surplus of seven baskets, so that He might be shown as incomparably surpassing Elijah, who himself also caused a multiplication of the widow’s small quantity of oil and flour. Nevertheless, when Jesus produced a multiplication of seven baskets from seven loaves, He did not go beyond what was needed, lest the difference between these miracles should again be forgotten by the disciples.”10
Verse 39: After they all ate, Jesus told the people they could go home. He got into the boat and sailed to the area around Magadan.
This name “Magadan” appears only here in Matthew. However, in the Aramaic Version, we find, “Magodu” in Etheridge’s translation, and “Magdala” in Murdock’s rendering. The same story as told in Mark’s Gospel uses the term “Dalmanutha.”11 When these two passages are put together, it seems fair that one refers to the region of Dalmanutha and the other to the town of Magdala in that region, since both lie on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. We find this mentioned in Jewish writings where Rabbi Yohanan talks about a farmer who “owned two courtyards, one in Magdala (also Migdal in Aramaic, as it is called today) and the other in Tiberias.”12 Then we find these two cities mention together when Rabbi Hunah was talking about limits of walking on the Sabbath. He states that: “The Sabbath limit of Tiberias lie [within four cubits of the Sabbath limit of Magdala.”13
In fact, in the Jerusalem Talmud, we are told that Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai was asked by a Samaritan to remove a corpse that had been buried by an old Jew in a place it should not have been. We read that the Rabbi passed Magdala after having been in Tiberias.14 And in another place we find that the Rabbis were talking about a round trip from Tiberias to Magdala. Since the limit is 0.596 miles, that means the two were separated by about one-sixth of a mile, putting any walking back and forth on the Sabbath over the limits. Magdala lies north of Tiberias along the southwestern coast of the Sea of Galilee. We even find that a Rabbi named Isaac came from Magdala.15 Of course, for Christians, this was the home area of a woman possessed with seven demons,16 who would later become one of Jesus’ staunchest and most loyal supporters, Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene). Based on historical information, this area had a large fishing industry. But it was also well-known for the practice of magic. And just like the woman at the well in Samaria,17 this visit to Magdala was already on our Lord’s divine agenda.
One thing that any student of the life of Jesus will quickly notice is that He did nothing and went nowhere without it already being a settled part of His divine itinerary. It is like watching an oriental rug being woven where threads of different colors, seemingly selected at random, come together in an exquisite and beautiful pattern. Anyone who only reads the first part of Jesus’ life without the ending, do not get the whole picture. And the same goes for reading the end without the beginning. But let us not forget, there are future events yet to be woven into this story before it will be complete.
1 I Samuel 30:11-12
2 In the complicated Manichaean mythology, the creation of the world occurred in several stages and was the work of beings different from the supreme God of creation in the Hebrew and Christian religions.
3 Theodore of Heraclea: Commentary fragment 97
4 Hilary of Poitiers: On Matthew, 15:7-9
5 Mark 8:18
6 Chrysostom: Matthew, Homily 53.1
7 Deuteronomy 8:10 – Complete Jewish Bible
8 Isaiah 30:26
9 Hilary of Poitiers: On Mathew, 15:10
10 Theodore of Heraclea: Commentary fragment 98
11 Mark 8:10
12 Jerusalem Talmud, op. cit. First Division: Tractate Ma’aserot, Ch. 3:1, [IV:3 B]
13 Ibid. Second Division: Tractate ‘Erubin, Ch. 4:3, [II:1 A]
14 Ibid. First Division, Tractate Shebi’it, Ch. 9:2 [A]
15 Babylonian Talmud, op. cit. Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Yoma, folio 81b
16 Luke 8:2
17 John, Chapter 4