Sunday, July 30, 2023

A Gut-Wrenching Gathering

Matthew 14:13-21
Below is a rough translation and some very preliminary notes about Matthew 14:13-21, the Revised Common Lectionary gospel reading for the 8th Sunday of Pentecost, Year A. Your comments are always welcomed. 

The common approach to this feeding story is to see it as an echo of the manna story of old. But, I suspect that may be more the case for Mark than for Matthew. Mark has two feeding stories. In the first – c.6 – it follows the death of John, but the framing is shifted from John’s death to the disciples’ return from their missionary journey. After they report their journeys, Jesus invites them to come away with him to a deserted place. Then, the crowd sees them heading out and follows. The second of Mark’s feeding stories – c.8, the feeding of the 4,000 – has a pivotal question from the disciples (“How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”), which makes it a definite candidate for echoing the manna story.

Matthew’s framing puts me in mind, not of the Exodus journey, but of Ps. 137, by the rivers of Babylon, where the tormentors said, “Sing the songs of Zion” as a way of taunting Israel’s hope in God while Babylon took them into exile. This is not just a hungry crowd, but a dispirited one. The need is not just a practical one but one that requires pity. More on that below.

13 Ἀκούσας δὲ  Ἰησοῦς ἀνεχώρησεν ἐκεῖθεν ἐν πλοίῳ εἰς ἔρημον τόπον 
κατ' ἰδίαν: καὶ ἀκούσαντες οἱ ὄχλοι ἠκολούθησαν αὐτῷ πεζῇ ἀπὸ τῶν 
Then having heard, Jesus left there in a boat going to a deserted place by himself; and having heard, the crowds followed him on foot from the cities.
Ἀκούσας: AAPart nsm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 
ἀνεχώρησεν: AAI 3s, ἀναχωρέω, 1) to go back, return  2) to withdraw 
ἀκούσαντες: AAPart npm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf 
ἠκολούθησαν: AAI 3p, ἀκολουθέω, 1) to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him
1. The story that precedes this text is the senseless death of John the Baptizer. John’s disciples (or, perhaps Jesus’ disciples, it’s kind of hard to tell to whom the pronoun “his” refers) buried John’s body and then came and told Jesus (v.12).
2. The aorist participle “having heard” appears twice here. The first refers to Jesus having heard the message of John’s death and leaving for a deserted place as a result. Is he going to grieve? To pray? To hide? Any of these answers is possible. Grief is understandable for any number of reasons. Prayer is possible because there are other occasions when Jesus would go out to a solitary place to do so. And hiding is possible because the story of John’s death begins with Herod “hearing” about Jesus and saying that he is John raised from death.
3. The second aorist participle of “having heard” refers to the crowd. But, what did they hear? Many translations assume that what the crowd heard was that Jesus was out in the deserted place. However, they, too, may have just been hearing of John’s death and their sojourn may have also been an act of grief or bewilderment or something else desperate enough to end up in the wilderness with no food. One reason Herod was holding John in prison and did not put him to death immediately was because he feared the crowd (v.5).

14 καὶ ἐξελθὼν εἶδεν πολὺν ὄχλον, καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ' αὐτοῖς καὶ 
ἐθεράπευσεν τοὺς ἀρρώστους αὐτῶν.
And having come forth he saw a great crowd, and was moved with pity on them and healed their weak.
ἐξελθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of 
ἐσπλαγχνίσθη: API 3s, σπλαγχνίζομαι, 1) to be moved as to one's bowels, hence to be moved with compassion, have compassion
ἐθεράπευσεν: AAI 3s, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health 
1. The adjective ἄρρωστος only appears here in Matthew's text, and 4 other times in the NT. can be weak, sickly, and other forms of physical weakness from disease. It might also mean those who are weak in spirit (, which may name the grief that is driving this crowd to the wilderness. I wonder if the point is that Herod’s act of killing John was just the final straw for some of these folks. Too big to overthrow, too cruel to endure, what is left? If we interpret that it's the news about the death of John that drives these folks into the wilderness to begin, they are broken-hearted. Perhaps the word θεραπεύω, transliterated as "therapy" in English, is suggestive of more than strictly physical healings. 
2. To that end, I think the term σπλαγχνίζομαι may involve more than ‘pity’ or ‘compassion.’ Pity reminds me too much of someone who is healthy, well-fed, and living a relatively happy life looking at a starving child and feeling pity. It is appropriate and can be a merciful motivation to act, but it is a feeling that comes from a distance. σπλαγχνίζομαι is a body-related term, referencing the internal organs. Perhaps it indicates pity, not from a distance, but from a similar place of dispirited, visceral, heart-broken pain. I wonder if “gut-wrenching” is the best English equivalent (though syntactically “gut-wrenching” works better as an adjective than a passive verb. "Gut wrenched" - can we use that?) It is just vitally important that Matthew shows how Jesus first reacted to John’s death then the crowd reacted and now Jesus is internally torn for the crowd because he shares their gut-wrenching pain.  
3. A revolutionary leader – like a Zealot – could have used this moment to rally troops. 5,000 men plus women and children in one place, angry or bewildered or dispirited over the death of John the baptizer would make a great start to an army that could have stormed Herod’s palace. Instead, Jesus tends to their brokenness and then this becomes a feeding story. (Whatever insights Reza Aslan has into Jesus’ zealous intentions, Matthew does not seem to share them.)

15  ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης προσῆλθον αὐτῷ οἱ μαθηταὶ λέγοντες, Ἔρημός ἐστιν 
 τόπος καὶ  ὥρα ἤδη παρῆλθεν: ἀπόλυσον τοὺς ὄχλους, ἵνα ἀπελθόντες 
εἰς τὰς κώμας ἀγοράσωσιν ἑαυτοῖς βρώματα. 
Then having become evening the disciples came to him saying, “This place is deserted and the hour now has passed; send the crowd away, in order that having gone into the villages they may buy food for themselves.
γενομένης: AMPart gsf, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being
προσῆλθον: AAI 3p, προσέρχομαι, 1) to come to, approach 2) draw near to 
λέγοντες: PAPart npm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
παρῆλθεν: AAI 3s, παρέρχομαι, 1) to go past, pass by
ἀπόλυσον: AAImpv 2s, ἀπολύω, 1) to set free  2) to let go, dismiss, (to detain no longer)
ἀπελθόντες: AAPart npm, ἀπέρχομαι, 1) to go away, depart  1a) to go away in order to follow any one, go after him, to  follow his party, follow him as a leader 
ἀγοράσωσιν: AAS 3p, ἀγοράζω, 1) to be in the market place, to attend it  2) to do business there, buy or sell
1. The reference to the time sets up the need for evening food, but it may also imply that this gathering has been going on for quite a while. For Jesus to offer therapy for the broken among them may have been more than waving his magic hand and causing mass healings. Strengthening the weak (the root of “healed” in v.14 is therapy, θεραπεύω) can be a time-consuming affair.

16  δὲ[Ἰησοῦς] εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Οὐ χρείαν ἔχουσιν ἀπελθεῖν: δότε αὐτοῖς ὑμεῖς φαγεῖν. 
Then [Jesus] said to them, “They have no need to go away; You give to them to eat.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχουσιν: PAI 3p, ἔχω, 1) to have, i.e. to hold  
ἀπελθεῖν: AAInf. ἀπέρχομαι
δότε : AAImpv 2p, δίδωμι, 1) to give  2) to give something to someone
φαγεῖν: AAInf, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat
1. I find “They have no need to go away” to be an arresting phrase. The location of abundance is here, not elsewhere, the same ‘here’ (ὧδε) that the disciples will say is not a place of abundance in the next verse. What if the mantra of Jesus’ followers were, “The place of abundance is here”? How would that change everything?

17 οἱ δὲ λέγουσιν αὐτῷ, Οὐκ ἔχομεν ὧδε εἰ μὴ πέντε ἄρτους καὶ δύο ἰχθύας. 
Then they say to him, “We have nothing here except five loaves and two fish.”
λέγουσιν: PAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἔχομεν: PAI 1p, ἔχω  1) to have, to hold,
1. The voice of scarcity responds.

18 δὲ εἶπεν, Φέρετέ μοι ὧδε αὐτούς. 
Then he said, “Bring them here to me.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Φέρετέ: PAImpv 2p, φέρω, 1) to carry   1a) to carry some burden   1a1) to bear with one's self 

19 καὶ κελεύσας τοὺς ὄχλους ἀνακλιθῆναι ἐπὶ τοῦ χόρτου, λαβὼν τοὺς πέντε 
ἄρτους καὶ τοὺς δύο ἰχθύας, ἀναβλέψας εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν εὐλόγησεν καὶ 
κλάσας ἔδωκεν τοῖς μαθηταῖς τοὺς ἄρτους οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ τοῖς ὄχλοις. 
And having ordered the crowd to sit on the grass, having taken the five loaves and the two fish, having looked up into the heaven he blessed and having broken he gave to the disciples the bread then the disciples to the crowd.
κελεύσας: AAPart nsm, κελεύω, 1) to command, to order 
ἀνακλιθῆναι: APInf, ἀνακλίνω, 1) to lean against 1a) to lay down 1b) to make or bid to recline
λαβὼν: AAPart nsm, λαμβάνω, 1) to take
ἀναβλέψας: AAPart nsm, ἀναβλέπω, 1) to look up  2) to recover (lost) sight 
εὐλόγησεν: AAI 3s, εὐλογέω, 1) to praise, celebrate with praises 2) to invoke blessings  3) to consecrate a thing with solemn prayers
κλάσας: AAPart nsm, κλάω, 1) to break 
ἔδωκεν: AAI 3s, δίδωμι, 1) to give
1. “Having ordered” sounds rather strong-handed but “ordering” is creating some kind of working order, not just bossing people around.
2. A better approach to this story than “Jesus feeding the 5,000+” might be “Jesus enables the disciples to feed the 5,000+.” (Gotta have the plus sign and recognize those unnumbered women and children!)

20 καὶ ἔφαγον πάντες καὶ ἐχορτάσθησαν, καὶ ἦραν τὸ περισσεῦον τῶν 
κλασμάτων δώδεκα κοφίνους πλήρεις.
And all ate and were full, and they collected that which was left over of the fragments twelve baskets full.
ἔφαγον: AAI 3p, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing …  3) metaph. to devour, consume
ἐχορτάσθησαν: API 3p, χορτάζω, 1) to feed with herbs, grass, hay, to fill, satisfy with food, to fatten 
ἦραν: AAI 3p, αἴρω, 1) to raise up, elevate, lift up
περισσεῦον: PAPart asn, περισσεύω, 1) to exceed a fixed number of measure, to be left over and  above a certain number or measure
1. Knowing the Matthew inherited this story from Mark, still it is curious that the “miracle” is never quite pinpointed. We move from the blessing and distribution from Jesus to the disciples, in order for them to feed the crowd, to the crowd eating and the collection of twelve baskets of leftovers. There is no explanation of when or certainly how the five loaves and two fishes fed so many with leftovers, just the before-and-after enumeration that it happened. I don’t know if that is a form of good story-telling or a deliberate attempt to focus on things other than the miracle-moment.
2. Modern midrash-tendencies invite us to fill in the gaps. One such attempt says that little-by-little people began contributing what they had been hoarding for themselves, until collectively it turns out that they really did not have scarcity but had enough and more. In itself, that would be a miracle, but not a physical one. As much as I love this approach, and as much as Matthew leaves the gap of the miracle-moment empty perhaps inviting this approach, I just can’t seem to accept that this approach is what Matthew himself intended.

21 οἱ δὲ ἐσθίοντες ἦσαν ἄνδρες ὡσεὶ πεντακισχίλιοι χωρὶς γυναικῶν καὶ 
Yet the ones who ate were nearly 5,000 men, apart from women and children.
ἐσθίοντες: PAPart npm, ἐσθίω, 1) to eat  2) to eat (consume) a thing  2a) to take food, eat a meal  3) metaph. to devour, consume
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. I regret the exclusive focus on enumerating the men. Bad math.


  1. Great to read and ponder before helping feed people Sat. I'm sure there will be leftovers there too.

  2. While "gut-wrenching" is perhaps a truer expression of the Greek verb, perhaps a translation closer to the modern ear is "heart-rending" compassion. Especially since this verb is only used about 5-6 times, in every case but two expressing the compassion of Jesus towards the human condition. Its use by the father of the prodigal son and the "good samaritan" reflect the model of compassion Jesus encourages by us.

  3. Henry, that is a good point. I worry a little bit that the use of the word "heart" gets overly sentimental at times. One of my biblical professors, Mattias Rissi, used to use the phrase "sweet feelings" rather dismissively to indicate what he thought was an overly sentimental way of reading words like "love" and "forgive." I rather like the image of one doubling over in conflicted pain as a way of thinking σπλαγχνίζομαι. That used to be how people used the phrase "heart-rendering," for sure, but mostly nowadays I think that phrase has been tamed to fit into Prof. Rissi's category of "sweet feelings." I could be wrong here, but "gut-wrenching" seems much more painful and conflictual to me.
    Thanks for the comment. I've thought about it constantly since you offered it.

  4. I agree with your defense of gut-wrenching, Mark. It has more compassion and empathetic pain involved which seems more accurate for this story.

  5. "The place of abundance is here". What a statement for a struggling church (and a struggling preacher!) Thank you.

  6. The time is always now and the place is always here. Take, bless, break, and share. Abundance is revealed. Seems pretty straight forward! Thanks as always for the brain kick-start.

  7. Scott and Ruth,
    Thanks for your comments. Scripture takes us in blessed places sometimes, even when we approach it from the nerdy road. MD

  8. I suspect that the healing of the crowd and their abundant feeding go inextricably together - Jesus heals by feeding. It's not that the crowd is 'sick' but 'weak and powerless'. I wonder who controlled the bread industry then - or at least, the wheat industry. Food is often a source of exploitation. The call/command to give and share when you have something that others don't have is a radical call of the kingdom. I am slightly annoyed with the translations that use 'sit' rather than 'recline' - the point is that the crowds are at a banquet and all that implies. I wonder too a bit about the 'left-overs' - are they simply scraps? or, does it not rather mean an excess/abundance of the very same bread blessed, broken and give to be shared? The thought that generosity and abundance are indicators of the kingdom is truly 'good news' (especially to the 'poor'), but there's also something unsettling about it.


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