What I have observed during my preparation of sermons to preach here at St. Mark’s is that the Bible narratives are full of threads that are woven to form various patterns that make up the great tapestry of the Bible story.
In reading the text of today’s Gospel, with Matthew’s account of the feeding miracle, I can identify three of these patterns.
First, there is the pattern of withdrawal and being with others that repeats itself. If we consider today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is initially alone up the mountain and then the crowd, amazed at his power to heal, come to him. Having been fed, the crowd are sent away and Jesus departs to sail to the region of Magadan. A similar pattern of withdrawal and being with others can be found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke with their accounts of the feeding miracle. In Luke Jesus withdraws ‘privately to a city called Bethsaida’. Then the crowds seek him out. In Mark the disciples are asked by Jesus to ‘come away to a deserted place all by yourselves’. They do so in a boat, yet as they come ashore the crowds are waiting for them. In John’s Gospel we read that Jesus is trying to be withdrawn by the sea of Galilee but ‘a large crowd kept following him’. Having fed the crowd Jesus retreats up a mountain.
So what does this pattern of withdrawal and being in company signify in the Bible? One answer is given at the end of John’s account when he writes that Jesus ‘withdrew to the mountain by himself’ because he believed he was going to be taken by force to ‘make him King’. This earthly kingship would have directly contradicted the Christological understanding of Jesus as the new Moses, healer of Israel and servant of the Lord. Withdrawal, then, was an immediate response to an attempt to force him into a wrongful position. It also reflected the fact that by the time of the feeding of the multitude, Jesus was coming to a head with the authorities who were accusing him of acting through the power of Satan.
If we look at the bigger picture, the place of withdrawal in the Bible is often as not the mountain. Key moments in the Bible narrative involve individual characters in communion with God on a mountain because, as Ian Boxall writes in his book ‘Discovering Matthew’, the mountain is a place of revelation and empathy with the divine’. From this we can say that withdrawal is an essential part of the Bible story.
My second pattern concerns use of bread in the Bible. Here there is a repeated pattern of blessing, breaking and giving bread that features in today’s Gospel reading that has an ancestry in the ancient ritual of the daily Jewish meal. From the Old Testament on into the New, bread symbolises God’s relationship with man. From the Festival of the Unleavened Bread, through the feeding miracle of today’s Gospel reading, the Last Supper, and the supper at Emmaus, God is revealing his covenantal relationship with mankind. Thus the miracle of the loaves and fishes anticipates the Eucharist and the Eucharist anticipates the Messianic banquet of the kingdom.
My final pattern is the numbers that re-occur in the Bible. Each time they re-occur they may contain a different meaning or revert back to an earlier meaning. In order to understand their meaning we need to comprehend their symbolic significance. Let us look then at the symbolic significance of some of the numbers as numbers feature heavily in the feeding miracle. In Matthew we have the feeding of the 4,000 with 7 loaves and a few small fish and 7 baskets for the fragments. In Mark, Luke and John we have 5,000 people being fed with 5 loaves and 2 fishes and 12 baskets for the fragments. There is a discrepancy in the numbers in these narratives but we can make sense of them if we seek their symbolic significance which varies as they re-occur in the Bible.
The number 12 symbolise the 12 tribes of Israel. This number reappears in the New Testament with the appointment of the 12 Apostles. It then appears again in the feeding miracle where, as Ian Boxall writes, it represents the 12 tribes of Israel that are the lost sheep being fed. Here is has reverted back to its earlier meaning. Another example is the number 7 which is given in Genesis as the day of rest when God has finished his creation. In the feeding miracle it represents the Gentile nations so this miracle is a feeding of the nations. It appears again in the Book of Revelation with the 7 angels blowing the 7 trumpets. We might conclude from this that the number 7, as it features in the beginning and the end of the Bible story, has the most powerful significance in terms of the Divine.
These patterns then, and others that emerge as we read the Bible, make up the great tapestry of God’s relationship with mankind from Genesis to Revelation. If we stand back and view the tapestry as a whole we find compassion emanating from it in the feeding of the needy. We also find in the gathering up of the fragments of food into baskets the call to avoid waste. Compassion is echoed today in our endeavours to feed the hungry, particularly in the current health crisis. As we continue with these endeavours I believe we show our trust in the love of God for us all.