Reactions to Jesus (preaching resource for 8/6/23, 10th Sunday after Pentecost)
This post exegetes Matthew 13:53-16:12, providing context for the RCL Gospel reading for 8/6/23. It draws on "Kingdom, Grace, Judgment" by Robert Capon, "New Bible Commentary" by RT France, and "Bible Knowledge Commentary" by Louis Barbieri.
In Matthew 13:53-16:12 the evangelist utilized ten stories to illustrate various ways people react to Jesus. Some are positive; others are negative. Matthew is setting the stage for a pivotal moment in his Gospel, namely Peter’s profession of faith in Jesus as the very Son of God (Matt. 16:13-20). This turning point will be followed by stunning revelations confirming what Peter affirms. Matthew’s intent is that his first-century Jewish-Chrsitian readers will be strengthened in their faith in Jesus, despite the opposition they are facing at that time. May our faith be strengthened as well!
1. Hometown disbelief
Matthew 13:53-58. Since the fourth chapter of Matthew, Jesus has been based in Capernaum from where he ministered (and became quite famous) in the region located nearby the Sea of Galilee. Now he returns to the hill village of Nazareth, his hometown. This provokes a predictable reaction—the locals take offense at him (v57). Indeed, as often noted in Proverbs, familiarity does breed contempt. Like his own family earlier (Matt. 12:46–50), the locals do not take Jesus seriously. They are unable to view him through eyes of faith (v58). All they can see is what they had experienced—Jesus as the son and apprentice of Joseph, an unremarkable building contractor (the role of carpenter at the time). Note that Jesus’ relatives include several brothers and sisters (children of Joseph and Mary after Jesus was born; his brother James later became a leader in the church).
2. Royal threats
Matthew 14:1-12. Herod the tetrarch (son of Herod the Great, who is mentioned in association with Jesus’ birth), rules Galilee on behalf of the Roman government. He hears of Jesus’ miracles. This knowledge, combined with a guilty conscience because he earlier executed John the Baptist, leads him now to draw the bizarre conclusion that Jesus is John risen from the dead! The last mention of John by Matthew has him in prison (Matt. 4:12; 11:2). Now Matthew explains what has happened since. Herod and his wife Herodias had both divorced their former spouses in order to marry. This union was thus not only religiously scandalous (Jewish law forbade it), but also politically imprudent. John’s outspoken condemnation of the marriage would have further damaged Herod’s reputation among his Jewish subjects. John thus became a threat to Herod’s political security. And so Herod had him imprisoned, then (as explained in this passage) executed. In reporting John’s execution to Jesus, John’s disciples show that they recognize Jesus as the Baptist’s true ‘successor,’ as Matt. 11:7–19 has already indicated and as Jesus will further affirm in Matt. 21:23–32. Jesus’ subsequent withdrawal (v13, below) suggests that he is aware of the danger of this association in Herod’s eyes.
|"Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes" by Tissot (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
3. Crowd fed
Matthew 14:13-21. Luke’s account of this event tells us that the solitary place mentioned by Matthew is near Bethsaida, across the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, and outside Herod’s territory. That a large crowd was anxious to follow Jesus there may suggest, as John 6:14–15 makes clear, that this is no chance gathering, but a deliberate popular movement to try to force Jesus into taking political action (the kind of action they expected of the promised Messiah). However, Matthew does not draw attention to this fact. For him, this story demonstrates Jesus’ compassion and miraculous powers. His Jewish-Christian readers would have understood the parallel to two feeding miracles in the Old Testament: the provision of manna in the desert (Ex 16) and Elisha’s similar multiplication of loaves (2Kings 4:42–44). Matthew is once again presenting Jesus as the ‘one greater’ (Matt. 12:6, 41, 42) than the prophets.
To eat together is a symbol of fellowship and unity. Jesus acts here as the host of a large family gathering—note the mention of men, women and children in v21b. He is thus welcoming this cross-generational crowd into his new family.
While the menu of the meal is ordinary (loaves and fish are the basic Galilean peasant diet), Matthew apparently wants us to see this meal as a foretaste of the promised Messianic banquet for 'sit down' (v19) is a relatively formal word for reclining at a banquet. Moreover, the verbs in v19 (take, give thanks, break, and give) are used in the New Testament accounts of the Last Supper. So though this meal satisfies physical hunger (v20), Matthew apparently sees it as a symbolic act of spiritual communion in the newly established kingdom of heaven.
By his challenge in v16, Jesus deliberately draws the disciples into the action, using for the supper the meager provisions which they are able to supply. Through their direct involvement, (and perhaps particularly through the remarkable experience of cleaning up far more than they provided in the first place!) they will remember and learn from the occasion—a lesson that later will be tested (see Matt. 16:5–12).
4. Peter’s response
Matthew 14:22-33. The public miracle of the loaves is now followed by one witnessed only by Jesus’ disciples. This miracle shows Jesus’ authority over nature, and its effect is to lead the disciples to an important insight—Jesus possesses more than human power (v33)—truly his is the Son of God!
This incident occurs in rough weather on the lake before dawn (the fourth watch is 3–6 a.m.). It is hardly surprising that the disciples’ reaction to the sudden appearance of Jesus beside them is terror and their fearful cry, ‘It’s a ghost’. But somehow Peter pushes through the fear and makes this extraordinary proposal to join Jesus in walking on the water.
Is this a presumptuous, foolhardy reaction or one of faith? After all, Peter typically appears in the gospels as impulsive and rash. But the fact that Jesus encourages Peter, and that he is initially successful in walking on the water, suggests that Matthew sees this as a genuine act of faith, even though it is not sufficient to survive the crisis.
At any rate, by the end of the story Peter has become an example of little faith and of doubt, an object-lesson for disciples who are tempted to take their eyes off Jesus and to take more notice of the threatening circumstances around them. This is also preparing us for Peter’s more thoughtful declaration concerning Jesus being the Son of God in Matt. 16:16.
5. Faith in Jesus as healer
Matthew 14:34-36. Back in Herod’s territory, Jesus is again the center of attention. His healing ministry must have been wide-spread, for word has spread and people flock to him believing that he is able to heal the sick. And that is what he does.
6. Jerusalem’s religious leaders take offense
Matthew 15:1-20. Once again, opposition to Jesus comes from the Pharisees and teachers of the law. But this time there is a sinister addition: they are from Jerusalem. This is perhaps an official delegation sent to investigate Jesus. It will be increasingly clear from this point forward that it is from Jerusalem that Jesus must expect trouble (Matt. 16:21; 20:18).
To wash their hands before they eat is a religious ritual, not mere hygiene. Whereas Old Testament law requires such washing only of priests when they are serving (Ex. 30:17–21), the Pharisees apply this rule to daily life. And they expect Jesus to uphold it among his disciples. But he doesn’t! And now Jesus responds to their accusation by attacking their attitude concerning religious authority. By insisting on their religious tradition they are in effect setting aside the command of God. Jesus thus draws a sharp distinction between Old Testament law (the word of God, v6) and human rules and regulations. His quotation here from Isa 29:13 indicates that a religion based on the latter is empty and displeases God.
To illustrate, Jesus refers to the way these leaders undermine the Old Testament principle of respect for one’s parents (Ex 20:12; 21:17). Their rulings allow a man to keep his property out of his parents’ reach by nominally dedicating it to God (while in practice retaining the use of it for himself). By this religious fraud, the Old Testament provision for vows is twisted to a purpose that nullifies a basic precept of the Law.
Jesus then goes beyond merely defending the Law. In returning to the specific question of clean and unclean in v11, he lays down a radical principle of the new covenant, which will ultimately lead his followers to abandon Old Testament food laws altogether. He states that ‘unclean-ness’ is not contracted by what you eat, but comes from inside. This is the lesson which Peter will later find so hard to grasp (see Acts 10:9–15), but until it is learned by the early church, the food laws of Israel hinder the church from welcoming non-Jewish members on equal terms. Matthew does not here spell out these implications (though Mark does in Mark 7:19), but the principle is clear enough, and vv17–20 explain it yet more clearly.
7. A Gentile woman’s faith
Matthew 15:21-28. The issue of ritual defilement now recurs in a more practical form. Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, has moved into Gentile territory and there is confronted by a Gentile woman with a demon-possessed daughter. The dialogue which results focuses on the question of how far a Gentile might expect any benefit from the Jewish Messiah (Son of David). By describing the woman as a Canaanite, Matthew sharpens the issue. The Canaanites were the traditional enemies of Israel.
Jesus’ initial silence (v23) is followed by an even more daunting statement of the Jewish focus of his mission (v24; and compare Matt. 10:5–6). His words seem to leave no room for hope. However, the woman persists and makes an appeal for help, only to be confronted by a yet more wounding saying, comparing Gentiles with dogs (which for the Jews were unclean animals).
This language from Jesus seems incredibly harsh, especially when spoken by the same Jesus who earlier welcomed the faith of the Gentile centurion as a pointer to Gentiles sharing in Israel’s blessings. Perhaps Jesus spoke these words in a playful tone. At any rate, he is confronting her with the sort of language that Gentiles expect from Jews, and her faith rises to this test. Her reply in v27 recognizes the priority of Jesus’ mission to Israel but, nonetheless, claims an extension of that mission to Gentiles. She has thus perceived the plan to which God has been working ever since the call of Abraham (Gen 12:1–3), and which would in due time extend the church outside the bounds of Israel. For this remarkable faith she is appropriately rewarded.
8. Gentiles respond in faith and praise
Matthew 15:29-31. Just as Jesus healed large numbers of Jews (14:34–36), now he heals large numbers of Gentiles. Mark tells us that this event occurs in the Decapolis, a Gentile region on the south-east side of the Sea of Galilee. This event flows appropriately from Jesus’ acceptance of the Gentile’s response of faith to his healing power (vv21–28). The acclamation of the God of Israel (v31b), confirms that these crowds are not Jewish.
9. Gentiles fed
Matthew 15:32-39. Following so closely on the account of the miraculous feeding in Matt. 14:13–21, this account may seem like unnecessary repetition. However, they are not the same event (notice the difference in numbers). The significance of this feeding lies in the context in which it occurs, as part of the extension of Jesus’ ministry into Gentile territory (see Matt. 15:21, and note that it is not until v39 that Jesus returns to the Jewish side of the lake). Thus we have here a deliberate repetition of the Jewish feeding miracle, but this time for a Gentile crowd who has just praised the God of Israel (Matt. 15:31b). If the feeding of the 5,000 was a foretaste of the Messianic banquet, then this story indicates (as Matt. 8:11–12 has already predicted) that Gentiles too are to share in Israel’s ultimate blessing.
10. Jewish skepticism
Matthew 16:1-12. On a brief return to Jewish territory, Jesus again encounters opposition from the Jewish religious leadership. For their request for a sign from heaven and the refusal from Jesus for any except the sign of Jonah. The key issue here is the notable contrast between this Jewish skepticism and the enthusiastic response of the Gentile crowds. The questioners here are both Pharisees and Sadducees. The theological views and policies of these groups are markedly different, yet they now cooperate in opposing Jesus. That opposition will quickly grow and take a deadly turn.
Jesus earlier used yeast to symbolize growth of the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 13:33), but now he uses it to symbolize the power of evil to extend its influence (Paul uses this metaphor in a similar way in 1Cor 5:6–8 and Gal 5:9). The Jewish leaders’ demand for a sign from Jesus indicates their insidious resistance to Jesus’ mission. Jesus does not want his disciples to succumb to their skepticism. The disciples’ minds, however, are more on material concerns. They think Jesus is talking about real bread! Their mindset reflect that they have very little faith at this point, especially considering that they have now twice witnessed Jesus miraculously meeting physical needs.
These ten stories paint quite a picture. The disciples are learning to have faith in Jesus—coming to understand more and more who he truly is. At the same time, the Jewish religious authorities grow more skeptical. And all the while, Gentiles are growing more receptive (Who knew?). These are concepts Matthew wants the first century Jewish-Christian churches to grasp because they seem to be succumbing to skepticism. The Holy Spirit wants us to learn from these stories as well. How do we view Jesus? Skepticism? Doubt? Or openness, enthusiasm and faith?