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Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

In Matthew chapter 15, Jesus performs a miracle. He feeds 4000 people from seven loaves of bread and “a few small fish” (Matthew 15:34). 

And yet, somehow, if you’ve been reading through Matthew, the miracle seems almost unimpressive. After all, just one chapter earlier, Jesus fed a crowd of 5000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish! (Matthew 14:13-21). As a reader, I’m thinking, Jesus, I’ve seen this miracle already, and it was better last time.

I’m only kidding that the feeding of the 4000 is unimpressive. But it does make me wonder: why did Matthew include these two miracle stories when they’re so similar? 

It’s not like Matthew recorded everything Jesus ever did. Producing a book in the ancient world was very expensive, and with scroll space at a premium, an author had to be selective about which material to include. Why include two such similar stories when one story was sufficient to make the point that Jesus can turn a little bread and a few fish into a banquet for thousands?

I was fortunate to sit under the teaching of New Testament scholar Steve Bryan during my years at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and also read a portion of his book Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God:  A Biblical Theology of Ethnicity, Nationality and Race. His insights have helped me consider these two events in a new light.

I think the answer for Matthew’s writing about two seemingly similar miracles comes when we compare the setting of the two stories. The first miracle, in chapter 14, seems to occur near Jesus’ hometown—Jewish territory. If you follow the geographical movements of Jesus in chapter 15, the second miracle occurs in Gentile territory. These recipients of Jesus’ second banquet were outsiders, people who didn’t previously believe in “the God of Israel” (Matthew 15:31).

 

Bread for Jews, Bread for Gentiles

During a lecture, Dr. Bryan pointed out that there is a broader theme that links most of chapters 14-16 in Matthew: bread. Jesus feeds bread to the 5000, which is followed shortly thereafter by a dispute with the Pharisees about food traditions, and Jesus reminds them that it’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out (Matthew 15:1-20). These stories are balanced by the feeding of the 4000, and a warning from Jesus, after the disciples realized they had forgotten to bring bread on their journey,  to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:5-6). 

In his book, Bryan notes that right in the center of these stories is an interaction between Jesus and a Canaanite woman. In the Old Testament, Canaanites were the classic enemies of the Israelites, and the epitome of wickedness and rebellion against God’s design for the world.

This Canaanite woman asks Jesus to heal her daughter, and he initially refuses, saying, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). There’s that word again: bread. The question that’s hanging in the balance at this point in Matthew is: Is Jesus’ ministry (his bread) only for Israel, or for everyone?

The Canaanite woman persists: “Yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). Her point: isn’t there enough bread for us too, even if it’s just the crumbs?

Jesus commends her faith, and her daughter is healed. A crowd of Gentiles gathers around Jesus, and he heals them, too (Matthew 15:29-31), followed by the repetition of his crowd feeding miracle, this time for a Gentile crowd. 

Jesus’ answer to the Canaanite woman’s question back in verse 27 is a definitive YES. There’s plenty of bread. Bread enough for Jews. Bread enough for Gentiles. Bread enough for all. Jesus’ ministry is for everyone, and it’s the faithful persistence of a most unlikely person, a Canaanite woman, that stands out at the center of these stories about bread.

 

Cultivating an Abundance Mindset

It’s a human impulse this side of the fall to fear that somehow there won’t be enough. We fear and we hoard and we hold others at arm’s length because we want to protect what is ours. But these narratives from the Gospel of Matthew remind us that a kingdom mindset knows that there’s more than enough bread

We don’t have to be afraid that we won’t have enough, because our God can take a meal meant for a small family and feed an army. We can live with abundant generosity. We can share from the bounty that God has given us. Because God is not limited by our resources.

And our abundance mindset shouldn’t just be focused on those we consider to be “our people.” After all, Jesus fed Jews and Gentiles alike. And he also said, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, don’t invite your friends, your brothers or sisters, your relatives, or your rich neighbors, because they might invite you back, and you would be repaid. On the contrary, when you host a banquet, invite those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).

It’s easy for us to share with our friends and our families. But Jesus challenges us to share with those who can’t pay us back. And, as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to share even with those we might consider our enemies (Luke 10:25-37).

How can we cultivate more of an abundance mindset? Who is the equivalent of the Canaanite woman in your life— the person or people group that God also loves deeply, for whom his Son also died and was raised to life, for whom, God may be reminding you, there’s more than enough bread?

 

Additional Resource:

Cultural Identity and the Purposes of God by Steven M. Bryan

Mercy for a Murderer

Mercy for a Murderer

I have been thinking a lot about the story of Cain and Abel recently. I think one of the reasons that so much of God’s word is written as a narrative is because stories are easy to remember and meditate on. And as we meditate on the story, we ask questions and examine it from different angles and begin to notice new things.

That’s when God shows me things about himself that I hadn’t seen as clearly before. It’s like there’s something beneath the surface that God really wants us to see, but it takes a little work to find it. And when we find it, God’s beauty and majesty shine even brighter than they did before. I hope you’ve had this experience.

 

Why Didn’t God Put Cain to Death?

That brings me back to Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Like many Bible stories, it raises more questions than answers. Why did God favor Abel’s offering over Cain’s? Where is the door where sin is crouching? Who are the people Cain is worried will kill him? Where did Cain’s wife come from? What is the sign that God makes for Cain? 

But the question that stands out, and has revealed the most about God’s character is this: Why didn’t God put Cain to death? Just a few chapters later, God will declare that murder is a capital offense (Genesis 9:5-6). This will be repeated in the laws to Israel:

“Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:12)

“Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:17)

“You shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death.” (Numbers 35:31)

If God’s standard of justice is that a murderer should be put to death, was God being inconsistent with his own standard when he spared Cain’s life? 

 

The Tension of God’s Justice and Mercy

I don’t think this is a trivial question. It’s not as simple as, “those laws came later.” Because if God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow (Hebrews 13:8), then his standards do not change. And even if it would be unfair to hold humans accountable to a standard they are not aware of, surely he would hold himself accountable to it.

So why didn’t God put Cain to death? I don’t know that we can say for sure. But this story highlights a tension in the Bible between God’s mercy and his retributive justice (giving people what they deserve). It is God’s prerogative to have mercy on whom he will have mercy (Exodus 33:19). And what this story seems to highlight is that God really wants to show mercy. 

It’s not that God never chooses retributive justice. Just keep reading the rest of the Bible, not to mention the flood story that follows a few chapters after Cain and Abel! But it seems that God doesn’t have to choose it in every circumstance it could be applied. Perhaps in some cases it is better not to. In God’s wisdom, he can decide that perfectly. And in this case, by his wisdom, he decides it is better to have mercy on Cain.

 

What About Us?

What about us? When we have been wronged, are we eager to “throw the book” at the perpetrator to see them experience the consequences of what they’ve done? Do we rejoice when someone who has broken the law gets caught and punished?

I am not arguing that there shouldn’t be laws, or that there shouldn’t be punishments. What I am saying is that it takes wisdom to know how to apply them well. God seems to be eager to show mercy when it is wise to do so, and maybe we ought to be more eager to be merciful as well. Rather than our consuming thought being, “I hope they get what they deserve” may we instead look for ways to demonstrate mercy wisely. 

The New Testament writer James wrote that, “Judgment is without mercy to the one who has not shown mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13, CSB). 

After all, as Christians we are the objects of God’s incredible mercy. If we were to demand strict retributive justice over others, we would be condemning ourselves, since the just punishment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Thank God that he has been merciful to you and me!

May God grant us wisdom as we seek to be merciful as our Father in heaven is merciful. Even if it means being merciful to a murderer like Cain.

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Joy to the World, Advent Is Come!

Tomorrow marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season in which we anticipate the coming of Jesus, our promised king. In Luke 1:32-33, the angelic messenger tells Mary that the son she will bear “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

 

The Promised King

The hope for the coming of this promised king goes back to the Old Testament, where it is foretold, among other places, in the Psalms. We’re calling our Advent sermon series The Promised King, and we’ll explore how the Psalms point to King Jesus. 

Additionally, we’ve designed theFormed.life to function as an Advent devotional, in which you will meditate on a particular psalm during the week before the sermon on Sunday morning. As part of this Advent devotional, we’re also encouraging you to meditate on the lyrics of a Christmas hymn each Saturday. 

 

Joy to the World

Today’s Christmas hymn is Joy to the World written in 1719 by the prolific hymn writer Isaac Watts. Some have said that Joy to the World isn’t actually a Christmas hymn because Watts wrote it with Christ’s second coming in mind, not his first. The lyrics Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Let earth receive her king refers to Jesus’ return when he ultimately and finally ushers in his coming kingdom.

When Jesus returns, the curse of Genesis 3 will be no more, which is acknowledged in the third stanza of Joy to the World

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found. 

While the curse in Genesis 3 brought “thorns and thistles” (Genesis 3:18), Watts points out that Jesus’ coming has an altogether different effect on creation: 

And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and nature sing
And heav’n and heav’n and nature sing
Fields and floods
Rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy

 

Creation Sings!

The idea of creation crying out to God in praise is deeply biblical. It comes from places like Isaiah 55:12  the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands; Luke 19:40. I tell you, if these [disciples] were silent, the very stones would cry out; and Psalm 148, which is an entire song dedicated to the idea of creation voicing praise to its creator. No longer held back by the curse of Genesis 3, all creation bursts into glorious praise. 

But if Joy to the World is about Christ’s second coming, why sing it at Christmas? We sing it because Christmas is as much about Christ’s second coming as it is about his first coming. During the Christmas season, we look back at what God has done through Christ’s first coming, and at the same time look forward in anticipation to his second coming. We remember that what he accomplished at his first coming serves as a guarantee of what is yet to come when he returns.

 

Advent is about Anticipation

The anticipation of Advent isn’t about Christmas parties, delicious Christmas dinners, and piles of Christmas presents. It is the anticipation of the second arrival of our Promised King who, when he comes again, will complete the work that he started two millennia ago as a baby in the little town of Bethlehem. In the meantime, we proclaim now a song that all of creation will sing then:

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love.

What Would It Look Like If We Treated Others the Way God Treats Us?

What Would It Look Like If We Treated Others the Way God Treats Us?

For many, Ruth is an obscure Old Testament story that only gets attention during a Read the Bible in a Year plan, its brevity a relief as one plods through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. But Ruth has become my favorite book of the Bible.

The book of Ruth is a gem that you don’t want to miss out on. It is not just the historical account that helps bridge the genealogical gap to the birth of King David (Ruth 4:18-22), but it’s also so much more. I believe that this brilliant little book is meant to spark our imaginations; to ask, what would it look like if we treated each other the way God treats us?

In the book, there are no bad characters. There are only normal people (such as Naomi’s daughter-in-law Orpah and the unnamed relative in chapter four) and exceptional people (the three main characters). Observe the behavior of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz, and you will see that their every action is driven by the principle of doing what is best for everyone around them. 

 

Sacrificial Love

Even in her grief over losing her husband and two sons, Naomi only wants what is best for her daughters-in-law, even though it might cost her the last two close relationships that she has. 

Ruth’s unending loyalty to Naomi (and to Naomi’s God) won’t allow her to leave her mother-in-law’s side. She takes an enormous personal risk to leave her land and her people to travel to a foreign place with Naomi, and every action she takes in the book is geared toward Naomi’s benefit.

Boaz uses his position as a wealthy landowner not for his own benefit, but to provide abundantly for his relative Naomi and her immigrant daughter-in-law. Like Ruth and Naomi, his kindness (in Hebrew hesed) overflows from his character – he can’t help but give and give and give to these two destitute women.

Every action that these three characters take is for the benefit of the others. Naomi just wants what is best for Ruth. Ruth wants what is best for Naomi. And Boaz wants what is best for Naomi and Ruth, and his status puts him in a position to accomplish the great act of redemption that occurs in chapter four.

 

Redemption

The book of Ruth is a foretaste of the great act of redemption that God would accomplish for us through Jesus. And it is also a beautiful picture of what the family of God could look like if we all looked out for others’ interests ahead of our own (Philippians 2:4). 

What would it look like if we treated each other the way God treats us? The book of Ruth paints this picture, and I believe it is meant to inspire us to “go and do likewise.” If you haven’t read it in a while, I encourage you to do so a few times over the next couple of weeks. And ask yourself, what would it look like if I treated others the way that God treats me?

Is Reconciliation Possible? A Lesson from Africa

Is Reconciliation Possible? A Lesson from Africa

On December 26, 2021, one of my personal heroes passed away. Desmond Tutu was the former Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and he died at the age of 90. Tutu led the church through a time of intense suffering, and also led the way in offering reconciliation and forgiveness.

Tutu was a leader of the church in South Africa during the time of apartheid, which means “apart-hood” or “separateness.” Apartheid was essentially a racial caste system with the white South African minority at the top and the black South African majority at the bottom. Land was stolen from black South Africans, cities were segregated into rich and poor based on skin color, and the system was enforced through state-sponsored violence, in particular by a brutal secret police force. The system lasted from the late 1940s until the early 1990s.

When the apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela was elected president in 1994, South Africa was faced with the problem of how to deal with their past. One option would be to hunt down all the perpetrators: those who had upheld the system by passing unjust laws and overseeing sham trials, and those who committed violent acts in order to enforce it. This option was rejected because it would likely hinder reconciliation, and potentially continue a never-ending cycle of retribution.

Another option was to simply move on. To proclaim amnesty for the perpetrators and get on with life under a new and better political system. But this option was also unsavory: it would provide no accountability, no justice for the victims, no repairing of what had been broken.

South African leaders settled on a third option. They formed what was called the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and Desmond Tutu was tabbed to lead it. The goal of the TRC was to uncover truth and foster reconciliation and forgiveness. All perpetrators of apartheid violence, even those who had committed the most heinous acts, were given two options: make a full confession of your crimes before the Commission and receive amnesty, or be liable to criminal charges if they were eventually uncovered.

There was one more important element for those who chose to confess their crimes before the TRC. The confession would be televised live across the country, and families of the victims would be invited to attend in person. In order to be forgiven in the eyes of the new political regime, the truth had to be publicly proclaimed.

When I think about the unfolding war in Ukraine, about the challenges here in the United States that have to do with increasingly clashing worldviews, or how to move forward from the various injustices that mark our own history, I see the principles behind the TRC as an intriguing model.

This is not to say that the TRC fixed all the problems in South Africa. Or that it would be realistic to set up the same kind of commission in the United States. I’m not offering a solution to the problems that plague our country. But I do want to spark our imagination. For reconciliation to happen, the truth must come out. Reconciliation involves both confession and forgiveness. It involves examining ourselves and confessing the role that we have played. And what’s so interesting about the TRC is the role that the church played.

Desmond Tutu was picked to lead the TRC in part because a proper theology, a right understanding of both God and humans, was needed to pursue the work of reconciliation and forgiveness. Hear him describe the role of theology in the work of the TRC:

 

So frequently we in the commission were quite appalled at the depth of depravity to which human beings could sink and we would, most of us, say that those who committed such dastardly deeds were monstrous because the deeds were monstrous. But theology prevents us from doing this. Theology reminded me that, however diabolical the act, it did not turn the perpetrator into a demon. We had to distinguish between the deed and the perpetrator, between the sinner and the sin….  If, however, they were dismissed as being monsters they could not by definition engage in a process that was so deeply personal as that of forgiveness and reconciliation…. 

 

I realized how each of us has the capacity for the most awful evil – every one of us. None of us could predict that if we had been subjected to the same influences, the same conditioning, we would not have turned out like these perpetrators. This is not to condone or excuse what they did. It is to be filled more and more with the compassion of God, looking on and weeping that one of His beloved had come to such a sad pass. We have to say to ourselves with deep feeling, not with a cheap pietism, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

 

And mercifully and wonderfully, as I listened to the stories of victims I marveled at their magnanimity, that after so much suffering, instead of lusting for revenge, they had this extraordinary willingness to forgive….This is a moral universe, which means that, despite all the evidence that seems to be to the contrary, there is no way that evil and injustice and oppression and lies can have the last word. For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.

 

 Those who had strutted about arrogantly in the days of apartheid, dealing out death and injustice… had never imagined in their wildest dreams that their involvement in machinations and abominations hatched out in secret would ever see the light of day…. Now it was all coming out, not as wild speculation or untested allegations. No, it was gushing forth from the mouths of perpetrators themselves… Those ghastly and macabre secrets might have remained hidden except that this is a moral universe and truth will out.


And the victory was for all of us, black and white together – the rainbow people of God.”  (Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, 83-87)


The work of reconciliation is costly. It is costly for perpetrators, because it means confessing the truth about what we’ve done, and the harm that we have caused. And it is costly for the victims, because it means revoking our claim on justice and retribution. Oftentimes what is lost can never be replaced.

But we follow a Messiah who bore an inconceivable cost to reconcile us to himself. Who, while hanging on the cross in great physical agony, asked for his Father to forgive those committing the greatest act of injustice of all time (Luke 23:34). 

The Apostle Paul tells us that we who trust Jesus are now agents of his reconciliation in the world (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). May we learn from the humility and creativity of Desmond Tutu and our South African brothers and sisters in Christ as we go about that work in our world today.