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