From Poverty to Praise - Matthew 15:29-39

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 7th May 2006.

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It proved to be a most moving occasion, quite surprising really for a lecture on business being delivered by one of the most successful entrepreneurs of his generation. “As you know,” he told his captivated audience, “I have been very fortunate in my career and I’ve made a lot of money- far more than I ever dreamed of, far more than I could spend, far more than my family needs.”  The singleness of mind and strength of character was obvious to everyone as he spoke, but a moment’s hesitation betrayed deeper emotions behind the outward intensity as a single tear ran down his well- tanned cheek. “ To be honest”, the speaker went on, “ one of my motives for making so much money was simple- to have the money to hire people to do what I don’t like doing. But there’s one thing I’ve never been able to hire anyone to do for me: find my own sense of purpose and fulfilment. I’d give anything to discover that.”

It may have been a little late, but you see, that man had discovered the futility of what is now becoming to be known as the ‘spirituality of consumption’-that is, the belief that since we live in a world which has come from nowhere and is going nowhere, our sense of well being is only to be found through what we wear, what we eat, what we drink and where we live. That is the stuff of the Sunday supplements and many a TV show is it not? But it is not a new philosophy, why it is even mentioned in the Bible by the apostle Paul on at least two occasions. The technical term is ‘Epicureanism’, named after the Greek philosopher who taught it, but it can simply be summed up by the saying, ‘Eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.’  Of course some do try to live by this creed, like Jack Welch, former Chief Executive Officer to General Electric in the United States. When he retired the company continued to provide him with a luxury apartment in central park, free travel on company jets, together with flowers, furniture, opera tickets and even stamps. And when he had a close brush with death a few years ago requiring heart surgery, do you know what conclusion he came to about life? He said, “I learned I didn’t spend enough money.” As a result he vowed he would never again drink wine that cost less than $100 a bottle. But, if this life is all there is- then why not?  

You see, what we are lapsing into in the West is a new form of paganism. It is DIY self-help spirituality through the possession of things. But while it may superficially provide some short term gain, it can never satisfy the deep aching inside. Like all idols it leaves us short changed.

But let me ask: what happens when the true God steps into our situation? When our felt needs are seen for what they are- symptoms of a deeper need?  Well, to find out the answer, turn with me to that fascinating account we have of an episode in the life of Jesus as recorded for us in Matthew 15:29ff.

The first thing we come across is a universal need- vv 29-31 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. 31The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.

Now the location is very important. You see, Jesus and his disciples have moved to the south east side of the Sea of Galilee. This, as far as the Jews were concerned was Indian country- non-Jewish, Gentile territory. A no go area if ever there was one. This is the region known as the Decapolis, which, as the name suggests, was a place occupied by ten city states in which the pagan Greek influence would have been very strong (In Greek, deka means ten and polis - city). So this is not the sort of place in which any self-respecting Jewish teacher would want to linger for any length of time. But as we see in verse 32 Jesus stays there for at least three whole days. And it is a place steeped in pagan idolatry. Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an elegant amphitheatre, forums and countless statues and monuments honouring the gods of the Greek pantheon- Zeus, Diana, Aphrodite, Dionysus. So these are religious people, sophisticated people, and in many ways prosperous people.

But for all their religion, education, sophistication and prosperity they were like the people in every other city on earth, plagued by the results of the fall, all signs of a world out of sorts with its Maker – the crippled, the blind, the dumb, the diseased. Problems which their pagan gods could not even begin to address and which their money could not buy off.

Now notice the two things Jesus does when he arrives in v29. First he goes to a mountain and sits down. This is not because he is tired and needs a rest; it is because he wants to teach the people God’s Word. The mountainside would provide a natural amphitheatre to carry his voice, the sitting position is the posture of an authoritative teacher, like when we speak of someone having a ‘chair’ at a university. In fact we see Jesus doing the same sort of thing earlier on in the gospel in chapter 5 where we read, ‘When he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them.’ And so we have the Sermon on the Mount. But what is different here is that these crowds are not made up of Jews, the chosen people, but of Gentiles- those who have no relationship with the one true God. And obviously God wants them to, that is why Jesus is here, teaching them as he taught others, bringing God’s Word to their needy situation.

But the second thing he did was to cure the sick- v30 ‘Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others and laid them at his feet; and he healed them’. You might have thought that Matthew could have given us more of a description of what went one-but all he says is ‘he healed them.’ Matthew is the master of the understatement isn’t he? We want to shout:  ‘Come on Matthew, tell us more’

Well, whilst Matthew may not have given us much by way of description of the healings themselves he does tell us the reaction of the people to the effects of the healings, v 31 ‘The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.’   Now just let the enormity of that description sink in. The trouble is we are so used to hearing about ‘Jesus healing’ or have images of so called healing campaigns on the God-channel, that the shear uniqueness of what is taking place here is lost on us. When Matthew speaks of ‘the crippled’ the word he uses is, ‘kullos’.  Sure it is a word used to describe limbs which can’t function, like a paralysed leg. But it also includes mutilation or total loss of a limb. It is the same word Jesus uses in Matthew 18 when he says if your hand offends you ‘cut it off.’ So this means that people, who came with only one arm, went away with two. Those who arrived without an eye had an eye replaced. This is not some psychosomatic healings going on- we are speaking of something never having been seen before in the history of the world and that is why the people were ‘amazed.’

Just begin to envisage the scene with me: Can you picture the blind husband seeing his wife for the first time? His eyes gazing into her tear filled ones like she was the only woman on earth? Imagine the man who has never walked. Can’t you see him running and dancing with his kids? They have never seen their Dad do this. And what about the mute who has never been able to say a word in his life?  Do you see him there sitting by the fire late into the night talking? Saying and singing everything he had wanted to say and sing but couldn’t?  And what about the deaf woman who could now hear. What was it like for her when she heard her child say to her ‘Mamma, I love you’ for the very first time? And for three days this went on. Person after person. Mat after mat. Crutch after crutch. Tear after tear. Smile after smile.

And who did they thank for this? Zeus? Aphrodite, the Ecclesiastical Insurance Company?  No. It was the ‘God of Israel.’ For no other god had either the inclination to do this- the Greek gods were selfish and capricious; nor the power- they were not able to trespass into another god’s territory. But what we have here is a visible, tangible demonstration of the nature of the one true God in Jesus Christ.

And this brings us to our next point, a universal concern. The real God is not stuck up on mount Olympus out of reach and out of sight in perfect seclusion from the plight of his subjects; no, he is there on that mount getting stuck in. His brow is getting hot, his hands are getting sweaty, his body is getting tired as hour after hour and day after day he heals and teaches, and still the people keep coming, thousands of them.  According to verse 38 there were 4,000 men plus women and children. Some have estimated this to be between 10 and 20 thousand folk in all- that is enough people to fill the single tier of the KC stadium. Can you imagine that?

What is more, he is a God who is for all people and the whole person. This is not a God whose concern is restricted to his own little group- Israel- for he is dealing with pagan Gentiles. Nor is he a God whose concern is simply with people’s spiritual needs. He does meet their spiritual need by teaching them the truth (how else do you think they had the nous to praise the God of Israel unless Jesus had taught them?) and their physical need is met by healing them. But what was it that moved Jesus to go to such lengths? The answer is there in v 32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way."

The key word is, ‘compassion.’  Of course, our idea of compassion is feeling sorry for those less fortunate than ourselves. But here the word means much more than pity- it refers to an emotion which moves a person to the very depths of his being. When Jesus looks upon these people and their need he is profoundly moved and acts. Now could it be that one of the reasons why people damn Jesus with the faint praise of being ‘just another moral teacher’ is because we have neglected both to present him as he is and follow him by doing what he does- showing compassion?  The wonderful thing about the Lord Jesus was the integrity of his life- what he said was matched by what he did. So much so that the Russian writer Dostoevsky had this to say about him: ‘Nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything.’ I would defy you to point to any other religious leader or any moral teacher who not only does what Jesus does, but feels what Jesus feels. And as God looks out upon our broken world today with its suffering and the sad and shallow lives we are busily promoting, like those of the two businessmen I mentioned at the beginning, then his feelings are exactly the same. And when people see his followers doing what he did, then at least some credibility is given their message.

Let me tell you something:  In 250 AD a measles epidemic swept through the Roman Empire with devastating effect. Here is a description from the time of what the non-Christians did: ‘At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the suffers away and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead and treated unburied corpses as dirt, hoping thereby to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.’ And the Christians? ‘Heedless of the danger; they took charge of the sick, attending every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbours and cheerfully accepting their pains.’ And do you know that resulted in tremendous numbers of people being converted to Christianity. Not surprising really because they saw the difference, as did these people. And that always remains the challenge for God’s people- to have the compassion of Christ and to show it.

So what of the universal provision? It is indicated there in vv 35-37. ‘He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. 36Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. 37They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.’

You see, Matthew is deliberately contrasting this second feeding of the four thousand with the first feeding of the five thousand back in chapter 14 to make a very important point. In a gospel which stresses 12 disciples (10:1), 12 tribes and 12 thrones (19:28), then it is reasonable to assume that the 12 baskets of the surplus bread after the feeding of the 5,000 at least suggests that Jesus supply is so lavish that even the scraps are enough to meet the needs of God’s covenant people- Israel. Even Moses hadn’t managed to do that. Jesus is sufficient for his people for everything.

So the fact that there were seven baskets here suggests something similar. Just as the number 12 brought to any Jewish mind, the total number of God’s people whom the Messiah came to save, so the number 7 is the figure of wholeness, the number of completion. In other words, Jesus power and supply is sufficient for the whole world not just the whole of Israel. What is more, a different word is used here to describe the baskets from that used in chapter 14. Back there it was ‘kophinos’ a small Jewish container. Here it is ‘spuridas’ – which Gentiles used, so large it could contain a man. In fact, the apostle Paul was lowered in one of these type’s of basket when he escaped from Damascus. That is how plentiful Jesus’ power is to supply our needs! Truck loads of bread were left over! Between 10 and 20,000 people are fed to bursting point and still there is plenty to spare. And you wonder whether Jesus is sufficient to meet your needs?

I don’t think it would be stretching the point to see this episode as an illustration of Jesus’ ability to meet our deepest need, which is spiritual nourishment. You see, consumerism isn’t simply a mark of our increased affluence in the West or even greed; it has taken on the hallmarks of a new religion. Mike Starkey in his book ‘Born to Shop’ puts the modern obsession like this: ‘Speedbank machines are the wayside shrines where we perform our ritual devotions to the god which motivates us. The icons which offered mediaeval people the ultimate choice in life have given way to the shelves offering the ultimate consumer choices… In an earlier age life’s adversity was met by a robust faith, even if it was only human nature. Today we have our own solution. When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.’  Isn’t that right?  And yet for all the increase in spending power, all the vast array of choice, all the late night 24/ 7 shopping, I don’t detect an increase in the overall state of happiness of our society do you?  Depression is still on the increase, as is drug taking, divorce, domestic violence as are all the negative social indicators. You see, the vacuum can’t be filled with material things because it is a spiritual vacuum we have.

But there is one person we can turn to who fills it perfectly and here he is - Jesus. No one who ever came to him on his terms ever felt short changed. Sure, he never promises a life of health and wealth, the world remains broken, Christians will be persecuted- for there is still heaven to come and a hell to be avoided, so, much of what he gives remains in the future. But to be rightly related now to the one who made you and who loves you and cares for you is surely what life is all about. So whether you are a Bantu living in Africa or a docker living in Grimsby- your deepest needs remain the same –life with God- and Jesus is the one who meets it.

And the test as to whether you have this life now or are being distracted on to other things even as a professing Christian is whether or not you are grateful- whether from your heart you ‘praise the God of Israel’ in Jesus.

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