The article of the month
IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.
In Dogged Pursuit
In the Gospel of Matthew—at least until the last two verses—Jesus appears curiously inhibited in his missionary aspirations and even coldly uninterested in the spiritual welfare of the wide world of the Gentiles. In chapter 23, he seems to savagely castigate the Pharisees for canvassing the world to make a single convert (“proselyte”) and in chapter 10 he instructs his own disciples to ignore the pagans in preaching the Kingdom. “Go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
If during his earthly ministry Jesus’ Apostles are accordingly not yet sent to carry his teaching to the ends of the earth, this stasis permits his manifestation as a kind of evangelical Unmoved Mover: for the nations already begin coming to him. Indeed, this magnetic power of the Incarnate Lord, by which from the moment of his birth Christ begins drawing all men to himself, captures the true sense of the Greek word proselyte: namely, “one who has approached.” The arrival of the Magi, the first to approach, is but the first instance of this movement. From afar the wise men are captured by the gravitational pull of the newborn King. Where the Pharisees must cross land and sea to win one single soul to their burdensome way of life, the Son of David, who is greater than Solomon, attracts to himself all the seekers of wisdom as Solomon drew the Queen of Sheba, calling like Wisdom to “Come!” to him and take up his easy yoke (Mt 11:28-30).
Two other revealing instances of Gentile “proselytes” punctuate the Gospel. In Capernaum, a centurion comes to meet Jesus precisely with the message that Jesus need not come to him. Several chapters later, a Syrophoenician woman approaches. The circumstances are changed, as Jesus has now strikingly wandered beyond Israel’s border into the district of Tyre and Sidon. His words to the woman make his unmoved intention perfectly clear, however: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
Jesus’ next words may strike us as downright rude. When the woman insists, the Lord retorts: “It is not right to take the children’s food [literally, bread] and throw it to the dogs.” The reply of the woman is witty and well known: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” When Jesus suddenly relents before this word of faith, we should not miss the prophetic force of this exchange. The story is sandwiched between two telling scenes. Jesus has just declared that what goes into the mouth does not defile, but rather what comes out: a hint that kosher food is less important than faith upon the lips. The woman’s faith is accordingly shown in her hunger to eat the bread that Jesus gives, while her word about “crumbs” points to the feeding of the four thousand that promptly follows this meeting.
Like Mark, Matthew not only narrates the feeding of the five thousand but also recounts a second iteration of the miracle. The difference between the two wonders is not only in the numbers of people fed, but also in the number of fragments: twelve and seven basketsful. The numbers are understood as symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel and the universal family of nations. In other words, in the extraordinary abundance of Christ’s miraculous gift of food—of living Bread—even after the “children” of Israel have been fed, satiated, and provided for into the future, the “crumbs” left over are adequate to nourish and sustain the whole world of the Gentiles. The fragments that fall from this Master’s table rain like manna upon the nations.
Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.