A Meditation on “Bread” in Matthew’s Gospel

February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lord’s Prayer.  And the enigmatic phrase related to “daily bread”.  Enigmatic because the prayer uses a word for “bread” which apparently was so little used in Greek (and nobody knows the presumed Aramaic equivalent used by Jesus) – that now nobody knows exactly how to interpret that part of a prayer so well known to all of us.

So, here goes…  Based on the petition for bread from the Lord’s Prayer – as the theme of bread resonates  across Matthew’s Gospel – and possibly dovetails with another theme close to my heart – that of God’s Rest.  (I’m thinking of the beloved quote:  “Come to me all you…  and I will give you rest.”)  Let me anticipate by adding that another title for this post might have been:  Jesus – Source of Sabbath Rest. 

Let’s start with the first reference to “bread” in Matthew’s Gospel.  Maybe this will surprise you:  “Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”  Bethlehem means House of Bread.  Now, recall that only two gospels provide information on  Christ’s birth… but in two different locations.  So if Matthew states he was born in Bethlehem, should we see meaning in that?  You can choose not to, but I’m going to entertain the idea that Matthew (or his tradition) had reason to flag House of Bread as the earthly origin of Emmanuel (God with us) .  

Doesn’t that just start your neurons tingling???

Moving right along…  Our next meeting with the word bread comes in the desert when the Tempter says to Jesus:  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Once again, two gospels (the same two) reference such a temptation.  Luke words it slightly differently and has Jesus answer only that “one does not live by bread alone” while Matthew extends that by adding “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  And Matthew also tells us that Jesus is quoting scripture when he uses that reply – in a quote from Deuteronomy:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Wow!  Now we’ve got humility, hunger, and a mysterious kind of feeding – from the Lord’s mouth to ours.  Word = Bread.  Bread of Life.  Word of Life.  And a connection to the Torah, specifically to the book which constitutes Moses relaying God’s teachings – akin to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – a teaching centered around the Lord’s Prayer.  Which is itself centered around the request for bread.

And if we look closely at the Sermon on the Mount, we find it bracketed at its beginning and end by allusions to bread:  a reference to “hungering and thirsting” smack in the middle of the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon in Chapter 5; and the command in Chapter 7 to “ask… search… knock” with the promise that “the door will be opened” – illustrated by the very image of a child asking for bread and God’s gifts being akin to a parent granting her child’s request.  So we again have a connection with bread – as the image of God’s goodness and graciousness, blessing us for hungering and thirsting (for righteousness/justice, etc.), where prayer and action on behalf of the Kingdom  are somehow linked in meaning with images of  “word” and “bread”.   To stretch the image even further, one could imagine the kneading of dough – water and wheat, salt and yeast – as putting the Sermon into practice, following the recipe, so to speak.  Prayer and the Holy Spirit – being perhaps the condition of dough becoming bread.  (Ok, yes, it’s a stretch – but this is meditation, not a proof!)

I could practically rest my case here.  But indulge me a bit longer…

Scripture is so rich!  As I’ve said before, it’s like a symphony, a harmonic whole, conversing with itself.

So now we take what may appear to be a bit of side trip, where I’m going to present a quote and then comment upon its placement, because it’s the placement, I think, that will help us connect this quote with the theme of bread that I’ve been following.  Like a trail of breadcrumbs…  here’s the next bit:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Now rest concerns the Sabbath.  (God rested on the 7th day.)  And immediately following Jesus invitation to take his yoke (recall that Yoke for a Jew suggests the Yoke of the Torah =  God’s Teaching, his Word of Life)…  Immediately (!) we have a story where Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath.  And Matthew has Jesus justify his disciples’ plucking heads of grain and eating them by reminding the Pharisees that David and his men, when hungry “entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence.”  Among other important things, Jesus also tells them (us):  “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Wow!  Lord of the SabbathImmediately following the promise of rest – if we will just take his yoke, learn from him, God-with-us, “gentle and humble of heart.”  And Matthew soon provides this wonderful quote from Isaiah:

‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smouldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
   And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

So many allusions in that quote.  Reminds us of the recent Baptism story (just before the desert fasting and temptations), the Gospel message – even to the Gentiles – and the gentle invitation to us all in the quote promising rest, that Jesus’ yoke is one that “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick…”

But let’s back up just a minute.  For I’ve given you part of the context for the quote promising rest (which is what follows in the Sabbath story).  But I need to provide what exactly precedes the invitation, which is a quote more reminiscent of John’s Gospel than of Matthew’s.  A quote which appears in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper (umm…. think bread!) just prior to the footwashing (an action which stands, in John’s Gospel, where the Eucharistic event is recalled by the synoptics).  I’m going to give the whole of the quote, for its seems to be part of a prayer – but I will flag in bold the words which most interest me (and match those prior to the footwashing):

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Followed by “Come to me….  and I will give you rest.”  Rest…  the Sabbath.  Given by God as a time and a commandment.  Now entrusted to Jesus, who offers us both companionship and rest.

Ok, I know this is getting really long.  Long story short:  Matthew’s Gospel offers two miraculous feedings.  Should we take special note of that?  Yes!  One in Chapter 14.  Another in Chapter 15.  Smack in the middle of this Gospel.  Both in the context of crowds who’ve come out to listen to his teaching, to follow this man whose words and deeds are so powerful.  Unlike John there is no lengthy mystical preaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life.  But we know that already:  Jesus comes from Bethlehem; he offers God’s rest (with all its biblical implications of wholeness, healing, eternal Life).

Finally, as we all know, Jesus, at the Last Supper, identifies himself with bread that has been blessed and broken to feed his disciples.

I end with a reference to the monastic view of reading and internalizing scripture.  There is an image of meditating upon it as one would chew bread.  Ruminating.  (Think of a cow chewing its cud.)

There’s a huge amount of commentary on whether the Lord’s Prayer asks only for physical breadThere’s nothing wrong, of course, in praying the prayer that way.  But somehow I’m not convinced, that Matthew wants to limit our understanding of the prayer that way.  Bread is just too rich a symbol.  To waste.  S0  …  Go for the mystical!

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