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Finding Jesus… Loving Pagans and Pig Farmers

June 10, 2012

Lets look at Matthew 16: 5-12, a part of scripture that often gets overlooked or is misunderstood, and see what’s going on there.

Matthew 16:5-12
The Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees TNIV

5 When they went across the lake, the disciples forgot to take bread. 6 ‘Be careful,’ Jesus said to them. ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’
7 They discussed this among themselves and said, ‘It is because we didn’t bring any bread.’
8 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? 9 Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 10 Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? 11 How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ 12 Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

What was the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees that Jesus was warning against, and why did He mention how many loaves were left over from the five that fed 5,000 and the seven that fed 4,000?

Pagans and pig farmers.

First, we’re going to look at what the “yeast” of the Pharisees and Sadducees is. “Yeast” is a primary ingredient in baking bread, it helps the bread “grow”.

The Pharisees and Sadducees, who were the religious leaders, the religious “elite” of Jesus time, dictated that because–according to their interpretation–the people of Israel were to be “clean” before God, that they were not to associate with people outside of Israel; they were not to associate with people who lived outside of the laws and rules that they said Israel was to live by. They were not supposed to love them, show compassion, or show them God’s love. They were to be avoided, shunned.

Jesus had other ideas. We see this throughout the Gospels. Jesus was always getting in trouble because He talked to, taught, healed and loved corrupt tax collectors, Samaritans, prostitutes, lepers, and people who had committed obvious sins–people who, according to the rules of the religious elite, were supposed to be outcasts. You weren’t supposed to love these people. But Jesus did, and He not only got in a lot of trouble for it, He changed the way billions of people look at other human beings: With eyes of love.

So what’s the deal with Jesus mentioning how many loaves were left over from a mere handful that fed thousands–twice? Was Jesus boasting of His power, His ability to miraculously provide so much food from so little that there was so much left? Of course not. The same Jesus, who said in Matthew 20:28 “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus made clear that He came not to be served but to serve, was emphasizing a point He had already made to His disciples. And who did Jesus come to serve?

Everyone, including pagans and pig farmers.

Let’s look at the events that Jesus was reminding His disciples about, in chronological order–because there was a reason that Jesus did it the way He did.

The first event takes place right after Jesus is told that His cousin, John The Baptist, had been beheaded. In Matthew 14:13-21
Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (TNIV)

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.’
16 Jesus replied, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’
17 ‘We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,’ they answered.
18 ‘Bring them here to me,’ he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. 21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Let’s focus on two things here, the first we’ll just point out and come back to later.

One: After the first day had ended, the disciples came to Jesus because they were concerned that the people were hungry. This is a very important part of what’s going on, and we’ll come back to it later.

Two: After feeding 5,000 men (not counting women and children, which was the way they counted crowds in Jesus time) with what started as 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, there were 12 basketfuls left over. This is not some mere random coincidence.

Whenever an Israelite would hear or see the number “12”, their mind would immediately and automatically think of the 12 tribes of Israel. This number, and what it represented, was sacred to the Israelites. So when Jesus disciples saw that there were 12 basketfuls left over, their minds immediately and automatically thought of the 12 tribes of Israel–and in the context of Jesus, The Messiah, who was to come and save, restore, and lead the 12 tribes of Israel. First century Christians understood this, have no doubt.

Now let’s look at the events leading to the next miraculous feeding, the feeding of the 4,000. We’re going to start in the fourth chapter of Mark, a chapter that’s usually known for the story of Jesus calming the storm while He’s in the boat with His disciples.

Mark 4:35-41
Jesus Calms the Storm (TNIV)

35 That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, ‘Let us go over to the other side.’ 36 Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. 37 A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. 38 Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, ‘Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?’
39 He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.
40 He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’
41 They were terrified and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!’

What often gets overlooked or missed is the historical and cultural relevance of what Jesus says in verse 35. See, when Jesus said “let us go over to the other side”, He wasn’t just talking about a geographical location. “The Other Side” was a technical term in Jesus time. Rabbinic tradition of Jesus time held that when the people of Israel claimed the Promised Land, the people who had previously occupied that land–the seven nations of Canaan–relocated in what was then called the Decapolis, for “10 cities”.

As mentioned before, the people of Israel called this area “the other side”. “The other side” was pretty much the opposite of what Israel was. Israel worshipped one God. On the other side, they were pagans who worshipped many gods. The dirtiest, or most “unclean” animal to the people of Israel was the pig. On the other side, they were pig farmers. There was at that time a Roman legion based on the other side, 10,000 soldiers. Their mascot was a boars head, the head of a pig.

If you were a strict Israelite, you didn’t mingle with the other side. Then one day, out of the blue, the disciples hear their leader, their rabbi, say to them “let’s go to the other side”. The disciples were in all likelihood shocked or disturbed at this. It went against everything they had been taught since they were kids. But they were committed to following Jesus, so they went.

We see in Mark 5 all the events that happened during Jesus and the disciples first trip to “the other side”. We see that they initially encounter just one man, who was possessed by demons. He lived on the tombs among the shore, and cried and wailed night and day. The people tried to restrain him with ropes and chains, but he would always break free. When he saw Jesus, he immediately knew who He was and was afraid. Jesus asked the man what his name was, and the man replied “Legion, for we are many”, and then begged Jesus to send them into a nearby heard of pigs. Jesus obliged them and sent them into a heard of about 2000 pigs, who then stampeded down the bank into the lake and were drowned. The people who had been tending to the pigs saw this and ran into town and told the people there. The townspeople went to see what happened, they saw Jesus and the man that they previously could not bind, the man who wailed night and day, now in his right mind. And the people who had been tending the pigs and saw what happened told the townspeople what had happened. And the townspeople became afraid of Jesus and begged Him to leave.

Let’s consider the townspeople’s reaction. They see this man that had practically terrorized the shoreline, now in his right mind, and they now know it was Jesus that helped him. They know this man who cast out the demons and healed the man is a man of great power, because healing this demon-possessed man could only be done by someone who has great power. Yet they don’t think “I have a sick family member, a sick friend. Here’s a man with great power. He can help them!”. They’re afraid of Jesus, and beg Him to leave. Why? Why, instead of begging Jesus to leave, why don’t they beg this man with great power to help them?

Because they know where Jesus came from; He came from their “other side”. And their experience with people from their “other side” was not pleasant. It was an experience of being judged and looked down upon, an experience of looks and words of contempt. And now here was a man from their “other side” with great power. This man had power that could hurt them. So they begged Jesus to leave.

And Jesus did leave. And as He and the disciples started to go, the man Jesus helped also begged Jesus. He begged to go with Him. And Jesus does something we never see anywhere else: He says “no”. For the first and only time in the Bible, we see Jesus turn down someone who wants to follow Him.

Now if we end the story right here, it looks like Jesus failed. He had come to “the other side”, to these pagans and pig farmers, to announce the gospel, the good news, and to gather the people of “the other side” to Him. And now, after being asked to leave, Jesus was leaving without having reached any of them but one, the demon-possessed man that He healed. And Jesus told that man not to go with Him to announce the Good News, but to stay on “the other side”.

But the story doesn’t end there.

See, Jesus was a brilliant man. He knew the hearts and minds of people better than anyone who ever walked this planet. And Jesus knew that these townspeople were so terrified of Him, this man with great power from their “other side” that their fear would prevent them from wanting to listen to Him. There was no chance of it, no chance of them listening to anybody from their “other side” now.

But they would listen to one of their own. Jesus knew they would listen to one of their own talk about his encounter with Him. And the man Jesus healed did talk about his encounter with Jesus, all through the Decapolis. And what was the result of what this one formally demon-possessed man did? Lets look at Matthew 15: 29-31, when Jesus goes back to “the other side”, the land of pagans and pig farmers:

Matthew 15:29-31
Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand

29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 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. 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.

The second largest crowd gathered to see Jesus in the Bible. Because Jesus knew the impact that one man would have when that man shared the story of his encounter with Jesus. This one man, who Jesus said “no” to when he asked to come with, this man that Jesus told to stay on “the other side” and tell his story, reached these pagans and pig farmers that were so initially afraid of Jesus that they begged Him to leave. Verse 31 tells it all: these pagans “praised the God of Israel”.

What’s your story? Was there a story someone shared with you? What would happen if you shared yours?

Now let’s look at what else transpired there, starting with Matthew 15, verse 32

Matthew 15:32
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.’

Now contrast this with what happened in Matthew 14, verse 15, when after one day Jesus disciples came to Him because they were concerned that the crowd of 5,000 would be hungry. Here, we see that after three days it’s Jesus that speaks up about the crowd being hungry. Why didn’t the disciples say anything? The disciples showed concern about the crowd on the side of the lake they called home after one day, but here on the other side they showed no concern after three days. Why?

This time, it was pagans and pig farmers.

The disciples had grown up in a culture that judged, looked down upon and condemned these people from “the other side”. In the disciples minds it was figuratively and literally “to hell with them”. They had grown up on “the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees”.

But we see that Jesus not only didn’t share any of those feelings or thoughts, but had compassion for these people from “the other side”. Jesus loved these pagans and pig farmers.

But it gets even worse with Jesus disciples. In the very next verse we see how they responded to Jesus statement of compassion, His concern that the people were hungry. Verse 33:

Matthew 15:33
33 His disciples answered, ‘Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?’

Seriously?! These disciples, who had recently seen Jesus feed a bigger crowd with only five loaves were asking Jesus where could they get enough bread to feed the people?

The disciples were not only unconcerned, they were now actively trying to not feed the people with this question.

Here we see the enormous patience of Jesus. He knew the disciples hearts on this matter, knew that they purposely neglected to mention anything about feeding the people in these three days. Jesus knew that by asking “where could we get enough bread” they were trying to steer clear of feeding them. Wouldn’t you at least roll your eyes at the disciples response, considering what they saw transpire at the feeding of the 5,000?

But Jesus calmly asked how many loaves of bread they had. The disciples replied “seven”, which, by the way, was two more loaves than they had when Jesus previously fed the larger crowd. In verses 36-38 we see that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, broke up the loaves and gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people. (By the way, how happy do you think the disciples were with that job, having to feed the pagans and pig farmers?) All the people were fed, and when they were done the disciples collected the leftovers–seven baskets full.

Remember how many baskets were collected on their homeland? 12.

What would the disciples and all who saw this think about there being 12 baskets? Jesus was the messiah, who had come to save, restore and lead the 12 tribes of Israel.

Now on “the other side”, the land of pagans and pig farmers, they collected seven baskets. Remember, because this is very important to what Jesus is doing here: rabbinic tradition of the time said that when the 12 tribes of Israel took the promised land, they displaced the Seven Nations of Canaan, who moved to “The Other Side”.

Jesus is clearly sending the message, in a way that virtually smacks His disciples in the head, that He is the messiah, and here to save, restore, and lead these people on “the other side”, these pagans and pig farmers.

Many times in the gospels we see Jesus “breaking the rules” by showing love and compassion to people that would not normally receive it, and here Jesus showed that for Him–as well as for anyone that would follow Him–there is no “other side”. He loves them all, and wants them all to come to Him.

As followers of Jesus, it’s up to us to do the same. This is not an option.

So who are your “pagans and pig farmers”? Who is on your “other side”? Will you tell them your story of your encounter with Jesus? Will you love them as Jesus does? Will you help them find Jesus?

And if you haven’t found Jesus for yourself, know this: He loves you with an intensity and pureness like you’ve never known, no matter who you are, where you’ve been, what you’ve done, whatever your experiences in life have been. If you haven’t found Jesus yet, I pray you do.

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