Crumbs in my chiasmus

Bible

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 14 and 15 portray two miraculous feedings. The first feeding of 5,000 takes place in the wilderness somewhere in the vicinity of Nazareth. The second feeding of 4,000 takes place in pagan territory to the north of the Sea of Galilee, a region to which Jesus travelled soon after he heard of the death of John the Baptist. The fact that there are two miracles as well as the differences between them are very interesting.

Scholars have puzzled over the differences between the two feedings and come to various conclusions about their meaning. Some have hypothesized that the miracles are actually based on one event and perhaps there is some historical truth to this. But I want to suggest that Matthew places these two miracles at the center of his gospel and highlights their differences not out of concern for historical sequence but in order to focus attention on an event in Jesus’ ministry that turns his attention from ministry within Israel to a ministry with universal implications.

In this post, I’ll talk a bit about the way that Matthew has structured his gospel overall as well as the structure and placement of these two miracles stories. In later posts, I’ll talk a bit about Matthew’s use of numbers which carry symbolic meaning for a Jewish audience and then about how he weaves certain motifs through these chapters in order to embed theological meaning in the narrative itself.

Matthew’s use of chiasmus: a miraculous bread and fish sandwich 

In the account of these two miracles (chapters 14 and 15), Matthew employs a common Hebrew literary device called a chiasmus or ‘envelope structure’. A chiasmus works by repeating narrative motifs such that the first motif is repeated at the end of the chiasmus, the second is repeated second to last an so on until a central, pivotal event or realization is revealed. The following notation is used to show how narrative motifs might form this structure.

A ..... Kevin woke up at 10:00 am just as he'd always done
B ........ He stretched, cleaned up and went downstairs to eat
C ........... At 4:00 pm, the letter arrived which would change his life
B' ....... After dinner, he climbed the stairs, cleaned up, and stretched
A' .... Kevin went to sleep at 10:00 pm a new man

Throughout the Old Testament, chiasmus is used as a way of highlighting the significance of events or organizing stanzas in poetry. (See an example of chiasm in the Noah story)

This of course poses a challenge to our modern understanding of storytelling which requires that the events be recounted ‘accurately’ in the sequence in which they happened. If there is meaning to be found in events, we lay out the evidence in a sequential fashion and then conclude with a meaningful analysis. Not so with chiasmus. Chiasmus draws us into narrative meaning like a treasure hidden within the depths of a dark cave. We mark our path with observations on the way in, but the point of the journey lies at the center of the telling rather than the end.

Clearly this requires a different kind of reading than we are used to. If we are expecting a more modern sequence (event-event-event-explanation) then we may not pick up on the motifs being repeated and so lose out on the author’s intended focus. Chiasmus requires that we listen carefully so that we can trace back the repetitions in order to locate the center. It requires active listening and reflection.

Matthew’s Jewish readers would have been well practiced at this kind of attentive listening. For me, it’s a new way of reading. Here’s the chiasm I see in Matthew’s feeding accounts. Take a look and see if you agree that there’s something here. If so, what would you identify as the center of the chiasmus?

Chapters 1-13: Announcing the Kingdom in and around Galilee

  • Chapters 14-15: Two miraculous feedings in Israel and beyond

# Event Reference
A

Feeding the 5000 (in the wilderness)

  • 5 loaves, 2 fish
  • 12 baskets left over

Disciples by boat to Gennesaret

  • Jesus walks out to the disciples
  • Peter walks on water
  • proclamation: “You are the Son of God”
Mt 14:13-33
B Healings in Gennesaret Mt 14:34-36
C Pharisees on eating with unclean hands Mt 15:1-21
D ??? ???
C’ Canaanite woman begs for “crumbs” Mt 15:22-28
B’ Healings in pagan territory

“they glorified the God of Israel”

Mt 15:29-31
A’

Feeding the 4000 (in the wilderness)

  • 7 loaves, some fish
  • 7 baskets left over

Across the sea to Decapolis

Mt 15:32-29

Chapters 16-28: The road to Jerusalem and the cross

Take a look at these chapters yourself and let me know what you think in the comment section. I haven’t done any background research on the text so any and all contributions are welcome!

During the years that I was in university the church in which I grew up underwent a gradual decline in membership and giving until it was finally unable to call a full time pastor. For many congregations this event is the final toll of the death knell indicating that its time to lock the doors for the last time. But the folks at Knox Church weren’t ready to give up the ghost. Over the years, they had developed resilience and confidence in lay collaboration. So they decided to band together and make it work for as long as they could. It’s now been some 15 or so years since Knox’s transition to what they called a “shared ministry model” and they’re still making a go of it.

When I return to Knox for visits, I’m always astounded at how well things are going. I’m not saying that it’s a well oiled machine or that you won’t find bumps or bruises. But this is a congregation that is behaving like a body, with every part contributing something of value (or at least encouraged to do so).

I see a lot of promise in this approach to shared ministry.

  1. Congregation as Body of Christ: Shared ministry takes seriously the New Testament teaching on distribution of spiritual gifts among the laity and works toward fulfillment of the Old Testament hope that at one point, all would function under the anointing of the Spirit.
  2. Leadership clarity: Shared ministry focuses the task of leaders specifically on equipping for maturity and service. Shifting out of institutional functions and hierarchical roles can be a challenge, but shared ministry called leaders back to our core biblical calling.
  3. Discipleship: the more folks are included in significant service, they more their faith matures from an inward conviction to a lived social reality.
  4. Particularly for small churches or those serving in difficult environments, shared ministry seems like a very good use of resources, allowing some churches to divert funds they would have spent on salary into outreach, evangelization and discipleship.

I’m curious to know if you have experienced an intentional shared ministry model before?

Is this something your church is actively pursuing?

What are some of the benefits and struggles you’ve faced along the way?

What kind of guidance and resources have you found helpful?

Miscellaneous

I just came across a recording of a presentation I made on Mission in the Power of the Trinity from way back in 2008. I made the presentation for a group of Swedish and Estonian youth collaborating on a mission outreach in North Eastern Estonia. Interesting to hear this after having made most of my presentations since then in Estonian. There’s definitely a difference in presentation style. Also neat to go back to the source of passion for a lot of what I’m working on now on the . Give it a listen and engage! I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Estonia, Faith, Ministry
This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

Until now, I have spent most of my time setting the scene and – I hope – dramatizing the tensions that are written between the lines of Ruth’s story. But the real magic of the story is not encoded in the setting or the narrative or even the social positions and potentials of the various characters but rather in the dialogue that takes place between them.

But here we come up against a modern disability that might keep us literates from the wisdom of the Bible’s master storytellers. Our disability is that we often read the Bible for action watching events unfold, judging them on moral grounds and attributing them to divine or human actors. But Old Testament narrative depends much more heavily on speech and dialogue than on narrated action to convey meaning.

In his insightful book The Art of Biblical Narrative Robert Alter explains, “The biblical writers … are often less concerned with actions in themselves than with how individual character responds to actions or produces them; and direct speech is made the chief instrument for revealing the varied and at times nuanced relations of the personages to the actions in which they are implicated.”

Our principle goal in this study is to reveal patterns of behavior which the main characters have adopted that might contribute to Ruth’s successful integration into the Bethlehem community and the consequent restoration of Boaz’ family line. As we will see, the terseness and structured nature of Hebrew dialogue reveals these patterns quite clearly under the lens of Social Network Analysis. But I have a sneaking suspicion that Hebrew storytellers and listeners were much more attuned to these nuances and didn’t need our sophisticated studies to tell them twice what the text had already so elegantly displayed.

But if like me, the patterns are not immediately clear to you, maybe you’ll join me in taking one final look at the story under the SNA lens. Let’s start by laying out our diagram slightly differently to emphasize relationships rather than social groupings and positions. Additionally, since we are looking for relational patterns we will take Alter’s advice and filter out ties describing Elimelech’s family, Boaz’ geneology and all narrative connections which simply place two or more characters on the stage ready for dialogue. What remains is a graph showing speech acts, mentions of third parties and favors, all of which could be described as interactions with intent.

Now look at the arrows associated with our three main characters: Boaz, Ruth and Naomi. What do you notice?

Circle - Intentional Narrative

Network of intentional narrative

Mutuality oxygenates the network

As we have mentioned before in regards to Boaz, he controls the vast majority of interaction in the story compared to other characters. He is clearly the dominant figure with whom all in this narrative circle must contend. But how does he employ this influence? It is striking that almost all of his connections are mutual. That could potentially be explained by a command/obedience interaction but in actually fact, Boaz is far more cordial than directive and behaves this way with people of all social stations. For example, when he first arrives on the scene he greets his laborers in the field with a blessing to which they wholeheartedly respond in kind. Furthermore, whenever Boaz requests information, he seems to be invested in the responses and to implicitly trust the person he addresses. When he does give directives, he has a way of preserving the dignity of those he is directing.

A similar tendency toward mutuality can be seen in Naomi who treats Orpah and Ruth like her own daughters at the beginning of the story and entrusts her grandson Obed to the care of the townswomen at the story’s conclusion. Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality invites trust from the community and creates an atmosphere of both intimacy and openness. Perhaps in response to this, Ruth recognizes their openness and responds in kind. These characters’ combined orientation toward mutuality has the effect of oxygenating the community network and allowing developments that might otherwise be restricted.

Relational generosity

“The friend of a friend is my friend” goes the saying. In Social Network Analysis, this is called transitivity. The idea is that when a two unrelated people share a common friend, they are far more likely to connect themselves. One of the fascinating patterns to notice in Ruth’s network is the way that complete triangles are formed strategically so that Ruth is eventually secure in her relationship with Boaz but also embedded in the social structure of Bethlehem. I like to call this pattern “network midwifery” because the common friend (most notably Naomi) intentionally fosters independant links between Ruth and pivotal people in the community and then allows Ruth to own these relationships without any interference. It is an incredibly generous act which beautifully returns to Naomi in the form of the townswomen’s blessing when she entrusts her newborn grandson Obed to their care. Of all the transitive triangles formed in the story, the connection between Naomi, Boaz and Ruth is of course the most important and Naomi demonstrates her skill in negotiating this connection in a series of moves over multiple scenes.

Boaz employs another set of approaches to closing relational triangles. The first example we see does not actually appear in our analysis because the final connection is implied rather than stated. When Boaz learns of Ruth’s work ethic from his foreman and then later from the reapers, he legitimates her activity in the fields by involving them in securing her provision.

Another tactic Boaz employs both explicitly and often is the mention of third parties. In his initial conversation with Ruth and then again on the threshing floor Boaz mentions his awareness that the town has spoken well of Ruth. The first time he does this it has the effect of paying a compliment but also engendering the townsfolk to Ruth. He is effectively paving the way for Ruth to begin to trust her new community by offering her their praise second hand. In the second instance, it is possible that Boaz is offering a gently veiled warning that he intends for their relationship to meet and exceed community standards of propriety. But again, he strengthens Ruth’s connection with the community by including them in his and Ruth’s moral decision making process. Boaz may not be much of a ladies man, but I envy his maturity and poise.

Later, in his conversation with the elders, Boaz exhibits similar maturity and community awareness by connecting himself to Ruth only in reference to her relationship with Elimelech, Naomi and their sons. Elimelech and Mahlon are no longer concerned with Ruth’s marital state since both are in the process of composting under Moabite soil. But by making mention of them in the presence of the elders, he dignifies these men and their line, allies himself with their purposes and creates an implicit relationship between the elders and Ruth by transferring her marital status from “widow of the dead son of Elimelech” to “under the care of Boaz”. The language may sound cumbersome, legal and antiquated for our modern ears, but with each connection, Boaz is weaving a web of supportive relationships that will identify Ruth not only as his bride but also as a member of the community in her own right.

Responsiveness and Network Intelligence

In all of this, Ruth is powerless (or rather status-less) but neither inattentive nor passive. As we have noted, she seems to recognize Boaz’ and Naomi’s mutuality and responds in kind, often boldly. She suggests to Naomi that she go out into the fields to glean and doesn’t hesitate to follow Naomi’s directions on the threshing floor. We can also see that Ruth seems to pick up on the cues she is given and directs her efforts towards those who are most likely to facilitate her integration into the community. She doesn’t engage the town, or the townswomen. She doesn’t appeal to the elders. And significantly, she doesn’t endear herself to one of the young men alongside whom she is harvesting. Whether by virtue of his position, his social intelligence or a combination of the two, Ruth focuses her efforts on Boaz under Naomi’s tutelage.

The result of all this socio-cultural waltzing is of course the birth of Obed and so also the promise of Boaz’ continued line. But it is powerfully significant that the final narrative scene displays Ruth firmly in place alongside Boaz and Naomi restored to social status in the community as the townswomen coo and coddle Ruth’s infant son.

The book of Ruth is a story of mutuality, generosity and responsiveness: a masterful choreography precisely executed and resolving in communal embrace. Doesn’t it make you want to dance?

Faith, Ministry

Ruths Solution: The Story Unfolds

Faith, Ministry
This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

Ruth’s narrative act by act

(Click on any thumbnail for a full screen slideshow of the entire act)
Elimelech’s family line crumbles


Ruth goes gleaning in Boaz field


Ruth and Boaz’ courtship


Boaz consults redeemer and marries Ruth


Ruth gives birth to Obed


Boaz’ family line restored

Entire narrative sequence

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