The Feast of Death…the Feast of Life
A meditation on Matthew 14: 3 – 21
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church August 6, 2017
Two parties are happening, and you get to choose which one you would like to attend. The venues? A prince’s palace or a remote, green hillside.
The menus? Exquisite (and expensive!) foods and fine wines or fish, bread and BYOB.
Servants a plenty at one…hosts as servants at the other. (Service may be spotty.)
An elite guest list of the powerful, the wealthy and the beautiful or anyone, and I mean absolutely anyone.
The first one, is the extravagant birthday party for the mighty Herod, a feast which ends with the death of an innocent. The second one is a humble picnic, a picnic as a metaphor for God’s vision for an abundant world.
Herod took something good, the life of an honest prophet and destroyed it. He took something good and life giving and turned it into “nothing.” From something to nothing. Jesus did the opposite. He created something from nothing. Jesus created something from nothing on a hillside, at the end of a long day. From nothing, Jesus created a feast. He took scarcity in his hands and transformed it into abundance. It really doesn’t matter if he literally multiplied food, or if he enabled the people to share the little they had tucked away, exchanging their fear for hope. Either way it was a miracle.
The feeding of the enormous crowds is such a life-giving story that Matthew, Mark, Luke & John all describe it. They describe it, but they don’t try to explain it. They leave that work for us.
In John, the miracle flows seamlessly, emerging from a teaching moment. In Mark and Luke, Jesus has been awaiting the return of the disciples. He had sent them out two by two to preach the good news, and to offer healing to all who desired it. He had sent them out on this field based learning experience, hoping they would return with a deeper sense of the world’s hunger. When they do return, exhausted, but eager to tell him of their experiences, Jesus takes them away to a lonely place, so that they may rest. He knows they need to share the highs and lows of their adventures, the successes and failures. It’s like the end of the day at church camp, when you go around the circle and share your “roses” (good things) and “thorns” (disappointments) or “wows” and “pows.”
Fresh from the missionary field, but somewhat rested, the disciples encounter a multitude of yearning, hungry people. These disciples, their feet still aching from their travels, their hearts still full of stories of healing, want to send the hungry away. Jesus immediately begins planning their next practicum! Teachers, don’t lose heart. Even Jesus had days when he wondered if his students were ever going to catch on. Jesus takes them from the excitement of their mission trip to the difficult reality of living the faith in daily life. In these Gospel accounts Jesus asks them and us: are you walking the walk or just talking the talk?
Matthew poses that question to us differently. In Matthew, as in Mark and Luke, Jesus and his disciples also seek out a lonely place, but they do it for an entirely different reason. In Matthew’s retelling, Jesus needs a place to grieve. He needs to find a place to be alone. He needs a place where he can weep and groan and rage. His cousin John the Baptist is dead; beheaded at Herod’s command. Jesus needs time to honor John’s life. He needs time to revisit the moment when he convinced John to baptize him. He needs to remember how John took him down into the waters, and then lifted him back up to begin his public ministry. And surely Jesus must have needed time to contemplate the prospect of his own death. Jesus was no fool. He knew the world kills prophets.
When the masses of people discovered Jesus’ retreat, he didn’t hide from them. Instead he met them, and healed them, and offered them words of comfort and hope. When it was time to eat, he fed them. Because that’s what God does. Just as he would do at that upper room table, surrounded by his disciples, Jesus took the bread, and he blessed it, and he broke it and he gave it. Baskets of food were shared and leftovers were sent home with everyone. It was a pretty boring meal as meals go. Bread and fish. Fish and bread. No hushpuppies or coleslaw or fries or sweet tea. But the company? Fabulous! The people had experienced the abundance that is possible in God’s community.
It was a very different story at Herod’s birthday party. The entrée being served at the palace, well the side dishes, too; everything was seasoned with a liberal dose of fear. Herod had divorced his wife so that he could marry his brother’s wife, Herodius. John the Baptist had called Herod out on this behavior, and for that, Herod had him thrown in prison. Meanwhile, back at the birthday bash, there is laughter and wine and entertainment. Herodius’ daughter, who we know as Salome, dances for Herod as a birthday gift to him. In return, he promises her anything she wants. Coached by her mother, Salome asks for the prophet’s head on a platter. The command is given, and John the Baptist is executed.
According to Mark’s Gospel, Herod had once respected John. Mark tells us that Herod, “regarded [John] as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” Mark 6: 20 (CEB) Herod held John’s life in his hands, and out of fear, he had John killed. If he didn’t keep his oath, the powerful leaders gathered in that room would call him “weak,” or “unprincipled.” What would his wife think of him? He must have known it was her idea to have John slain. His step-daughter, who could have asked for any number of lovely things, would have had no reason to put him up to such a violent task. Salome was a pawn, used by her mother in a power play beyond her teenage understanding. What a sad and broken family system.
Salome certainly deserves our sympathy. But perhaps so does Herod. He is trapped in a world of fear. When your life is built upon holding on to power, to prestige, to wealth, fear will direct your decisions. Herod lived under so much fear, that he was certain John had come back to life in the form of Jesus. When he heard what Jesus was doing, he asked if John had been resurrected. Maybe he even hoped it was true, hoped that his cowardly command had been reversed by God.
In the end, Jesus and Herod would meet, and Herod would be instrumental in sending Jesus to his death. On the night of his arrest, Jesus was bounced back and forth between Pilate and Herod.
Luke 23: 8 – 12 describes his time with Herod.
When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had long desired to see him, because he had heard about him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by him. So he questioned him at some length, but [Jesus] made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. And Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him. Then, arraying him in splendid clothing, he sent him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
Jesus wouldn’t “perform” for Herod at his trial. This wasn’t a party and Jesus wasn’t going to turn water into wine for Herod’s entertainment. He would not work a miracle for the sake of working a miracle. Nor would he answer Herod’s questions; queries which Herod could have easily asked at an earlier time. So the kingdom of Pilate and Herod allowed Jesus to be put to death, believing that death would be the end of Jesus. Herod had gotten rid of John fairly easily, so why should it be any different this time around?
Both Herod and Pilate forgot one important detail: Jesus wasn’t afraid of death, and Jesus’ realm was not of this earth. Jesus knew that you can gain the whole earth, and forfeit your soul. When Jesus described God’s dominion as a weed-like mustard plant with room for every bird to roost, he was proclaiming the abundance of God’s love. When he spoke of a banquet table filled with those who have been abused, displaced, discarded and forgotten, he was telling the story of God’s picnic one more time.
We can choose whether to live in fear that there will never be enough to go around: not enough food, not enough jobs, not enough love. We can live in fear of losing whatever power we hold in the circles in which we live. We can join a feast of scarcity and death, in which peer pressure will cause us to deny our very selves and injure those we respect; or we can join a picnic of joy and abundance, where the only peer pressure is intended to help us walk more closely with God, in whom we live and move and have our very being. Thanks be to God: the giver of life, the giver of love, the giver of abundance. Amen.
Sources: Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 2. Jarvis, Cynthia, and Johnson, Elizabeth, eds. Westminster/John Knox Press
Andrew Prior: One Man’s Web, “A Feast of Plenty in the Face of Death” onemansweb.org