by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 14: 13-21
When you’re part of a church named Open Table, you start noticing the Bible’s many allusions to tables and meals and the way God feeds us. Over and over Jesus’s ministry focused on feeding people and blessing the hungry and anticipating the heavenly feast. His final words to his followers–over a shared meal–urged them to remember him always in the breaking and blessing and sharing of bread together.
But these miracles and metaphors about meals that instruct us in the ways of God’s kin*dom are sometimes reinforced more subtly by negative examples. For instance, before Jesus began his ministry, the “Tempter” appeared to him in the wilderness after Jesus had “fasted for forty days and forty nights, and was famished. . . . The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4: 2-4). The tempter’s bread Jesus refused. Some meals may not come from God. Some meals may not nourish us.
Indeed, the antithesis of God’s banquet is found in the Gospel critiques of the Empire’s banquets. In Matthew’s Gospel, immediately before the beloved story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, we see an appalling example of the banquet the Empire hosts. Do you remember what was served at that grand banquet—in stark contrast to the meal of five loaves and two fishes Jesus multiplied? The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. The juxtaposition of these stories is not an accident. The meal Herod hosted shows how the empire feeds. The meal Jesus hosted immediately afterward shows how God feeds. The meal Herod hosted reveals whom the empire feeds—and feeds upon. The meal Jesus hosted reveals whom God feeds.
Before we look at the meal Jesus hosted for thousands, let’s pick up just a few verses earlier at Herod’s exclusive banquet. This Herod, son of Herod Antipas who slaughtered the children at the time of Jesus’s birth, had imprisoned John the Baptist for what we might call speaking truth to power. John had accused Herod of unlawfully taking his own brother’s wife, Herodias, perhaps in a move to consolidate his power (Carter 303). At Herod’s birthday feast Herodias’s daughter danced so pleasingly for the king that Herod promised to give her anything she’d ask for. Now that’s a sure sign of elitism — when you can promise anything! Herodias prompted her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist, maybe because he’d insulted her by condemning the king’s relationship with her. But the fact that she asked for his head ON A PLATTER . . . AT A BANQUET starkly contrasts the empire’s meal with the food God provides. The Empire was almost literally devouring its subjects.
When John’s head was presented to the dancing daughter later that night, she passed that gruesome platter to her mother as if it/he were nothing more than the third course in the meal. Abruptly the story ends by shifting from John’s head at the banquet scene to John’s body, what’s left of it, being given to his disciples for sacred burial. The narrator seems to need to look away quickly from the royal feast at its ghastly climax, after having observed the terrifying way power licenses the powerful to do the unthinkable. As if the hunger for more land and more power can ultimately be satiated only by the consumption of humanity. Herod’s birthday became John’s death day. Festivity for some can mean suffering for others. Everything about the Empire’s banquet is contrary to the generosity and love of the heavenly banquet Jesus teaches.
We pick up today’s reading in Matthew just after Jesus had learned of his cousin’s execution in the context of an imperial meal, just after Herod had implicitly threatened him with a similar fate by calling Jesus, facetiously, “John the Baptist raised from the dead,” and not long before Jesus would sit at a table with his twelve disciples and take bread and tell them “This is my body. Eat this. And remember me and the way I gave myself for you.”
Within this disturbing frame — between Herod’s banquet and Jesus’s last supper — we see how Jesus, for the fifth time in this Gospel, “withdrew” after an aggressive act of imperial power (Carter 305). The narrative moves from Herod’s court to Jesus in the countryside. Jesus then left the crowds that persistently followed him. By boat he moved on down the coast a bit. For a little while he was alone.
Warren Carter sees Jesus’s brief time of solitude as a strategic move: “To withdraw is to refuse to play in the tyrant’s world and by the tyrant’s rules. It is to make a space for a different reign, God’s empire, marked by life-giving structures and compassionate practices such as healing and feeding. Such a space is . . . found on the margins, in an insignificant place, a deserted place or wilderness, a place of no use to the elite but of central importance to God’s purposes and very threatening to the center. The beneficiaries are not the powerful but the poor and marginalized” (305).
Others have understood this time of solitude as a means of spiritual restoration and have remarked on the pattern Jesus models—of recognizing the powers that harm God’s children, withdrawing for prayer, and then having compassion on the powerless. What a lesson for us, friends, as we confront abuses of power, as we then “withdraw” the way we are doing now for prayer, and then as we respond with compassion for those on the margins. In fact, I think this pattern is essential: recognize injustice; withdraw for prayer; move forward with acts of compassion.
During seminary I spent a January term in Nogales, Mexico, living with people in extreme poverty whose homes were hovels made of pieces of scrap metal and bit of this and that over a dirt floor. There classmates and I learned this same Jesus approach to justice, which we applied to our engagement in the colonias where we were serving and learning. From people of great spiritual depth we learned three Spanish words to outline our three basic duties: VER, PENSAR, ACTUAR. Our process for our own spiritual growth and for social transformation required us to:
VER (To see. In other words, to pay attention to the world, to observe)
PENSAR (To think. And that included a pensive means of reflection akin to prayer.)
ACTUAR (To act. To let the world you have seen and the God with whom you have communed inform how you act, courageously and compassionately, for God’s just kin*dom.)
At various times in Matthew, Jesus turned to see an individual or the crowds and we’re told “he had compassion for them,” which motivated him to heal the sick and feed the poor. In this context it’s easy to imagine Jesus sympathizing with the victims of the empire and its systems that disregarded them. Interestingly, the Greek word astheneo, translated usually as “sick,” also can mean “powerless.” The ruthlessness of the empire may have caused much of the sickness Jesus confronted. The connection between sickness and powerlessness recently makes more sense to me now when I think about how one’s ability to afford health care means the difference between sickness and health. Those who have little power are often sick.
And often hungry. After Jesus surveyed the multitudes, he modeled how to host a very different kind of banquet than the one Herod had just hosted. The disciples recommended to Jesus that they send the hungry crowd at day’s end. But Jesus replied, “YOU find something for them to eat.” Well, apparently the disciples had already considered that option, but after scrounging around for food they’d turned up only five loaves and two fish. Compassion just wasn’t practical on this scale of need, they might have protested. But Jesus insisted they try anyway. The three-fold pattern was repeated again: 1)Jesus saw the need. 2) He paused prayerfully to bless the meager bit of food. 3) He acted with compassion by distributing what they did have so all had enough. Which is the formula for justice.
And so this story of a feast ends not in the gory horror of an imperial banquet but in the glorious glimpse of the heavenly feast. These stories, when read together, expose the lure and limits of imperial power—and the limitless power of Christ’s compassion.
God, use us for the compassionate work of your kin*dom. Amen
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. The Bible and Liberation Series. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003.