This horrifying text we have before us today of the beheading of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday party has recently been described by biblical scholars (namely Pastor and Professors Barbara Lundblad and Gordon Lathrop as well as Bishop Mike Rinehart -- all members of our church body) as Herod’s banquet of death. And then contrasted with the episode that immediately follows this one, where Jesus feeds the 5000.
I’d like to start by reflecting on this sharp contrast that was no doubt intentional in Mark’s composition...and heard, loud and clear, by Mark’s original audiences: “Herod’s Banquet of Death” vs. “Jesus’ Banquet of Life”.
At Herod’s banquet of death, we’re not out in a deserted field, like the feeding of the 5000, we’re in a palace, a lavish banquet hall. This is where the rich and powerful dine with the king. A true power lunch, that’s not for the multitude, but a select few. And there is more than enough for this few. This is a feast of excess -- excess food, excess drink, excess entertainment, excess space, excess violence. The select few gorge and imbibe and get entertained as the multitudes starve outside the palace gates, and in the hills and countrysides...
At Herod’s banquet, women are made to dance and entertain the men. Women are objects of amusement and pleasure, only to be thrown out with the trash, like greasy paper plates when the pizza party’s over. Herod’s daughter, it says, pleased him greatly with her dancing...so much so, that in a drunken and reckless state of ecstasy and excess, Herod promises her whatever she wants. At which point, her evil mother whispers in her ear, “The head of John the Baptist.”
And it is immediately retrieved and brought in on a platter, like a pig, like a final course, like a grand finale. I imagine everyone cheering when the cover of the platter is lifted and John’s head is revealed for the guests to see. Can’t you just smell the excess -- the sweat, the meat, the death? This is empire.
It’s where the moral compass has been lost to power, and an elite crowd cheers at retaliatory violence and terror...while so many others are made to suffer, simply because they are overlooked or not really a concern. The multitudes of poor and hungry are not Herod’s concern.
Pastor Barbara Lundblad asks: “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death – even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.”
Only verses later Mark tells us of Jesus’ banquet of life. This happens, not in palace grandeur, but in the open air -- in an open field. Not lavish but simple.
We’ve already seen something of Jesus‘ treatment of women, as contrasted with Herod’s. Remember last week? He doesn’t just heal and raise the ritually unclean, hemorrhaging woman and the dead, little girl: he touches them, he brings them to the center, he restores them to the community. He not only heals their disease, but he heals society’s disease. Everyone is restored as a result.
In Jesus’ Banquet of Life, everyone is fed; everyone has enough.
Some say, “Oh be careful, that sounds like communism.” I don’t think it’s communism. I like this term I’ve heard: “It’s enoughism.” Jesus models, and calls on us too, to make sure everyone has enough. Do you have enough? Does your neighbor have enough. What is enough? What is too much? Do you have too much? Is there bread you can share, like the little boy who shared his little bit of bread and fish? These are the questions we’re invited to wrestle with this week.
“In a wealthy society,” Bishop Rinehart says, “we want to sanitize Jesus, spiritualizing him to have nothing to say about the material. Any honest reading of the gospels will dispel this myth, but we’re pretty committed to it. ‘You give them something to eat,’ is Jesus’ strong call to the disciples...”
So what’ll it be sisters and brothers? Herod’s Banquet of Death or Jesus’ Banquet of Life? That’s a very Markan question to pose. Jesus is very clear-cut in Mark. It’s always this way vs. that. No fuzzy grey areas: “Well, it’s complicated.” No! For Jesus in Mark, it’s either good or evil. It’s God or the devil. It’s Jesus’ way or the empire’s way. It’s bread or weapons. It’s life or death. What’ll it be for us?
We can chose who we will follow, who we put our trust in. And, let’s be honest: we’re tempted all the time to go to Herod’s party, at least I am. Whether we can get invited or not, it’s a lure. To get behind those golden doors and lounge around with the world’s great and mighty, despite their lack of concern for the poor, the outcast, the alien. “Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry?” Herod’s party, I bet, was a lot of fun (except for the servers and maybe the entertainers, but perhaps maybe even they enjoyed it some extent, of the the empiracal system, at least they were on the inside).
Let’s not discount the lure and desire to be on the inside of the empire, to have a place at the table at the power lunch.
We can chose who we will follow and where we put our trust, but, sisters and brothers in Christ, here’s what I do know, and what I proclaim to you this morning: Whether you’re drawn to Herod’s feast of excess or not, know that Jesus has set a place for you at his table of mercy. You’ll always have a seat at the table there! You’ll always have enough there. You may or may not get into Herod’s party, but Jesus’ party, you’ll always get into. There’s no limit to Jesus’ guest list. At Jesus banquet, you will be fed. There’s always enough.
Sisters and brothers in Christ, maybe we’ve been to Herod’s events in our lives. Maybe we’ve enjoyed opulence and excess inside palaces that can’t see the poor and sick. We can still get up from those parties, and walk out. It’s not too late. We can still come over to Jesus‘ party on the hillside. His invitation is always good, his arms are always open, his grace is always free.
It might cost us to leave Herod’s banquet, Christians have faced rejection leaving Herod’s banquet for centuries. But Jesus calls us to shake the dust from our feet, and come over to a meal and a life of mercy and forgiveness, grace and peace.
Let’s go all together! AMEN.
Blessing and Sending of Cyndi Jones
Gracious Shepherd, we thank you for the ministry of your servant Cyndi, and for all that she has learned and accomplished these past months. We also thank you for what we have learned and experienced together. Your Word has been fruitful, your mercy abundant, and so we offer you our thanks and our praise.
Continue to strengthen Cyndi, by your Holy Spirit, for faithful living and future ministry. As she goes from this place, casting out unclean spirits, proclaiming your good news, when she is refused, help her -- like all your disciples -- to shake the dust from her feet, and move on in faith and good courage. May what she has learned and experienced here make her confident and eager for service in your Church. Bless her and give her joy in what is past and hope for what is yet to be, in internship and further study. All this we pray through our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.