The Better Banquet

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

This is a very curious way to begin a story. It’s like walking into the theater with your 3D-glasses and your bucket of popcorn and realizing that they started the movie without you. “What did I miss?” you ask yourself. What was it Jesus heard that causedhim to withdraw in a boat?

The disciples of John the Baptist had just buried the body of their master. He had been beheaded in Herod’s prison. That’s what Jesus heard.

It was Herod’s birthday, and the ruler had invited foreign dignitaries, government officials, members of the chamber of commerce, and a select group of lobbyists to a banquet at his palace. There was plenty of food and drink; the guests sang Happy Birthday, dear Herod, and they took turns giving toasts, praising the wisdom and statesmanship of their host. Food and drink, song and – the only thing missing, Herod thought, was a little dance. So he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance before his company. Herodias was his wife, but she used to be his brother’s wife, and John, the man who had been preaching and baptizing outside the city, John had been telling him, “It is against the law for you to marry her.”

Herod really wanted the man silenced, but he feared the crowd: recent polls indicated that a significant number of people thought of John as a prophet. His word had a great deal of authority among them. So execution was not an option; instead Herod had John arrested and put in prison.

Back to the birthday party. The young woman danced for Herod and his guests, and she pleased him so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. He may have had a few drinks too many, or perhaps he just wanted to impress his guests with his royal munificence. What could the girl possibly ask for – a new dress, jewelry, perhaps a trip to Rome? But prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.” She said it out loud, in front of everybody. It was too late to take back the foolish promise – he couldn’t afford to go back on his word and lose face in front of his guests, half of whom were just waiting for him to show signs of weakness. So he sent and had the prophet beheaded. Dessert hadn’t been served yet, when the head of John the Baptist was brought in on a tray and given to the dancer. Nobody said much; who knows, the occasional beheading may have been part of the routine at court.

John’s disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.

You can imagine he wanted to be alone to mourn the death of his friend. Perhaps he crossed the lake to get away from Herod, at least for a while, to pray and reconsider his own ministry: like John, Jesus proclaimed a kingdom that wasn’t Herod’s, and he had just heard what can happen to those who serve and obey God rather than the ruler of this world. So he got in a boat and sailed away, all by himself. As he made his way across the lake, the crowd followed him on foot from the towns. They were the people who lived under Herod’s rule; they were the people he taxed and polled and feared, always ready to do what needed to be done in order to please Rome or to maintain order and – most important of all – his own power. Jesus saw them, and he didn’t stay in the boat, out on the water, in solitude and silence, no, he came ashore to stay with them. He didn’t go away because he had compassion for them. He didn’t go away because his love for God’s reign was greater than his concern for his own safety.

At Herod’s party, worldly power was unmasked; the deadly game of competition and control, flattering and fear was in plain view. Eating, drinking, singing and dancing made it all look like a joyous feast, but the bloody truth of that banquet was and remains the prophet’s head on a tray.

There is a better banquet where Jesus is host, and the contrast is stark: in Herod’s palace, death rules; in the company of Jesus, life is healed and shared.

We all want to live life in fullness, but everybody, it seems, wants to be invited to Herod’s party in the big house. The game of power promises everything to the ambitious individual, but it destroys communities and silences prophets.

The gospel is about a better banquet for us and our hunger for life in fullness. There is no bread for our hunger in Herod’s palace, but there is bread in abundance on the other side where Jesus prepares a picnic in the wilderness. The gospel is God’s invitation to us to leave Herod’s party and go where Jesus is headed and find fulfillment there.

Herod[1], like his father, Herod the Great who killed the infant boys in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod looks a lot like Pharaoh – you remember Pharaoh. Like the pharao’s violent resistance against the exodus, the murder of John was not an unfortunate, isolated incident of poor judgment on the part of a weak or evil individual; this murder revealed with brutal clarity the powers that will do anything to keep God from disrupting their plans. Pharaoh, Herod, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Bashir – the list goes on through the ages; the players change, but the game remains the same: power at any cost. But there is a better banquet with good news for the poor, freedom for the oppressed, compassion for the suffering, bread for the hungry, life in abundance.

I don’t want to be part of Herod’s party and I don’t want a piece of his cake. I want to be where there’s bread enough for all and twelve baskets full of leftovers. I want to be where the singing continues through the night until the morning dawns.

For Herod’s party you need an invitation, you have to know the right people who can make a couple of phone calls and get you in. Once you’re in, if you want Herod to remember your name, tell him how to spin the murder of John into a triumph of justice for tomorrow’s headlines – you pull that off and you’ll always have a seat at Herod’s table.

Jesus’ banquet isn’t a party for the select few but a gathering for all who yearn for fullness of life.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.[2]

I hear the voice of Christ in these lines from Isaiah. I hear his invitation to all who hunger and thirst for life to come to him. He calls the poor to buy wine and milk without money, and those who have money he asks, “Why do you spend [it] for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Why indeed? Why do we spend so much money for things that promise to fill us, but always, always leave us empty? Why do we labor for things that only leave us wanting more? Why do we work and shop and buy and put our stuff in storage – and still we don’t know how it feels to be filled? Why do we listen to voices that tell us day and night that we must work and consume our way to fulfillment?

Meanwhile, Jesus is at the lake shore, God’s compassion in the flesh, calling the poor and the rich to come, and healing them. It’s getting late, and some of the disciples are beginning to worry about this enormous group of people and their hunger. “Send them away so that they may go and buy food for themselves,” they say. There are markets in the villages, convenience stores and restaurants, something for every taste. Send them away, we say, so that they may buy food for themselves – send them back to Herod’s world.

Jesus says no. They need not go away; you give them something to eat, he says. And we look at what we have to offer and it looks like nothing to us. Five loaves and two fish looks like nothing to us. What’s a handful in world of need? Not enough. Never enough. And Jesus says, bring them here to me. We say, we have nothing here but five of this and two of that. But Jesus says, bring them here to me. The point, apparently, is not how little or much we have but what we do with what we have to offer.

The contrast is stark. In Herod’s palace, gifts are a part of the game. They create relationships of dependence and obligation. In Herod’s palace, every gift is a bribe, a quid-pro-quo, hush money, a little extra padding for a deal – one hand washes the other. At the other banquet, we place what we have in Jesus’ hands and watch in wonder how the miracle of life in fullness unfolds.

You can bet they had the biggest cake in town for Herod’s birthday, but the party ended with the violent death of a servant of God. At the end of that same day, there was a party outside the palace, a banquet where life ruled, and all ate and were filled.

We live in a world where Herod rules, but in this very world we hear the call of a different ruler. We live in a world where voices from every side tell us that we must look out for ourselves, but in this very world we hear the call of a different ruler. Incline your ear, he says. Listen, so that you may live.

[1] Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great (Matthew 2:1-23)

[2] Isaiah 55:1-3