All ate and were filled

Those walking by the palace could hear them sing, Happy Birthday, dear Herod, Happy Birthday to you! It was Herod’s birthday, and government officials, members of the leading families and the usual lobbyists had been invited to a banquet at the palace. They took turns toasting Herod and praising his wisdom, his power and glory. He was in a great mood, and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance before his guests.[1]

Herodias was his wife, but she used to be his sister-in-law, his brother Philip’s wife, and John, the wilderness prophet, used to tell him, “It is against the law for you to marry her.” John didn’t mention that Herodias was also Philip’s and Herod’s niece… Anyway, Herod had John the Baptist arrested, bound, and put in prison. He really wanted him dead, but he feared public opinion: recent polls had indicated that a great number of people regarded John as a prophet of God.

So, back to the birthday party. Herod asked Herodias’s daughter to dance for his guests, and she did, and her dancing 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 lavish generosity. The young woman, prompted by her mother, asked Herod for her present, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a plate.”

For a moment, perhaps, you almost feel sorry for the old fool: it was too late to take back the impulsive promise; he couldn’t afford to go back on his word and lose face in front of his guests. He was trapped in the power game whose rules he upheld on behalf of Rome. He had to do what he had to do, or at least so he tried to tell himself, I imagine. Nothing’s being said about John, the servant of God’s coming reign, locked up in a cell, unaware of the deadly developments upstairs. Who knows if the music ended when they brought in the prophet’s head on a platter, or if the party went on all night.

Matthew draws our attention to what happened next, outside of Herod’s palace. John’s disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus. And Jesus, upon hearing the sad news, withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. [2]

We wonder if he just wanted to be alone to grieve the death of his friend; or if he crossed the lake to get away from Herod, at least for a while. We imagine his soul was thirsting for prayer. He had to wonder what John’s death meant for his own proclamation of the kingdom that wasn’t Herod’s or Caesar’s but God’s. As he made his way across the lake, men, women and children followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus went ashore, he saw them, but rather than getting back into the boat and seeking solitude and silence out on the water, he stayed with them and cured their sick. He had compassion for them. The kingdom he embodied and proclaimed is founded on compassion.

Matthew shows us in stark contrast the kingdoms of the world and their power and the kingdom of compassion. He tells us the story of two banquets: Herod’s bloody birthday party and Jesus’ banquet by the lake. Herod, trapped in his own power games and determined to stay on top, could only produce death. Jesus brought healing and life, and all ate and were filled.

This is not just a story in the past tense about a miracle that unfolded one late afternoon hundreds of years ago, on the northern shore of lake Galilee. The story is about Jesus and the kingdom he proclaims in the midst of all the old power arrangements. The story is about us and where we go with our hunger. The story is about our need for healing and salvation, for compassion and community, for bread and the feast of life. The story invites us to leave Herod’s party and to go where Jesus is headed and find fulfillment there. There is no bread for our hunger in Herod’s palace, but there is bread in abundance on the other side of the lake where Jesus prepares a picnic in the wilderness.

Bread in the wilderness evokes memories of Israel’s exodus from Egypt, memories of God’s liberating power and providence. Like his father, Herod the Great who killed the infants in and around Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod looks a lot like Pharao. The murder of John was not an unfortunate, isolated incident of poor judgment, it rather showed with brutal clarity that there are powers in the world that will do anything to keep God from disrupting their plans with the announcement of freedom for the oppressed, good news for the poor, compassion for the suffering, and bread for the hungry in the kingdom of God.

I tell myself that I don’t want a seat at Herod’s birthday banquet and that I don’t want a piece of his cake.

The real players, inside the palace, smile; they know I’d never get an invitation.

But the children who crossed the border into Texas and Arizona, longing for a chance to feel safe, to learn and grow and live, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to sit with us?”

And the children in Israel who have nightmares because rockets keep flying across the sky and exploding around them, the children look at me, saying, “Are you going to eat bread with us?”

And the children in Gaza who have no place left to flee from the terror of war, the children look at me, saying, “Will you sit with us?”

They know and remind me that I’m very much part of Herod’s world, whether I like it or not, and Herod’s ways are very much part of me. They know that it’s power and privilege that keep me from fully embracing a life of compassion, and yet they wait for me, and Jesus with them.

I hunger for a world where all eat and are filled, a world where God is at home and all of creation is at peace. I hear a voice, shouting and yet barely audible under the din of constant propaganda and anxious chatter,

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.[3]

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 of us 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 I spend so much money for things that promise to fill me but don’t? Why do I labor for things that only leave me wanting more? Why do I eat too much, drink too much, work and drive too much, and still I don’t know how it feels to be filled? Why do I fill with things a void only God can fill?

We are being taught daily, in more and more sophisticated ways, that we are in control and that we can work, shop, possess and consume our way to fulfillment – I know this sounds like a cliché, but I’m afraid you and I might be quick to dismiss it because we suspect that it could be true. Meanwhile, Jesus is at the lake shore, God’s compassion in the flesh, calling the poor and the rich to come, and healing us.

It’s getting late, and some of us 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,” some disciples say. There are markets in the villages, there are stores in the towns – send them away so that they may buy food for themselves. Jesus says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And we look at what we have to offer, and it doesn’t look like much, and we tell him, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” It really isn’t much to look at against the backdrop of human hunger and need, wherever we turn our eyes, but Jesus says, “Bring them here to me.” And then he does what we remember and proclaim every time we gather at his table, he takes the bread we bring and blesses it, breaks it, gives it back to us, and we pass it around. At the end of the day all have eaten and are filled and there’s enough left to feed the whole people of God.

It doesn’t matter how much or how little we have, but what we do with what we have been given. Our fulfillment and the fulfillment of our neighbors and our enemies is not tied to how much we manage to control what is ours. Fulfillment is tied to our trust in God’s promise and power to redeem us. Fulfillment is tied to our trust that once we begin to relate to each other through Christ, life abundant will erupt.

In Jesus we encounter a power that is utterly different from what we celebrate or fear when we look through the windows of Herod’s palace for a glimpse of the party. Jesus has no use for legions, for rockets, tunnels, tanks, or border fences. But in his hands – this is the gospel promise – in his hands even our smallest gifts of what we know to be life-giving become fullness of life for all.

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

[2] Matthew 14:1-13

[3] Isaiah 55:1-3