Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ 16Jesus said to them, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat.’ 17They replied, ‘We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.’ 18And he said, ‘Bring them here to me.’ 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
I remember our Grade Seven teacher telling us in 1967 that we would all earn more than a hundred dollars a week, when we left school. This was startling news; one of us thought his father was earning about $35.00 each week! I don’t recall any particular dreams, or desire for lots of money. It was enough to know that things were inevitably getting better, and that this was a good thing. Life would be exciting, and be good to us.
I now live a short walk from a major shopping centre. Our incomes are twenty and thirty times those of our fathers, and that’s the lower end. The shops are full of consumer items which, in 1967, did not even exist in people's imaginations. And yet a great deal of the material in there is trivial trash, which masquerades as a way into the meaningful.
We are, of course, a poorer suburb. If I go to Burnside, which is much more up-market, the more refined content of the shops is simply a more expensive version of the same masquerade, and just as trivial.
I am not sure which shopping centre I dislike more. The nose-in-the-air pretentiousness of Burnside used to anger me when I lived nearby. Here in Elizabeth, the failure of the consumer dream mostly saddens me. We seem to sell ourselves out so cheaply for a shot at pleasure, and the pretence of success.
Both places fail, just as King Herod’s shopping and partying failed. It is true that I see folk happy at the shops; it’s mostly when they seem to be on an outing together, rather than really buying anything; or when they stop for a while at the pet shop window. It’s the gentlest, happiest place in the whole centre. No one is seeking to prove anything.
But a great number of the people who are actually shopping seem to be stressed, dissatisfied, and even aggrieved. Although lacking the material power and success of Herod, they still share his longings and emptiness.
On our weekly supermarket visit, my companion coined the collective term, “a belligerence of bogans.” The shopping centre seems to gather deep longings, very visible sadness, and simmering anger underneath it all. The peevish emotions and pinched expressions of the supermarket aisles contrast with their plenty. The enormous car-park is frequently full as people come to an asphalt desert, like sheep without a shepherd, searching for something.
“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) Despite the status of his family, and his enormous power under the patronage of the Romans, a wild prophet from way outside proper society was able to show Herod Antipas his emptiness, and an attractive hope.
So Herod, although arresting John to appease his wife, still protected him. The story continues in Mark 6:
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’24She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
For a twisted vision of what was truly important in life, and a perverse sense of honour, Herod sacrificed the one man who was speaking to his emptiness.
The stories occur across the gospels. Mark highlights Herod’s entanglement with John with more detail and sympathy than Matthew. But Matthew links the story of John and the story Feeding of Five Thousand, much more closely to each other. In Mark the stories’ position together is almost coincidental. But in Matthew, (13) “when Jesus heard [of John’s murder], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself.... When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.” Then he fed them.
This was not a great banquet of the powerful and entitled. It was a feast for the poor and the powerless, and the sick. This feast was not in a palace of power, but in the desert; the Greek does not come from deserted, as when we mean isolated and lonely, but from eremos, as in desert. The old King James translation says he went away to a desert place, the last refuge of those excluded from society.
The feeding story itself, contains many allusions to Israel’s expectations of a Messiah, and many echoes from the scriptures. We need to remember these to appreciate the depth of the story. I’ve lifted a list from the ever thorough Brian Stoffregen.
We can also note that John follows his telling of this story of the feeding with extended reflection on the Eucharist. Matthew changes Mark’s emphasis on the meaning of the feedings. In Mark (6:30-44) it serves to celebrate the nourishment of salvation offered to Israel, just as the feeding of the 4000 (8:1-10) will celebrate the offer also to the Gentiles (see also 8:16-21). Matthew is not so happy to use the stories in this way. In his composition both feedings are nourishment of Israel... (Loader)
But it is when I look at “Herod’s Eucharist,” the feast which offers John’s life, breaks his body, and presents his head on a platter, as a worship to lust, greed, and revenge, that the story of the feeding comes alive.
For then we see Jesus, and his feast, driven not by power and twisted propriety, but by compassion. We see the kingdom of God linked not to status, and conspicuous exploitative consumption, but to service and healing. We see the kingdom of God happening not in the halls of commerce or the high houses of the hills face, but in plainer picnicking in the poor parks of second class suburbs.
When I look at Herod’s feast, I see its reflection in the glitter and exploitation in my local shopping centre, along with its three hour shifts for school kids. Even the people at the top are left with empty hopes. Once you’ve bought food and a blanket, most of the rest is pointless. In this light, the crazy compassion of Jesus, counter cultural, foolishly extravagant, and never going to get rich, is not something even more foolish and sentimental than cooing over the puppies in the window. It is a lot more sane, and far more hopeful than the empty promises paraded before us.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
© Scots Church Adelaide Ph. 08 8223 1505