What’s For Dinner?
I am always a fan of a good meal. Eric and I enjoy sampling all kinds of food from all over the world. We love to eat and fellowship with good friends. One of the most memorable meals in my life so far was at my sister’s wedding in Italy last summer. The wedding was held in a very small town – maybe the size of Yemassee – far off the usual tourist path, so Andrea and Anthony got not the tourist treatment but a real, Italian wedding feast. According to the menu, the meal had seven courses, but if you were keeping count, no less than eleven different dishes came out, and that’s not counting the dessert buffet. The feast was long and leisurely with plenty of time to walk around and visit with others between courses. By the end of the evening, our bellies and our hearts were full.
Maybe my love for eating a good meal is one of the reasons I am so drawn to the feeding miracles and banquet parables of Jesus. The feeding of the five thousand is one of the most beloved stories about Jesus. It is one of only a few that is retold by all four evangelists. In all four cases the heart of the story is nearly identical. In all four gospels, this is a story about the power of Jesus and the provision of God. It is a story that reminds us how much God can accomplish if we will only offer what we have, however insignificant it might seem. It is a story that challenges us to see possibility instead of scarcity; to confront the problems in the world instead of turning away in despair.
But when Matthew tells the story he sets it up just a little bit differently than the others. We find a clue in the very first verse of today’s reading: “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there.” When Jesus heart what? To answer that question, we must leave the restrictions of the lectionary and take a look at the first twelve verses of Matthew 14:
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
This news of his cousin’s brutal death is the context of Jesus’ grief-stricken withdrawal to a deserted place. This news fills Jesus’ heart even as he has compassion on the relentless crowd. The report of Herod’s deadly and grotesque banquet must be fresh on Jesus’ mind as he breaks five loaves and two fish to feed five-thousand hungry men.
In Matthew’s gospel, the feeding of five thousand is not a story about one feast, but two. In the first, we see the feast of those who always have plenty to eat celebrating with an even bigger party. Herod is the emissary of Rome. He is not Caesar, but he acts with Caesar’s authority. When John the Baptist questions Herod’s moral integrity, Herod has John arrested. To make sure that his power and position are secure, Herod must keep the peace and save face at any cost necessary. In this case, the cost is the head of John the Baptist, served up on a silver platter. Herod’s banquet is the place to see-and-be-seen in Jerusalem. But it is also a death-giving meal marked by intrigue and tyranny.
The second feast is the one that has become beloved in the hearts of modern disciples. We see a crowd hungry for spiritual wholeness and physical food. They are mostly subsistence farmers or laborers who take to heart the way Jesus taught them to pray for daily bread. These are the people whom Rome ignores, except when it comes time to collect in an unjust system of taxation. They are the ones who bear the heaviest burden when the teachers of the law inflict ever-more-strict interpretations of the Torah. They are the ones on whom Jesus has compassion. In this feast, the meal is a simple fisherman’s diet: bread and tilapia. But miraculously, everyone is satisfied. This is the meager feast of the nobodies, but it is also the life-giving meal that “embodies the gracious abundance of God” (1).
Bringing these two stories together, Matthew makes it easy for us to see that there are still two feasts being celebrated in our world today. There is the feast of the powerful who always have plenty and celebrate with lavish extravagance. It is the feast of those who can take care of themselves and then some. The people at this table are the powerful elite, the ones who can pull strings and turn heads. But the people at this table also see others as expendable – tools or toys used for their own pleasure or power-seeking. They are the ones who not only have power but manipulate or abuse it to make sure their place is secure. They are the ones who delight in another’s suffering, or at the very least ignore it. When they stand on shaky moral ground they face few consequences.
And then there is the feast of the weak. It is the feast of those whose voice goes unheard and whose pocketbooks are usually empty; of those who barely have enough but always manage to share. The people at this table are hardly important in the eyes of the movers and shakers. They get lip-service but little real relief from the powers that be. When they make mistakes, they pay for them. But the people at this table know the value of community. They care for their family and their neighbors even at their own expense. They show deep compassion for the pain of the people around them, and they receive compassion from their friends and neighbors. They have unreasonable faith that God will provide for their needs – not with extravagance, but with enough. This banquet it not elaborate, but it is marked with prayers of thanksgiving and songs of joy.
As followers of Jesus Christ living in the United States of America in the twenty-first century, you and I have a choice that the crowd following Jesus never had: we can choose which banquet we will attend. You do not have to be among the 1% to sit at the feast of the powerful. If you were born in this country to middle-class parents, your invitation arrived with your birth certificate.
I will tell you that I have looked with longing at that lavish, extravagant feast with its endless courses of food, ten-piece band, fine china, and elegant dances. I have stood outside the door, fingering my invitation in my pocket, wondering whether I should go inside. Should I make the “right” friends, buy and wear the “right” clothes, contribute to the “right” causes? There remains a sin-scarred part of me that likes the idea of acceptance and power and privilege, not to mention fine foods and a good party. But I am not willing to live with the constant insecurity that comes with wondering whether I will remain a welcome guest. More importantly, I cannot ignore the people who never received an invitation and stand just-out-of-sight, starving, and I will not laugh when the platter comes by serving up the head of my neighbor.
So instead I will answer another invitation that I received not with my birth certificate, but with my baptism. I will join the feast of the weak and the least – the feast of Jesus. While the people around this table may not have a twelve course dinner, it turns out that everyone is full. And so I will be generous. They may not have a brass band, but they sing the songs of their heart. And so I will offer the song of my heart, even if it’s a little off-key. The people around this table may not have much political influence, but there is tremendous power in their compassion for one another and their faith in the provision of God. And so I will care for my neighbors and trust in God to give me what I need. If you want to wear the right thing to this banquet, put on a heart of mercy. The right friends are whichever people are sitting beside you. The right cause is the cause of your neighbor in need.
We live in a land of incredible abundance. We have access to more technology, more natural resources, and more global power than any of Jesus’ followers who have ever lived. Like Matthew we live in a land of two feasts. But unlike him, have two invitations in our hands: Herod’s and Jesus’. With all of my food-loving heart, I hope that you will leave behind the Herod’s delicacies and join me at the simple, compassionate, abundant, joyful, and welcoming table that Jesus has set before us. Come, for there is always room for one more. Amen.
(1) Warren Carter, “Commentary on Matthew 14:13-21” on WorkingPreacher.org.