14 When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus, 2 he said to his advisers, “This must be John the Baptist raised from the dead! That is why he can do such miracles.”
3 For Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias (the former wife of Herod’s brother Philip). 4 John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” 5 Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of a riot, because all the people believed John was a prophet.
6 But at a birthday party for Herod, Herodias’ daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, 7 so he promised with a vow to give her anything she wanted. 8 At her mother’s urging, the girl said, “I want the head of John the Baptist on a tray!” 9 Then the king regretted what he had said; but because of the vow he had made in front of his guests, he issued the necessary orders.10 So John was beheaded in the prison, 11 and his head was brought on a tray and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. 12 Later, John’s disciples came for his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what had happened.
13 As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. 14 Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
15 That evening the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said, “That isn’t necessary—you feed them.”
17 “But we have only five loaves of bread and two fish!” they answered.
18 “Bring them here,” he said. 19 Then he told the people to sit down on the grass. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he gave the bread to the disciples, who distributed it to the people. 20 They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. 21 About 5,000 men were fed that day, in addition to all the women and children!
I have mentioned a number of times so far in our Red Letter Year that the ordering of stories in the Gospel accounts is never random (by the way, my apologies for not posting Friday, jet lag got the best of me), and that when something seems random or irruptive that is a good indication that something important is to be gained from discerning how the seemingly unrelated part does in fact relate. This passage is a prime example where this interpretive tool proves useful.
At first glance, the account of John the Baptist’s death at the hands of Herod interrupts the narrative flow. But there are a couple of key parallels. First, both Herod and Jesus are feeding people in this passage. Herod throws a feast to celebrate his own birthday, inviting important guests. These people are well able to provide food for themselves. Herod feeds them, not to provide for their needs, but to bolster his own pretense to power. Jesus feeds people too, not the powerful as a form of manipulation, but those in need because he loves them. The contrast between who Herod and Jesus feed and why they feed them is a key part of Matthew’s message here.
Also note the contrast in their attitudes toward people. Fear of people drives all of Herod’s decisions here. He arrests John, not because he thinks John a false prophet (he at least suspects the opposite), but because John is harming his regal image. Yet he refuses to have John put to death, even though in our narrative the name Herod is synonymous with death. In both cases, arresting and not executing, Herod is acting out of fear. He wants to appear as an authoritarian ruler, but it’s a sham. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain,” because you will see he is small, afraid, and only operates in a politics of fear. It is even fear that leads to John’s death in the end. Having written a blank check he did not intend, Herod is afraid to appear weak in front of his powerful dinner guests. His fear of them is more real and immediate than his vague fear of the crowd. (Would this be a good time to mention that many pastors lead their churches out of fear or should we just move on? Moving on, I’ll let you ponder the present day implications.)
By contrast, Jesus operates only in a politics of love. He didn’t want anything from the crowd. He was actually trying to get away by himself, likely to grieve the news about his cousin, and perhaps pray about his own impending death (don’t think for a minute Gethsemane was a one-time thing). But the crowds, the powerless, hopeless, leaderless crowds (wandering in the desert like the Israelites) need him. They gravitate to Jesus and his power. The abundance he feeds them from is not hoarded wealth violently gained. This is not bread bought with blood money. Jesus feeds them out of the abundance of God’s grace. It is a truly free lunch. No strings attached. No exploitation in procuring the food or of the recipients.
One present day implication I will make explicit relates to our care for the poor. Stanley Hauerwas says, “those who would be Jesus’ disciples need to learn how to feed the hungry in a manner that charity does not become a way to gain power over those who are fed. There is a violent and nonviolent way to feed the hungry.” (Hauerwas, Matthew, 139) Dorothy Day (quoting the film Monsieur Vincent) put it even more directly: “You must love them very much to make them forgive the bread you give them.” This is not just an alternate politics to what we see Herod practicing, it is the polar opposite. This is not a move from an active approach to gaining power to a neutral position. This is a move all the way to giving power away. Only in the embrace of powerlessness are we following Jesus. This is nowhere more important than when it comes to care for the poor.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.