The first of three feasts

Week of Sunday July 12 2009
Bible Mark 6:14-29

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.' 15But others said, ‘It is Elijah.' And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.' 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.'

17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod* had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.' 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for 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. 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. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

The original biblical texts didn't come with chapter headings and story titles. They were a later invention. In my copy of the text, this week's gospel is titled The Death of John the Baptist. We could make a division in the text a couple of verses earlier. Then the story would begin with the words "So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent." In that case, we could call our story, The King who would not Repent. He liked to listen to John, but he did not change, and eventually killed him.

Perhaps we could call it The Story of the Weakling King. Herod only arrested John, it says, on account of the complaints of his wife. In the end, he gave in to her.

Or maybe we could call the story The Feeding of the Privileged Few, given that my New Testament has headlined the next section as The Feeding of the Five Thousand.

Bill Loader makes an excellent case that the three "feedings" in Mark are connected.

When he reports Jesus' discussion of the significance of these two miraculous feedings in 8:14-20, Mark begins by reminding us of the ‘leaven' of Herod (8:16). We are meant to see the link. Mark connects the three feasts under the rubric of ‘leaven' or bread. Readers of Mark would doubtless have made the connection with the eucharist. The feedings of the 5000 and 4000 foreshadow that meal of life through death. Herod's feast is the counterpoint. It is a black eucharist: John's head is brought forward on a platter at the height of its ‘liturgy'. (My emphas1s)

Consider the text of the Feeding of the Four Thousand in Chapter 8.

2‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way-and some of them have come from a great distance.' 4His disciples replied, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?' 5He asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?' They said, ‘Seven.' 6Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. 7They had also a few small fish; and after blessing them, he ordered that these too should be distributed. 8They ate and were filled; and they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9Now there were about four thousand people.

This is the Gentile Feast. The middle feast is the Jewish Feast. You can see the reasons for the assignation of the labels Jew and Gentile in the article I've linked here. But aside from Mark's careful emphasis upon the inclusion of all people, this feast is also about compassion. It begins, "I have compassion for the crowd..." All the hungry are fed, and filled. There is food left over.

The contrast is not with the feeding of the five thousand, where the same compassion is present. The contrast is with the feast provided by Herod; the Merciless Feast. There was no compassion in that place. Not all were fed; many were slaves who provided the feeding. By the time of Mark's readers, it would be seen that one feast was about the glorification of a weak, vacillating tyrant king, and the other feasts (now seen as eucharist) were about the glorification of a king who was servant. The tyrant identified the servant king as the one whose head he had on a platter at a feast. The irony is bitter.

At the end of his commentary Bill Loader says

Notice that Herod feared and is fascinated by John. John is not the last prophet whom leaders have reduced to an item of intellectual fascination, nor the last preacher. Ideas are fun.

True enough, although Bill's pithy comment glosses over the pathos and the warning of Herod's situation. What a sad man. He "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." There was something deeply attractive about John to this tyrant. John had reached his heart in some way. But power, and status, and pride overrode his desire for the holy. He could not say, "I am sorry. This I cannot give you. Another man's life is not mine to give."

It says "out of regard for his oaths and for the guests," but really it means, "out of regard for his own pride." How often I have been a little Herod, claiming to uphold what is right and proper for the sake of my pride? I've been too proud to say I was wrong, too proud to concede a point because of my hurt feelings, too proud to appear weak while being strong. In the imagery of Mark, not only am I crucifying Christ again (Hebrews 6:6), I am serving up his head on a platter.

Andrew Prior

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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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