A Feast of Plenty in the Face of Death

Week of Sunday August 3 - Pentecost 8
Gospel: Matthew 14:13-21

At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2and 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.’ 3For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ 5Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

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.

During childhood my heart suspected that our farm, despite careful practice, was going backwards. There was a dryness belied by the shape of the land and the size of the old trees. Something never seemed quite right. When I left home, my university studies in agricultural science and rangeland ecology opened my eyes to a devastated landscape. The land was being destroyed. Despite all the changes farmers have made since then, I have never escaped this conclusion.

In Australia we are going backward even more rapidly, "repealing" the carbon tax. We are overmining earth and undermining our very existence.

The challenge the Anthropocene poses is a challenge not just to national security, to food and energy markets, or to our “way of life” — though these challenges are all real, profound, and inescapable. The greatest challenge the Anthropocene poses may be to our sense of what it means to be human.... We face the imminent collapse of the agricultural, shipping and energy networks upon which the global economy depends, a large-scale die-off in the biosphere that’s already well on its way, and our own possible extinction. If homo sapiens (or some genetically modified variant) survives the next millenniums, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have inhabited. Roy Scranton

What I once hoped was my Malthusian misanthropy is our probable destination. When the military says that "global climate change [is] the greatest threat the United States face[s]" (Ibid) it's time to stop listening to the money men and to pay attention to the biologists.

•••

Scranton says what we have to do is to learn how to die, which should not surprise us given that our Faith is in large part about how we face death.

How we live and how we face death has much to do with The Feeding of the Five Thousand which is this week's reading.

The first thing to note is that this reading does not stand alone. It is linked to the death of John the Baptist. The Feast of Jesus stands in contradistinction to the Feast of Herod. (It is not so in Mark and Luke.) After the parables of what the Kingdom is like in Chapter 13, we are being shown the difference between kingdoms.

The two stories are about scarcity and plenty, hunger and feasting, living and dying. Perhaps most of all they ask us a question: One whose side are we? Are we on the side of Herod, or are we on the side of Jesus? Where will we look for our food and for our life? Which will be our kingdom?

Where we look for our food and our sustenance will have a profound effect on our dying and on all our living.

Jesus is the prophet who is against Herod.

In 2 Kings, shortly after the great prophet Elijah is taken up into heaven, there is a feast given by Elisha, his successor. The servant is sure, like the disciples, that there will not be enough food. "How can I set this before a hundred people?" But "they ate, and had some left." (2 Kings 4:22-24)

In Matthew, after John has gone, (murdered by Herod) Jesus performs the same miracle. Just as Elisha inherited a double portion of the spirit of Elijah, (2 Kings 2:9) so Jesus is greater than John.

(In Matthew's mind there may also be a link to Ruth whom is listed in Chapter One. See below.)

But first, Herod the King.

Herod lives in the world of power politics. He can throw a feast beyond the means of anyone else. He can promise "on oath to grant [the daughter of Herodias] whatever she might ask." (Matthew 14:6) Even to half his kingdom, says Mark— only the richest could dare this! (Mark 6:23)

Yet his kingdom is the dog eat dog kingdom of fear and insecurity. Herod did not want to kill John "yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given..." (Matthew 14:9) In the world of envy and the need to possess more and more in order to maintain status and power, he is as vulnerable as anyone else! Once you are at the top you can only go down... unless you do whatever it takes to stay on top. You fear losing what you have. There is never enough. While she earns $600 a second, Gina Rhineheart hints Australian should workers should go back to working for $2.00 a day.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Scarcity.

In Herod's kingdom you are either "in" or "out." And the whole structure works by keeping most of us out, seeking to make us desire to imitate the Herodians so that we can be let "in." We will do whatever we need to get "in," what those who are already "in" want of us, a willing slavery, and then exclude our former friends.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Exclusion.

There is an intriguing twist to the story of Herodias' daughter. Google asked me if Mark had plagiarised Esther. "Even to half my kingdom" is apparently copied from Esther 7, and we poor Christians are ignorant of this! What "thrillobyte" does not understand, of course, is that Mark's people would have known the parallel without Google telling them. The point is that where Esther makes her wish it is for the saving of her people. For Herodias the wish is for the death of a prophet of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Herod's kingdom is ultimately a Kingdom of Death.

•••

Jesus lives in a world which is fundamentally different.

Herod fears the crowd (v. 5) and what his guests might think of him if he goes back on his word (v. 9). Jesus has compassion and cares for the crowd (v. 14), even though they had interrupted his desire to be alone, probably to grieve the death of John (13a). Herod is tricked into putting John to death (v. 10). Jesus provides life by curing the sick (v. 14) and feeding the hungry (v. 19) (Brian Stoffregen)

Gil Bailie suggests that

during Jesus' life and at the time the New Testament was written the flash point of Jewish religious orthodoxy was the dietary laws.

This means the Feeding of the Five Thousand was an abrupt dismissal of all the careful shibboleths of those who were "in" the socio-religious establishment.

Scrupulosity about defiling contact with sinners and the fear of ingesting unclean food combined to make the sharing of meals a particularly touchy issue. ... [Even c]onscious intention had nothing to do with the all-important matter of avoiding impurity. Contact with sinners or the ingestion of forbidden or unsanctified foods would defile one...

By sharing meals with those considered by the religiously righteous to be outcasts and sinners, Jesus challenged "the central ordering principle of the Jewish social world." As Geza Vermes put it, Jesus "took his stand among the pariahs of the world, those despised by the respectable. Sinners were his table-companions and the ostracized tax collectors and prostitutes his friends."  The meals Jesus shared with the outcasts were not, therefore, simply the occasion for the delivery of his message. They were the message. They served as "prophetic signs" meant to manifest the meaning of Jesus' ministry. They involved what Borg speaks of as a "radical relativizing of cultural distinctions."

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom of Radical Inclusivity.

I have no opinion on how this gospel story came to be, or what happened. But the point of the story of the feeding is clear. In a desert place food appeared to be scarce. But that desert place, in the presence of Jesus, became a place of grass on which to sit and feast. It becomes and embodiment  Psalm 23, which makes a table upon the green pastures in the presence of one's enemies, even in the shadow of death.) And there was food so that all ate and were filled, and there was food left over.

I have often wondered about the place of the fish in these echoes of the great messianic feast. In 2 Baruch 29:3-6 we see the two fish:

And it shall come to pass when all is accomplished that was to come to pass in those parts, that the Messiah shall then begin to be revealed. And Behemoth shall be revealed from his place and Leviathan shall ascend from the sea, those two great monsters which I created on the fifth day of creation, and shall have kept until that time; and then they shall be for food for all that are left. The earth also shall yield its fruit ten-thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor of wine.  And those who have hungered shall rejoice: moreover, also, they shall behold marvels every day.

In Psalm 74:14 the NRSV notes a variant reading of the Hebrew:

4 You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
   you gave him as food for the people of the wilderness. 

This great feast where, after all are filled, there are twelve baskets full of broken pieces gathered like the scattered people of the twelve tribes will be gathered, shows a life which, in the desert, in the place where the land seems destroyed, is nonetheless a life of plenty.

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom of Plenty.

It is not scarcity which is the problem. The way we think about the world is the problem. Nuechterlein says

... the Bible is trying to introduce us to the true God, a God of abundance, even in the face of scarce resources. The preeminent text of the Old Testament is the story of manna in the wilderness; and the preeminent story in the New Testament is the feeding of the five thousand.

The biblical view is a massive contrast to that of our economies which are based on the presumption of scarcity. Isaiah 55 spells it out.

1Ho, 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. 
2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
   and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
   and delight yourselves in rich food. 
3 Incline your ear, and come to me;
   listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
   my steadfast, sure love for David. 
4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
   a leader and commander for the peoples. 
5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
   and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,
   for he has glorified you. 
6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,
   call upon him while he is near; 
7 let the wicked forsake their way,
   and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
   and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. 
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
   nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. 
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
   so are my ways higher than your ways
   and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

What is missing here? Is scarcity only imagined because of our envy of each other?

What is missing is consumer society. Isaiah 55 promises a world where there is manna for each day. This is promise, not rose tinted spectacles looking back to good ol' times that never were.

What is missing is all our security;  the health systems and home insurance; the warehouses that insulate us from the lean times; all good in themselves, but enmeshed in a military industrial complex close to 1984 where what matters is not the good, let alone God, but profit and power for their own sake. A place where there is never enough.

Why do we opt in to this? Why have we not left? Because we are afraid of death. We do not know how to die.

 [H]e who fears death is a slave and subjects himself to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] he who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a man should decide to disregard this, whose slave is he then? He fears no one, is in terror of no one, is higher than everyone, and is freer than everyone. For he who disregards his own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, he can accomplish in it none of his works. Tell me, though, what can he threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to him 'who counteth not even his life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? John Chrysostom

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom which Teaches Us How to Die.

In the feeding Jesus breaks the bread we know will be his body. He celebrates the sacrifice of his life! He rips his own heart out. He shows us how to die.

"When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (Gr: esplagchnisthe) for them and cured their sick." The New Testament Greek word for compassion, splagchnizomai, has a fascinating derivation out of ritual blood sacrifice and through the Septuagint translation of Hebrew words. The noun form splagchna was used in the earliest Greek literature to designate the inner parts of the sacrificial victim ripped out during a ritual blood sacrifice. Eugene Peterson, in his The Message translation of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, translates the phrase as, "his heart went out to him" -- which is a remarkable capturing of the derivation. Originally, of course, the heart was literally ripped out of a person. For Jesus the term is subverted from within to mean its opposite, compassion -- namely, an intentioned 'heart-going-out' to someone in mercy rather than the merciless ripping out of a heart. We once again clearly see the Gospel reversal: instead of the heart coming out of the sacrificial victim, compassion means one's heart going out to the victim. (Paul Nuechterlein)

Jesus is announcing a Kingdom which Gives.

He gave the bread. Herod did not give a party. He called people to a feast, which even if they had coveted the invitation, meant they were now obliged to him. The Kingdom of Herod demands and takes.

We are going to die, whether in flood, famine, war, or the warmth of a hospice. Getting used to this— even admitting it—  is a fair amount of our growing up! After that the cause of much of our behaviour and anxiety becomes plain to us: The one "who fears death is a slave and subjects [themselves] to everything in order to avoid dying..."

I visited two men I knew quite well when they were very close to death. They were simple, rough edged blokes, who were both working fairly hard to even keep breathing. And both of them, I think, had lost most of their fear of death. In this most dire time, hours from death, they were unusually happy and energetic! They were free from the fear of death in a way I have only sometimes glimpsed, and rarely practiced.

How will we die? At the feast of Jesus is plenty, and the giving of plenty; it will call us to tear our own heart out. A new way of seeing the world will infect us with compassion. If we are not moved to compassion, we have not really eaten the feast, we have just swallowed dry bread.

Or will we opt for the Feast of Herod? We may be surprised at how easy it is to garner an invitation. He will be glad to have us. And then we will find the real infection, the real disease, and be always struggling to keep up with the Joneses, always trying to be somebody, always afraid of being the next victim or, at least, being left out.

It is here with the high wages, the nice houses and the comfort of plenty that the true scarcity exists, and the true famine.

For at Herod's table we are the slaves of death, living in famine in the midst of plenty. We seek to be like Herod, like the agent and sender of death, who sits at the top of the pile of the dead.

Why be like Herod? He has no power. He can do nothing to evade death. He is afraid of it; even still afraid of his guests and what they think of him. His is the true poverty.

In the desert places, in the presence of Jesus, we find plenty; a way to live and die that is not failure, and not destruction, but joy. Even if Herod thinks he has sent us there. It is a joy in living. I find living for the Kingdom of Heaven gives me much more than I give it. I find a satisfaction that transcends what I have or do not have. There is something of what Haybron calls happiness.

Unhappiness is not just a brute animal response to your life. It is you, as a person, responding to your life as being somehow deficient. On this view, we can think of happiness, loosely, as the opposite of anxiety and depression. Being in good spirits, quick to laugh and slow to anger, at peace and untroubled, confident and comfortable in your own skin, engaged, energetic and full of life. (Daniel Haybron)

There is something enduring about this. The Kingdom of Heaven transcends happenstance. This "at peace" has substance and endurance.

•••

Is all this real, or only the imagination of one of the privileged seated at his computer far from the poverty of real life; a fancy way, perhaps, of rationalising an unbelievable miracle?

Scranton says we must learn to die.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.... If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.

He survived Iraq with a practice he adapted from the Samurai:

“If by setting one’s heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead,” wrote Tsunetomo, “he gains freedom in the Way.”

I suspect affluent modern Christians have spent too little time preparing for death. We have gotten too close to the illusory comforts of Herod. Although some of us seem to be denying death, the  Faith is clear: there is no resurrection without death.

There is certainly a discipline to getting back on a bike when you've been run over by a truck, or staying on the road when you've been grazed by a car. But very easy compared to a war. Indeed, most of my discipline has been symbolic and unconscious in the celebration of the Eucharist.

The re-enacting of that feeding by the sea, with its overtones of coming death binds me sacrificially to the congregation I serve. It drags me, the aloof introvert, into the company of compassion. And with this shift I have found something of the fear of death diminishing. I do, sometimes even easily, the things which once terrified me. I shall keep my back turned on Herod and all his benefits.

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.

 The Question of Ruth
According to the Synoptics, the multitude fed by Jesus—if we discount minor variations—'ate and were satisfied and took up what was left over . . .'. John expands this but still reflects the original summation. Commentators rightly note the influence of Elisha's feeding of a hundred men who 'ate and left over' However, this ending contains only two members—eating and leaving over—in contrast to three in the Gospels—eating, being satisfied and leaving over. There is a second Old Testament text in the background: when Boaz first meets Ruth in the field, at mealtime he hands her corn and 'she ate and was satisfied and left over'.

This source has gone unremarked because, to appreciate its relevance, we have to be aware of what was seen in it by the Rabbis. A typical interpretation which seems to be quite early runs: 'She ate, in this world; and was satisfied, for the days of the Messiah; and left over, for the Age to Come.' In some expositions, Boaz stands for God and Ruth for her descendant David or the Messiah himself. Again, the word for 'corn', qali , is equated with qalil , which means 'slight'. So Boaz gives her a slight portion only but miraculously it suffices for her 'to eat, be satisfied and leave over'. For the Jews of the first century, then, the two feedings by Elisha and Boaz belonged closely together, were largely interchangeable, supplemented one another: they both exhibited the same deeply significant kind of wonder wrought by God through and for his elect at various stages of salvation. We must not indeed forget that, to minds untouched by higher criticism, a testimony from the Book of Ruth, far older than one centering on Elisha, would appear particularly venerable and reassuring.  (David Daube Appeasement or Resistance And Other Essays on New Testament Judaism   Return to post)

 




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