You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they put on. This is as true in the Bible as it is anywhere else.
That parties reveal a lot about the people who give them applies to the impromptu wilderness picnic Jesus hosts for a hungry crowd of thousands, as well as to another party that stands in contrast to it: the one Herod throws for his own birthday.
These two events are recounted one after another in Matthew’s Gospel, and I cannot believe that placing them together was accidental. First, Herod’s birthday bash; then supper out in the middle of nowhere, courtesy of Jesus. You can tell a lot about people by the parties they put on.
There are several Herods who appear in the New Testament; they are related to each other and it’s hard to keep them straight. The birthday party Herod, however, is known also as Herod Antipas. He establishes a city which he names Tiberias for the Roman emperor of the time. But what he’s remembered for in Scripture is nothing so constructive as that.
To make a long story short, this King Herod becomes enamored of his brother Philip’s wife and divorces his own wife to marry her. John the Baptist condemns this, and so ends up a prisoner of Herod, who want to execute the prophet except that he fears the people’s reaction.
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This brings us to Herod’s birthday party. The floor show is provided by Salome, the daughter of Herodias, the woman for whom Herod dumped his first wife. Salome must be quite a dancer, because Herod, her uncle and step-father, is not content with giving her a standing ovation. He is so taken with this girl that like a king in a fairy tale, he offers her anything she wants.
Salome does not answer immediately. What she does is to consult with her mother. The older woman is driven by hatred for John the Baptist because he condemned her illicit union with the king.
Can you see Herodias now, whispering into her young daughter’s ear, and then Salome, in her dance outfit, striding out in front of the king, a strange blend of arrogance and innocence, and demanding what her mother wants? Can you see her now?
What the girl demands is something Herod in his foolish enthusiasm never considered. She orders the head of John the Baptist to be brought to her immediately, on a platter.
Herod is grieved to hear this, but he keeps his rash promise. In only a few moments the soldier is back from the dungeon, carrying on a platter the prophet’s head damp with blood. The girl somehow does not get sick at the sight, but takes the platter to Herodias, like a child bringing home to her mother a drawing done at school.
You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they put on. Herod knows how to build a city, but not how to live a life. His birthday bash turns into an occasion for lust, rash words, cowardice, seething hatred, murder, and who knows what other vices to rise to the surface, and bring about the shameful death of God’s prophet and the spiritual poisoning of the people gathered in that hall.
What is it like to attend that party? According to Mark’s Gospel, those invited are Herod’s courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee. This is not the gathering of a man and his intimate friends; it is a state function, a command performance, with probably very little love in the room. That in itself might be tolerable, at least for a few hours, but everyone present goes home with the memory in mind of the prophet’s lifeless head on a platter brought into the hall as though it were some grotesque delicacy.
You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they put on. Nowadays a prophet’s head is not a dancing girl’s reward, but the vices that took over Herod’s birthday bash still rage in many places, they run rampant often enough at opulent gatherings, and those made violently ill at the sight are surprisingly few.
Now let us leave Herod’s hall for elsewhere, a place to breathe in the sweet, good air of open spaces. We have another party to visit, one different and better by far.
Jesus takes a boat to what he thinks will be a deserted place. However, people in need follow him there on foot. The crowd becomes huge. He cures the sick among them, one by one. All this takes time.
The sun begins to set, and the disciples worry. They offer a plan. Jesus should dismiss these thousands of people, send them away, so they can go to villages nearby and purchase supper for themselves.
This petty logic does not appeal to Jesus. He challenges his disciples. “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples offer an excuse: the food they have available is only enough for one family.
Jesus decides it’s time to give an impromptu party, a huge picnic there and then. He tells the crowd to sit down on the grass, and they do, in their family groups, thousands as far as the eye can see.
He takes a couple fish along with five loaves which resemble pita bread. He looks up to heaven, blesses the leaves, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples, who distribute this food to the crowds. You know what happens next, I am sure. There turns out to be enough for everybody. The party’s a splendid success. The only problem comes at the end: deciding what to do with abundant leftovers.
You can tell a lot about people by the parties they put on. We find out more than we want to know about the pathetic King Herod. What do we discover about Jesus from his picnic in the wilderness?
He feels compassion for hungry crowds.
He discerns what can be done for them.
He welcomes somebody’s sacrifice of a simple meal, refusing to say it is not enough.
Looking upward and blessing the bread, Jesus recognizes that all we have is a gift from God.
Herod’s party starts as a command performance, the product of fear and a desire for prestige. A supposed celebration of life, this birthday bash ends with God’s prophet dead, a king compromised, and the onlookers either hardened or disgusted.
The party Jesus puts on is a response to human need; it is based in compassion. People come to it hungry, and they go forth satisfied. They’re given a reason to believe that the God who delivered their ancestors repeatedly has not forsaken them, but is still at work in the world.
The wilderness picnic hosted by Jesus. The birthday bash hosted by Herod. These are not simply past events, but they remain options between which we choose repeatedly. One is the way to death. The other is the way to life.
We are welcome at each of them, and the invitations come to us often. Each event is a universe in itself. Herod’s party is easy to find; it is the way of the world. The picnic Jesus puts on can be harder to locate; it occurs in an out-of-the-way place.
Despite the crown he wears, Herod shows himself to be a slave to the world. Jesus wears no crown, yet he reigns as king. He comes as a new and better Moses to lead us out from our land of bondage into his realm of true and lasting freedom.
The Jesus picnic may seem at times remote, yet this morning it is near at hand. For at our Eucharist Jesus serves as wilderness host, and the bread he multiplies among us so wonderfully is his gift of himself.
Herod’s banquet costs the life of another. The banquet Jesus spreads before us today comes at the price of his own life, a life that proves stronger than death.
You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they put on.
Copyright for this sermon 2007, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).