A Tale of Two Banquets


December 9

Read Mark 6:14-29

“But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.”

The sixth chapter of Mark intentionally places this episode concerning king Herod side by side with the feeding of the five thousand (tomorrow’s reading) as a study in contrasts. Mark presents us with two banquets, each one presided over by a different king exemplifying a different kingdom. His unvoiced question comes through loud and clear: at which banquet do you feed, that of the world or that of Jesus?

The first banquet is Herod’s birthday, and it is a thoroughly political affair. It takes place in his palace among the upper echelons of society. Herodias, the wife of Herod (and Herod’s brother!), has been patiently nursing a grudge against John the Baptist, who had the audacity to criticize her morality. Herod, meanwhile, has been protecting John the Baptist whom he rightly considers a prophet. At Herod’s birthday banquet among the many high-profile guests, Herodias spots an opportunity. She orchestrates a spectacle in the form of a “pleasing” dance performed by her daughter, eliciting a rash promise from Herod (“Whatever you ask…up to half my kingdom”). The promise, furthermore, is not only rash but very public. Herod can’t go back on his promise without appearing weak. Herodias has leveraged Herod by means of the silent guests. So, out comes the head of John on a platter.

The second banquet takes place not in a palace among the powerful but in a wilderness among the hungry crowds. Jesus orchestrates no spectacle. Rather, he focuses all attention on the central acts of giving thanks and breaking bread, and all are filled. The meal in that desolate place is deeply resonant with the meal Jesus gave us—his own body and blood in the Eucharistic feast.

The one banquet is the gruesome feast of the kingdom of this world; the other the gracious feast of the kingdom of God. Mark intends for us to choose.

In Herod’s banquet power is worshiped and each one looks to his or her own self-interest; in Jesus’ banquet God is thanked and each finds him- or herself in a community. In the one influence is indistinguishable from manipulation; in the other influence is indistinguishable from love. In the one a gift is always more than a gift, because every gift is also a bribe; in the other a gift is always more than a gift, because every gift of bread is also a giving of self. The one is selfish; the other generous. Herod’s feast ends in the taking of life; Jesus’ feast consists in the giving of Life.

When we open our hands to receive the Eucharistic body and blood of Jesus on a Sunday we are sharing in the banquet of the kingdom of God. But when we live our lives on Monday, at what banquet are we feeding? When we go to work; when we talk to our family members; when we drive; when we go shopping; when we talk politics; when we post on facebook—at which banquet are we then?

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore, let us keep the feast–not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

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