Mark’s gospel tells the story of two kingdoms represented by two banquets, but we only get half of the story in our lection reading today. The other half comes next in Mark and it’s the familiar story of Jesus feeding the five-thousand with just two fish and five loaves of bread. Today’s story is a banquet of power and cruelty.
Herod's horrible banquet runs right into the story where Jesus makes sure that everyone is fed. Mark is a very careful writer. He wants us to hear these two stories together. Even though we didn't hear about Jesus feeding the 5,000, it's a story found in all four gospels. As Mark tells the story, it's filled with oppositions and contrasts:
Jesus withdrew to be alone ... But a great crowd followed him
It was a deserted place ... But it became an abundant place
The disciples said, "Send the people away." ... Jesus said, "You give them something to eat."
We have only five loaves & two fish ... Yet more than 5000 ate with 12 baskets left over.
But the greatest contrast of all is between Jesus' banquet of life and Herod's banquet of death. Mark has placed these two stories side by side. He wants us to see the stark contrasts between two very different banquets and two very different kingdoms, the Kingdom of God versus the kingdoms of this world.
Mark gives a lot of space to this gruesome story. That's quite remarkable because Mark usually doesn't elaborate. Jesus' temptation in the wilderness gets only two verses in chapter one. Immediately after that story Mark tells us this, "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'" Jesus' ministry began after John's arrest. Mark wants us to see that John and Jesus are deeply connected.
Then Mark leaves us on edge. Why was John arrested? Did he stay in prison? Was he tortured? We don't find out until chapter 6. Why did Mark wait so long to let us know what happened to John? Mark is a gifted story-teller and he put the pieces together in a particular way. In the first part of chapter 6 Jesus was rejected in his hometown. Then Jesus sent out his disciples and commissioned them to carry on the work he had been doing. This is where today's story comes in. When Herod heard about this healer, this miracle worker, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." After waiting for six chapters, we finally know what happened to John.
We also find out why John was arrested: because he was a truth-teller. John dared to tell Herod the truth: he had sinned by marrying Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. That would have been accepted--even expected--IF Philip had died. But Philip was very much alive and Herodias was his wife! For telling the truth John was sent to prison. Herodias was furious! She wanted John dead. But for some strange reason, Herod protected John. Mark gives us this clue: "When Herod heard John, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to him."
It's not clear when Herod had ever heard John preach. Did he go out to the Jordan with the crowds who were baptized by John? Did he visit John in prison and talk with him? Though Herod was a Jew, his loyalty was to the Roman Empire rather than God. Was there some spark of truth that drew him to John's message?
He tried to get John's words out of his head--especially at his own birthday party. Oh, he loved these lavish state dinners: tables weighed down with food; wine flowing from a fountain; toast after toast. This is what he loved about the Empire. And one very special gift: he asked a young woman to dance for his guests. Some texts say she was Herod's daughter, but more likely she was the daughter of the wife he stole from his brother. She danced beautifully. Herod was so captivated that he promised her anything--"even half of my kingdom," he said.
He should have known better for she ran to her mother. And her mother said, "Ask for the head of John the baptizer on a platter." Herod was deeply grieved. Grieved because he considered John to be a holy man. Grieved because he was still drawn to what John said. But his guests had heard the oath he had made. He didn't want to lose face in front of them. Who knows what they might tell somebody higher up? So Herod gave the command.
Soon the head of John the Baptist was brought on a platter, the last course of Herod's birthday dinner. When John's disciples heard about his death, they came to get his body and laid it in a tomb.
Mark leaves us on the edge of our seats. Jesus' ministry began after John was arrested. What will Jesus do now after John has been killed?
Jesus will keep telling the truth: "The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news." Truth-telling has consequences. John the Baptist had seen what Herod could not see. Neither John the Baptist nor Jesus sought death. They told the truth because they believed God's promise of life was stronger than the threat of death. Mark wants us to see that, too.
Immediately after John's death, Mark tells the story of Jesus feeding 5000 people in a deserted place. It was a meal that began with only five loaves of bread and two fish, but it became a bountiful feast. Herod's banquet yielded one deadly left-over: John the Baptist's head on a platter. But Jesus' feast offered enough for everyone to eat with twelve baskets left over.
Mark wrote his gospel so that we would hear these two stories side by side, so that we would remember that choices must be made in every generation. The choice to serve the kingdoms of this world or the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate. God calls you and me to follow this same Jesus who brought wholeness and healing into the world and call us to do the same. We believe that in Jesus Christ, God's kingdom has come and that makes all the difference.