07/15/18 – The True Feast

The True Feast

July 15, 2018
8th Sunday after Pentecost
2 Sam. 6:1-19: Ps. 24; Eph. 1:3-14; Mk. 6:14-29
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones


I never tried to do a children’s sermon on this gospel passage. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is not G-rated. Years ago, when I was doing an internship in worship at a church with another seminarian, I saw an attempt made to introduce children to this story. I was seated in the chancel since I was assisting in worship. The other seminarian was doing the children’s sermon that day. Beside me was the Director of Christian Education, who was leading the liturgy that morning. If you have not already studied child development, seminary gives you only a cursory introduction to this field of study. This particular seminarian, who was gifted in many other ways, was not a mother nor did she have any experience working with children. The DCE and I looked at each other in horror as the seminarian told the story of John’s beheading in graphic detail to children ranging in age from toddlers to second graders. Frankly, this is not a story that we adults are very comfortable with either.

Mark did not shy away from telling the tale. It is noteworthy that Mark, known for its brevity, devotes more attention to this story than the other three gospels. Mark places this story immediately after the account of Jesus sending his disciples off to minister and evangelize, with the warning that they may be rejected and if so, they are to ‘shake the dust off their sandals’ and move on. John’s beheading stands as a stark illustration of delivering a message that is not well-received.

John the Baptist had been preaching about the coming kingdom of God. We know from the historical writing of Josephus that John had become widely known and had sparked the interest of King Herod of Antipas, the successor to the king known as Herod the Great. We are told that King Herod was impressed with John and wanted to know more about him. Placing the story of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand immediately after John’s execution and the subsequent appearance of his decapitated head at Herod’s banquet sets up an interesting juxtaposition of two feasts.

Herod’s feast was a display of over-abundance. Costly food was piled high on the buffet table and the wine flowed like an endless stream. The guests were the most privileged of society. The feast that Jesus hosted began with the simplest fare of bread and fish. The meal did not start with abundance, but with scarcely enough to feed one person, much less five thousand. The guests at Jesus’ feast were peasant folk. Herod sent the message that life is cheap and is expendable for the mere entertainment of those whose lives are more valuable in the world’s economy. Jesus sent the message that all life matters. He demonstrated the value of human life by healing and feeding. Not everyone Jesus encountered believed the wisdom he shared with them, but he always affirmed their human dignity and attended to their needs.

John’s execution demonstrates the cost of speaking truth to power and challenging evil. John confronted Herod with the fact that he had broken Jewish law by marrying his brother’s wife. The divorce and remarriage also indicted Herodias, Herod’s “co-conspirator,” so to speak. Herodias wanted John eliminated, but she could not order his execution herself, particularly since Herod seemed to respect him. So, John was simply locked away in a cage, which is what the powerful do to people whose existence threatens their interests.

Herodias wanted a permanent solution to her problem with John the Baptist, so she devised a wicked scheme with her daughter. Herodias appealed to Herod’s ego and lust by presenting her daughter, known as Salome in other texts, to dance for him. Drunk with pleasure, and probably too much wine, Herod fell into his wife’s trap. Her daughter’s dance pleased Herod and his party guests so much that Herod swears to her, “whatever you ask I will give to you.” Snap! The trap shuts. Now Salome did not have to ask for John’s head,  (on a platter was her own addition), but she chose to do her mother’s bidding. Herod did not have to give into Salome’s request, but his pride and ego meant more to him than breaking another Mosaic law – ordering John’s murder. Herod’s hands were as bloody as the executioner who wielded the fatal blow. In the juxtaposition of the two feasts, Mark tells us that, at Herod’s feast, the participants fed on violence. Sadly, this is true of much of the world today.

When life is cheap, a human being made in the image of God is viewed as less than human, a non-being even. In Genesis, we read that God created all human beings in his image to live together cooperatively and lovingly. But, having free will, we can choose to not honor God’s good creations or love our neighbors as ourselves. We can act out the roles of this gospel story and produce the same consequences. We can condemn people, even call them vile names, without even knowing them. We can and even do this in the name of Jesus. We can make unfounded charges, ‘bear false witness against our neighbor’ and destroy someone’s family or career. We can act as if human life is cheap if we can get from Herod what we want. We can put John in prison unjustly and then kill him to maintain control, power, the status quo, and to silence the prophets. It’s fine because John’s life is cheap.

Although we do not have heads on platters, we do have bodies on the streets from gun violence. Here in Peoria, the quintessential town in Middle America, we rank far higher than New York City in murders per capita. How is it that the lives of twelve boys trapped in a cave in Thailand have more value than the lives of children at our southern border and even in our own town, who are trapped in a cave of poverty and violence?

sets up the challenge. We can live for our own pleasure and self-interest or serve the common good. We can choose to follow Herod and his wife or we can follow Jesus. If you are lucky enough to be deemed worthy of an invitation to Herod’s feast you may partake of fine food. But, at Jesus’ table, you are served the bread of life.

All power, honor, and glory to our Triune God.


© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois