Weekly Seeds: The Banquet of God (Lavishing Grace)

Sunday, July 11, 2021
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
The Banquet of God (Lavishing Grace)

Focus Prayer:
God of hosts, before whom David danced and sang, Mother of mercy and Father of Jesus Christ, in whom all things cohere: whenever we are confronted by lust, hate, or fear, give us the faith of John the baptizer, that we may trust in the redemption of Your Messiah. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Mark 6:14–29
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

All readings for this Sunday:
2 Samuel 6:1–5, 12b–19 and Psalm 24
Amos 7:7–15 and Psalm 85:8–13
Ephesians 1:3–14
Mark 6:14–29

Focus Questions:
1. What is your experience at banquets?
2. What essential elements constitute a feast?
3. Who do you invite to your table?
4. Why has the sharing of a meal played such a central role in faith communities?
5. Who is missing from your feast?

By Michael Anthony Howard, Guest Reflector

This week’s pericope is violent and gruesome. Even so, passages like this present us with an opportunity to face the political agenda embedded in the narrative of the gospel. There, we can see how the gospel presents an alternative to the violence around us. Where the banquets of empire are feasts of fear, scarcity, and death, the followers of Jesus partake in the feast love, abundance, and life!

Written in the wake of the First Jewish-Roman War, the Gospel of Mark is inherently political, and this week’s reading makes that glaringly obvious. At no point is Mark’s narrative cold, indifferent, or impersonal. It is a passionate, fast-paced manifesto intended to turn its readers into fully invested followers of Jesus of Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). Its intended audience were Jewish subjects living under the Roman occupation of first-century Palestine. Its purpose was to teach its readers how to make sense of the spiritual disease of imperialism that had taken over much of their known world. To suppress the profoundly political nature of the Gospel of Mark is “the worst betrayal of all” (Myers, 2015, 41; Barr, 2002, 300-304).

The Roman Empire held a monopoly on violence. The empire was a mixture of metropolises and vast conquered rural regions. Though the empire was established through systematic military conquest, most areas did not need a standing army to control them. That was reserved for the frontier regions like Galilee, Judea, and Samaria, where conquered “foreigners” were seen as uncivilized. Military violence, campaigns of terrorism, and public displays of torture and humiliation were deemed necessary to keep potential rebellions at bay. This was the force that publicly hung mutilated human bodies on poles along the roadways leading into the cities. It was this monopoly of violence that crucified Jesus, set the stage for the First Jewish-Roman War, and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This was the sociopolitical context in which the Gospel of Mark was written and first read and heard (Horsley 2003, 21-31).

Our passage begins with “King Herod” (Mk 6:14). The reference here is to Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Matthew’s version refers to him as “Herod the tetrarch” (Mt 14:1), as does Luke’s (Lk 9:14). Tetrarch is more descriptive, reminding us that the region had been sliced up and divvied out to provincial elites that ruled through their alliance with the Roman Empire. Antipas was a “petty dependent prince” (Carter 2000, 302), but in Mark’s narrative universe, he is a king.

Rome was an aristocratic empire. A small group, 1 to 2 percent of the empire’s population, ruled expansive regions of land by a “very small bureaucracy in alliance with provincial elites.” This governing class required a retainer class, perhaps 5 percent of the population, to assist in the day-to-day business: officials, professional soldiers, servants, etc. (Carter 2001, 11, 17). It would be a mistake to think the only purpose of the military was to conquer the frontiers and squelch potential rebellion. Rome’s Pax Romana was a form of false peace that depended on the acquiescence of oppressed people to the forces of evil. It was the Roman monopoly on the threat of violence that gave rulers the power to enforce their will on most of the population, with or without their approval. They were in control of the region’s primary resource, land. Controlling the land meant controlling the means of production, by which they “acquired vast amounts of wealth for themselves through taxes, rents, and tributes.” It was what New Testament scholar Warren Carter calls a “legionary economy.” Through the “muscles of legions,” the Roman Empire “dispossessed most of the population of any political or economic power, and coerced them into submissive cooperation” (Ibid., 9).

Leagues of Greco-Roman cities competed for which could give the greatest honors to Rome. They erected monuments that established the presence of the emperor in ways that pervaded the cities and regions. Emperor worship was an institutional force. It was sponsored by wealthy landowners and prominent local politicos with their networks of local clients that depended on them. It was this arrangement that secured their own dominant positions. The result was what historian Richard Horsley called “patronage pyramids,” pyramids of “economic power and dependencies extending from the emperor at the top down into each city of the empire” (Horsley 2003, 22-24),

The region of Galilee had neither cities nor resident rulers before Antipas. In the decades prior to Jesus’ birth, the Roman military had marched through the region and sacked the entire area, burning villages, enslaving the strong, raping the women, and killing the sickly. Herod the Great, the father of Antipas, was a young military strongman that had been appointed as “King of the Judeans” by two Roman warlords. This gave him access to the two most important ingredients of imperialism, the power to wage war and demand taxes. When conflict arose in Rome between the two heirs of Julius Caesar, Marc Antony and Octavian, Herod initially sided with Antony. When Octavian proved the winner at Actium in 31 B.C.E., Herod honored him with one of the most ambitious building campaigns in history (Carter 2000, 9-10; 2006, 33-38; Horsley 2003, 15, 20, 24; Reeder 2017).

Prior to Herod, people who lived in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee had lived under the one set of rulers, the high-priestly family known as the Hasmoneans. In keeping with his Hellenistic city-building tribute, Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. It became one of the “wonders of the world,” a famous pilgrimage destination for wealthy Romans and Jewish people alike. Herod had continued to keep the high priesthood and the temple system in Jerusalem as part of his legendary, iron-fist rule. He had two eldest sons, Aristobulus and Alexander, by his wife Mariamne, a Hasmonean. Seeing the Hasmoneans as a threat to his rule, Herod executed them, sons and all. Then, he saw fit to install his own high-priests, including some from Egypt and Babylon. As residents of Herod’s new temple-state, the people of the region were subjected to three layers of rulers, each taking their own share off of the backs of the people: tributes to the Romans, taxes to Herod, and tithes and offerings to the temple (Horsley 2003, 32).

After the death of Herod the Great, there was some confusion about which of Herod’s sons could claim their right to rule and over which territory. The two eldest sons had been executed. The next in line, Antipater II, was charged with treason, allegedly having tried to poison his father. The Romans installed the fourth in line, Archelaus. In Galilee, the Romans named Antipas as tetrarch. For the first time, Galileans had a ruler with an administration. Antipas built a Roman-style court and two capital cities, in close proximity to every village in Galilee. With the violently enforced labor and taxes from the peasants of Galilee, Antipas funded a massive twenty-year, empire-city-building tribute to Rome. This would have been the context in which Jesus of Nazareth grew up (Horsley 2003, 32-33).

Galilee is arguably the most important place in the Book of Mark (Barr 2009, 299). It is easy to miss, but Galilee is the setting of this week’s lectionary reading. Jesus’ preaching, teaching, and healing in Galilee had caused quite a stir. It is no wonder Antipas wanted to know what people were saying about it (6:14). Here we have a foreshadowing of a passage many churchgoers will perhaps remember. Later in the story, Jesus will ask his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” (8:27). Their answers will be the same as the reports given to Antipas: John the Baptist, Elijah, and the prophets (6:14). Where Peter confesses to Jesus, “You are the Christ” (8:29), Antipas says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (8:16). These contrasting statements illustrate how Jesus of Nazareth was perceived by the servant class at the bottom of the patron pyramid and the Roman elite at the top.

The most common way to read Antipas’s words – “has been raised” – suggests the bodily resurrection of John the Baptist. Antipas was the commander of a deadly military with enough power to destroy cities. In Josephus’s account of the execution, Herod “feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into [John’s] power and inclination to raise a rebellion” (Baert 2014). It is like playing an imperial game of whack-a-mole. He cut the head off of John, why would this new guy from Nazareth be any different? This is why Mark interrupts his narrative for an abrupt flashback, a “threadbare transition” to a story about the decapitation of John the Baptist (6:17) that otherwise seems to be a tangent (Myers 2015, 214). It is ultimately a foreshadowing of the crucifixion.

The setting is a banquet celebrating “King Herod’s” birthday, with a guests from the ruling class, the courtiers, officers, and leaders of Galilee. When his daughter came in and danced, “she pleased Herod and his guests” (6:21). There is no solid reason to justify interpreting a sexual reference into the story. Mark has Herod Antipas call her “the girl” (6:22). The word here, korasion, is the same word used to describe Jairus’s daughter (5:41-42), “the child” (5:40). Mark (6:22) and Matthew (14:1) both name Herodias as her mother, but neither name the child. We learn from Josephus her name is Salome and she is Antipas’s stepdaughter (Josephus, A.J. 18.136 [La Sor]). Some interpreters estimate Salome’s age to be about twelve, contrasting with the older woman mentioned earlier in Mark who suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years (Anderson 1992, 121-122). It is the dance of an innocent child at “the threshold of fertility and coming of age, of leaving the protection of her mother’s wings” (Baert 2014,13).

The Historian of Art and Iconography Barbara Baert explains that in the girls innocence, it is impossible that she desires something that leads to such a gruesome irony. Instead, Baert raises the question of metonymy. Perhaps Herodias was merely expressing her desires, which the girl was mimicking, not comprehending that her words would be taken literally. “On account of the misunderstanding, the girl must actually bring the head, and cynically enough, that is best done on a platter.” The motif of John’s head on a platter is so powerful in its imagery that it overshadows everything else. “The platter causes all other motifs in the narrative – the birthday, the oath, the food and the dance – to converge.” Where the story begins with the innocent girl dancing, it ends with her bringing to her step-father the head on a platter in front of a crowd of blood-thirsty aristocrats. It “becomes the object of inversion in salvation history.”The imagery of the girl holding a platter at a banquet is the antithesis of the message of the gospel. It the formulation of an anti-Eucharist (Baert 2014, 11,14-15).

The birthday banquet of Herod Antipas is a stark contrast to the story in Mark that immediately follows it: Jesus’ feeding of the five-thousand (6:3-34). Herod Antipas lives in a world of power and authority, where he can make promises based on the belief that he can get anything he wants by doing anything he wants to anyone he wants. Only a select few are invited, consisting of those who must gain favor with “the king” in order to be recognized. It is a feast of scarcity and greed. Those who are in power use violence to protect themselves from the fear of those who challenge their right to rule.

Herod Antipas banquet is a feast of fear and death!

On the other hand, the feeding of the multitude offers wholeness to those who are broken, healing to those who are sick, and sustenance to those who are hungry. It is a feast of radical inclusion. Those who were excluded, broken, and humiliated find healing and hope in Jesus, a common Galilean carpenter. It is a feast of hope and abundance. Those who begin believing there will not be enough discover that there is more than enough, with more left over at the end than they thought they had in the beginning (6:42-44).

Economies based on scarcity always privilege some at the exclusion of others, believing that there are limited resources and only a few deserve to have access. Rather than a world where people are envious of each other’s possessions, Jesus invites those who participate the chance to see that there is more than enough for the wellbeing of everyone. While the world is spinning out of control, people who have lost hope and health come together to find healing and wholeness and to be restored to life.

Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes is a feast of life!

When the faithful followers of Jesus gather, they are choosing to participate in the Reign of God in opposition to the reign of the violent rulers of the world. It is the choice of compassion over fear, inclusion over exclusion, abundance over scarcity, life over death.

For further reflection:
“The church is God saying, ‘I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed up people are invited. Here, have some wine.” – Rachel Held Evans
“The sun, the earth, love, friends, our very breath, are part of the banquet.” — Rebecca Harding Davis
“A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.” — Aesop

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Michael Anthony Howard serves as the Minister of Faith in Action for the Living Water Association in the Heartland Conference of the United Church of Christ. Michael is a spiritual entrepreneur, teacher, community organizer, and prophetic Christian leader. He was ordained in the UCC and has coached and co-founded a number of community organizations and nonprofits.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 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. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.