This is the text from a sermon I deliverd to 1st Presbyterian (PCUSA) Beaver Falls on July 31, 2011. Unfortunately there was no audio recording. A very kind and generous congregation -- I hope to be back there soon.
Politics is always connected to food. Whether it is the question put to all politicians, meant to judge their closeness to the people, “How much do a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk cost?” or the reports that if some action (it doesn’t seem to matter what) is not taken about the debt ceiling, many will go hungry, politics is always connected to food. Our passage, and the one that immediately precedes it, show this to be true. There are two kingdoms being contrasted here: one whose politics are fear and violence; the other whose way are love, service, and abundance. These two kingdoms exist together, always in tension as tares and wheat, calling for our exclusive allegiance – our faith – and giving us a way of life to navigate this world.
The first kingdom presented to us is that of Herod the Tetrarch. It would be instructive to read these verses: (read 14:1-12). From the start, note that Herod is fearful. He wants to see Jesus because he is worried that this is John the Baptist, raised again from the dead. If this were so, it would indelibly stamp the execution as unjust, as tyrannical, and compromise Herod’s claims to power (we must notice, though, that no one – whether in the ancient world or today – did or does look at his actions as even remotely just, but the self-justifying heart of man is strengthened by power). All of Herod’s actions that led to the death of the Baptist were motivated by fear: fear of the multitude initially kept John alive, fear of his dinner guests killed John, and fear of John – a little late – causes him to seek out Jesus. Never, though, is there the fear of God which would have turned Herod away from his adulterous and incestuous sins.
Herod’s use of food here is in direct contrast to what we will see the Lord do. Herod does not feed the multitudes that he fears, but rather those who are already filled. While the Lord instructs us to go into the “highways and the hedges” to invite the blind, the poor, the sick, we can assume no such attendees at this swank gala – Herod is inviting those who share status, rank, and power with him. This is a birthday party to consolidate and legitimate his power over Judea – possibly even with an eye towards the title that his father held, “king of the Jews.” It is here that the request of a different kind of food is made: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod’s fear and his lust have conspired together to devour the prophet of the Lord.
The second kingdom presented is different in almost every way. The Lord Christ has no fear of the multitudes, rather he has compassion, breaking his mourning over John to heal their sick. This healing, as always in Matthew’s Gospel, is connected to the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Recall the last time John and Jesus had correspondence. John asks him “Are you the one who is to come? Or do we look for another?” Jesus replies, “The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of me” (11:3-6). Jesus’ work as an exorcist, as a healer, and as a herald all point to the Kingdom, of which he is the head. Christ has no need to invite those in power to his messianic banquet; instead he invites the outcast, the prostitute, the tax man, the drunk, the homosexual, the drug dealer to share his bread and to change their lives, so that they might participate in the Kingdom of God.
As the healing work comes to a close with the onset of night, the disciples seek relief for these masses and for their Lord: send them to the villages for dinner and rest. It is, after all, a wilderness they are in. Jesus, though, will not send them away, he will not scatter them as sheep without a shepherd, as Mark tells us in his rendition of this story. Rather, the disciples are to feed them. But with what? There are only 5 loaves and two fish. This is where the religious principle of remembering comes in. In the Psalms we are often instructed to “remember the mighty works of the Lord.” The reason is twofold: we must be reminded of what God has done and can still do, but also we remind the Lord of our state and pray that He would do these mighty works again for us. Here, in the wilderness, with a large group of hungry people, the disciples’ memories should have gone to the Exodus. Has not God fed His people with manna from heaven? Couldn’t He do it again?
Not only does God do it, but in His abundance He goes above and beyond. The manna would produce only enough for the day, here there are 12 baskets of fragments left over. The manna would provide only for what was needed, here “all ate and were filled.” The host of this party, as opposed to Herod, did not provide this lavish banquet to secure his power, but rather out of the excess of his love and compassion. This contrast goes back in Matthew’s Gospel to a previous conflict of two kingdoms. While Jesus was hungry in the wilderness (how can we not see the connection Matthew has placed for us between these two stories?), Satan tempted him with earthly rule and bread: “If you are the Son of God, make these stones become bread.” To which the Lord answered, “It is written: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus’ love for his Father, his willing obedience to the divine plan, overflows at this point so that he might love his neighbor better than himself. He did not seek the power that Satan offered him, nor does he seek it here. Indeed, at the start of the next story, Jesus makes his cabinet ministers (the disciples) leave the scene while he dismisses the crowd – this will not be a day that makes him a civil king, the road to his throne has yet to go through the cross. His power, true power, comes through self-giving service. The Lord first takes his throne on the cross, and dispenses forgiveness and grace to even his enemies from there: “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do.” For it is in the cross of Christ, foreshadowed by his gifts of healing and sustenance, that the wisdom of God – the ways by which He has ordained the world to its goal of shalom and the indwelling of His Presence – are powerful: “We speak of the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor. 2:7). God rules through the cross; the cross rules – and transforms our lives now and in the fullness of the age to come – through our self-giving love to one another and to those who hunger, both physically and spiritually, outside the community.
We have before us two kingdoms: the kingdom of Herod and the kingdom of Christ. Both are calling for our allegiance. The added difficulty for us is that sometimes the kingdom of Herod masquerades as the kingdom of Christ. Just this last week in Norway a young man, fighting for what he called the “European Christian culture,” took up the weapons of Herod against those who did not fit his ideal society. He feared the end of his way of life due to Muslim influence and followed in the footsteps of those who desire power over life. Proverbs speaks of those like this, warning us: “Do not enter the path of the wicked, and do not walk in the way of evil. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn away from it and pass on. For they do not sleep unless they have done evil; and their sleep is taken away unless they make someone fall. For they eat the bread of wickedness, and drink the wine of violence” (4:14-17). This kingdom, often seeking to look like Christ’s kingdom, calls us to violence against that which is different from us. While we are not to let sin stand in our churches, Paul makes that abundantly clear in I Corinthians 5, we are to have compassion on those outside our community, showing them that the Gospel – the Kingdom of the Lord – gives a new, a different, a better way of life. Our war is not against flesh and blood enemies, after all, but against spiritual wickedness in high places – our weapons are the Word of God, prayer, and the self-giving acts of service such as the sharing of bread. This is the wisdom that those who think they rule the world, whether earthly tyrants or the demonic, cannot understand: “the light came into the world and the darkness did not comprehend it,” as John tells us.
This better way of life, this different politics of love and compassion, is not an easy road. Christ describes it later in Matthew this way: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (20:25-28). The thrust of this passage is clear: our way of living together, what we often call politics, is to be based on the example and the work of Christ. We are to follow him in all things. Rather than being served, we are to serve. For “he who seeks to find his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake shall find it,” says our Lord.
So, here is the mystery of Christ’s kingdom: it is not he himself who distributes the bread, but the disciples, both the Twelve and us today. In other words, to be allegiant to Christ’s kingdom is, as John puts it in his first epistle, to “walk as he walked.” Is not Christ’s primary call to “deny ourselves, take up the cross, and follow him”? We speak of politics and leadership often in terms of Herod’s kingdom – which we mistaken call Real Politik, instead of the self-giving Kingdom of Christ. Are we willing to give our lives, to deny ourselves and take up the cross, to follow the Christ who gives himself as a ransom for many? Are we willing, as John the Baptist was, to stand up to power with the good news of the Messiah, that the real world is not this way, not the way of war, of violence, but the way of peace that will, yes, require our lives and our faith in a God who raises the dead? Consider the words of John Stott, an influential theologian who passed away very recently, “The authority by which the Christian leads is not power but love, not force but example, not coercion but reasoned persuasion. Leaders have power, but power is only safe in the hands of those who humble themselves to serve.” Christ is king because he first humbled himself; we must follow in his footsteps so that God might be pleased to entrust us with His life-giving power.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a martyr of the last century, famously said: “When God calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Both kingdoms, that of Herod and that of Jesus, call us to die – that much is inescapable. The question is the basis of the kingdom: is it fear, or is it love? Is it selfish taking, or selfless giving? But not only this, we must also ask where the kingdom ends up. Certainly, the kingdom of Herod might end in earthly power, whether over Judea or as the last great superpower, but as Proverbs says, “The way of the wicked is like darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble.” The Kingdom of Christ, even though it may entail our physical death, ends in the resurrection. Consider what the Apostle Paul says about this: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall certainly be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:18-21). Our giving up of the kingdom of Herod, as hard as it might be, is the entrance towards becoming like Christ – this suffering leads to glory, true glory, in which the shalom of God covers the earth, the lion lies down with the lamb, and “they shall neither hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, says the Lord.”
This self-giving is best expressed in our sharing of food. Who we eat with is who we love; who we love are those that Christ has given his grace to, our neighbors, our friends, and even our enemies. Christ shared his food with the multitude and shares the true food that is his body with us in his wonderful Supper. His body, broken on the cross, makes us the one loaf that feeds the waiting world. Then he says, in the words of this parable, “You give them something to eat.” While Herod was content to share only with those who were like himself and could expand his influence and domain, Christ and his disciples share with those who hunger after justice, after righteousness, who walk on foot to hear the Master and be healed by him. There is no better thing for us to do, today and into the future, than to follow this Christ and to do his works – to feed the hungry, to slake the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to visit the prisoner, to offer even a cup of cold water to the one in need, so that the world might see and turn to the living God. Amen.