July 11, 2021 - Proper 10 (7th Sunday after Pentecost)
Who is missing from our table today?
Today in Mark’s Gospel, we have a violent and gruesome story. I mean, King Herod (not the same King Herod we hear about in the birth narratives) asks for the head of John the Baptizer on a plate. But let’s set that story in the bigger picture -- we are at a feast with Mark. Where the banquets of the empire are feasts of fear, scarcity, and death, the followers of Jesus partake in the feast of love, abundance, and life!
Written in the wake of the First Jewish-Roman War, Mark’s Gospel is inherently political, and the lectionary reading this week makes that so very obvious. Yet, at no point does Mark’s narrative turn cold, indifferent, or impersonal. It is a passionate, fast-paced declaration intended to turn its readers into fully invested followers of Jesus of Nazareth (Mk 6:1-6). The intended audience for Mark was Jewish subjects living under the Roman occupation of first-century Palestine. His purpose in writing was to teach the readers or listeners how to make sense of the spiritual disease of imperialism that had taken over much of their known world. In fact, to ignore the profound political themes and nature of Mark’s Gospel is to betray it entirely.
Today’s setting is a banquet celebrating King Herod’s birthday. The guests at the banquet were the ruling class, the officers and leaders of Galilee. When his daughter came in and danced, “she pleased Herod and his guests” (6:21). Mark says that Herod Antipas call her “the girl” (6:22), the same word that he used to describe Jairus’ daughter a few weeks ago. Mark and Matthew both name Herodias as her mother, but neither of them names this child. We learn from Josephus that her name is Salome and she is Antipas’ stepdaughter. Some interpreters of the Bible estimate her age to be twelve, contrasting with the older woman we heard of a few weeks ago who suffered from hemorrhage for twelve years. So with all that said, this dance is not to be interpreted as a sexual dance, but rather one of an innocent child who is leaving the protection of her mother.
Today’s banquet feast is in stark contrast to the story that immediately follows it in Mark 6:30-44, where we hear of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Herod Antipas lives in a world of power and authority, where he makes promises based on the political belief that he can get anything he wants by doing anything he wants to anyone he wants. Only a select few are invited to the banquet feast, those who must gain favor with the king in order to be recognized. It is a feast of scarcity and greed. Those in power use violence to protect themselves from the fear of those who challenge their right to rule. Herod Antipas’ banquet is indeed a feast of fear and death!
In contrast, the feeding of the multitudes 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 inclusion -- one might even say radically so! Those who were excluded, broken, and humiliated find hope and healing in Jesus, a common carpenter from Galilee. It is a feast of hope and abundance. Those who begin believing that there will not be enough discover that there is more than enough, and there is more left over at the end than they thought that they had in the beginning (6:42-44).
Economies based on scarcity always privilege some at the exclusion of others. These economies believe that there are limited resources and only a few deserve to have access. Rather than a world based on scarcity and limitations, where people are envious of others’ possessions, Jesus invites those who participate to see that there is more than enough for the well-being of everyone. While the capitalistic, economic culture spins out of control, people who have lost hope and health come together to find healing and wholeness and be restored to life. In stark contrast to Herod Antipas’ banquet, Jesus’ banquet is a feast of life!
When the faithful followers of Jesus gather, they are choosing to participate in the kingdom of God, rather than the reign of the rulers of the world. By choosing Jesus, they choose to oppose the violence of the structures of the world. It is the choice of compassion over fear, inclusion over exclusion, abundance over scarcity, and life over death.
Through the church, God is saying, “I’m throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed up people are invited” (Rachel Held Evans). Mark’s Gospel today tells us to invite all to complete God’s kingdom on earth, and not to exclude any. By making this conscious decision, we choose compassion, not fear; we choose abundance, not scarcity; we choose to include all in Jesus’ promise of life.
And so today’s homework from your brief interaction with Mark’s Gospel today is simple, and yet something that could take a long time. As you go forth from worship today and go about your week, I want you to think about who is missing from our table. Could we send invitations to those missing and have them join our table of feast and grace.