Two Very Different Parties

Inspired by Matthew 14:1-21

So we get a break from parables for a couple weeks, which is fine because every Sunday in Lent is going to have a parable for us to wrestle with! Oh, it’s going to be fun! [He says sarcastically.] No, I’m looking forward to it, really, though it’s not going to be easy. But today we have two stories that Matthew has provided for us, that, on the surface, don’t look like they have anything to do with each other.

But I’ll let you in on a little secret that they teach us in seminary, these stories in the gospels didn’t necessarily happen in the order that they were written down. Shhhh, don’t tell anyone I told you that! That’s important to know because then we can realize that the order that these stories were written down probably had meaning, that these Gospel writers were actually trying to show us something as they grouped stories together, that Matthew was actually trying to get his readers to make connections where they might not be so obvious. And that’s what we are going to do today.

So our reading started with this wonderful little story of the beheading of John the Baptist. Now, I could have easily written a sermon on just this story. Maybe the title would be, “So This is What Ministry Gets You.” Kidding! Kidding! Sort of. But along with it being a gory and all around disturbing story, it’s also a sad one. After all that John had done and accomplished, all that he had sacrificed, it’s just a shame that his story had to end that way, in such a humiliating and dishonorable way.

And so, the first thing we have to ask ourselves is, why did Matthew even share this story? Was it just to make the King and his family look bad? Was it to rally people to the cause? Was it to boost his book sales? I mean, it was a pretty sensational story to tell right? Or, was there something else going on here? Was there something else that our author was trying to point out to us?

"Herod" and "Our Lord Jesus Christ" by James Tissot, ~1886
Well, obviously the answer is yes but what was it? I agree with many scholars that say that Matthew shared this story in order to contrast it with the story that immediately follows, which is the story of the loaves and fishes. The two stories couldn’t be more different, but that’s the point. So, what do they have in common? Well, they both have two strong leaders, King Herod and Jesus. They both have two large gatherings, the king’s birthday party and Jesus’ crowds. They both involve the care of those gathered. But that’s about where the similarities end. So let’s take a closer look at both of these gatherings and see if we can figure out what Matthew was trying to get at here.

So, our story begins with King Herod getting some bad news. Apparently this John the Baptist business just won’t go away! In spite of the fact that he threw him in prison to get him to shut up and stop making trouble, he hears about some guy named Jesus who took John’s cause and had just been running with it! He’s so frustrated with this that he wants to kill John and just be done with it all but he resists because he doesn’t want to disrupt the peace because that would only look bad on him. Everybody has to answer to somebody and Herod had to answer to Caesar. There were more politics going on here as well but we don’t need to get into all that.

So what does this king do after getting this bad news? Well, he throws himself a birthday party of course! And it’s not hard for us to imagine what that party must have been like. I mean, this was a king! We’ve all seen how lavish a king’s birthday party can be, either on film or in real life even. They spare no expense: the best wines, the best foods, the best entertainment, A-list guests! You name it they got it! And then the party takes a very sharp and very morbid turn. One thing leads to another and the party ends with John the Baptist’s head on a platter.

Then our author takes us to the next scene, where another party, of sorts, is thrown. And it begins the same way that the last scene did, with the king, Jesus, getting some bad news, the worst kind of news that a person can get—the death of a loved one. Jesus learns that his cousin John has died, in a most gruesome way. This was a cousin that he was close to, that he grew up with, whose parents were very close with each other. Not only was this a close family member, but this was the one who baptized him, who allowed Jesus to hit the ground running as he began his own ministry. Upon hearing the sad, horrifying news, Jesus needed to take a moment, and so he withdrew by boat to a deserted place, to mourn and gather himself back together.

But this is the fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, so by this time, Jesus was quite the celebrity, the crowds were large, and they followed him everywhere! Jesus never got that moment to himself that he was hoping for. Now that might sound kind of callous of the crowds but in all likelihood, the news was probably only given to Jesus at first and so they probably didn’t even know he was mourning. Likewise, the disciples telling the crowds to go home and fend for themselves often comes across as a bit cold, but they knew of the news that Jesus just got and so were probably just looking out for Jesus in his time of need. And so, all eyes are on Jesus, once again, looking to him for what to do next and all he wants is some peace and quiet. And how does this frustrated king respond?

Jesus doesn’t throw himself a party. Jesus doesn’t bring out the best wine, or the best food, or the best entertainment. Jesus doesn’t invite A-list guests. Jesus opens his heart to them—opens it wide—a heart, mind you, that is broken and in mourning. But as always, Jesus knows it’s not all about him. And in spite of his frustration, in spite of his mourning, in spite of his weary, broken heart, he chooses to care for them. He heals their sick, and tells the disciples that there’s no need to send them away, and he says, you feed them. You feed them. They look around and basically say, with what? We’re running on fumes here as it is Jesus!

They had five loaves of bread and two fish, in other words, noth’n! We got noth’n! Compared to the 20,000-plus people gathered there, what good was five loaves and two fish! Noth’n! 20,000? I thought Matthew said 5,000? Well, he said 5,000 men plus women, plus children. We’re talking a small city’s worth of people here! And in my mind’s eye, I can see Jesus look at them with that look that says, “So you say you got noth’n? Perfect! Because God does God’s best work with noth’n! Let’s get this party started!” And one thing leads to another and the party ends with 20,000-plus people sitting on the grass with full bellies, and baskets of leftovers!

The first king’s party, as extravagant as it was, ended in death. The next king’s party, as simple as it was, ended in life, life overflowing, in spite of the little to nothing they started with, in spite of Jesus’ broken heart.
So, what can we take away from this? Gosh, we could apply this in so many different ways, and I encourage you to find the direction that God wants you to take with this story in your own life.

What really sticks out to me right now, is this idea of running on fumes, and how that’s not the end of the story, anyone’s story! I’m sure many of you can relate to running on fumes, I know many of you can. When you feel like you got noth’n left, when you feel like your heart just can’t stretch any farther, when you feel like it’s broken beyond repair, and the needs of those around you are just not slowing down. Sound familiar? Yeah, a lot of us have been there. Maybe you’re there right now.

In those times, Jesus sees you, and knows exactly how you are feeling. In this story of the beheading of his cousin and the loaves and fishes, we get to see Jesus at his finest, as he demonstrates God’s love to those around him, and not in spite of his weary and broken heart, but because of it, because of it. And so, we never have to hesitate before coming to Christ with our needs, no matter how small. We never have to think that God is too busy for our need. We never have to think that God has better things to do. And when we think that there is nothing left to work with, that’s when God does some of God’s best work. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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