August 01, 2008

Tasting Death, Tasting Life

by Debra Dean Murphy
(Matthew 14:13-21) Immediately before the story of the feeding of the five thousand is a description of a very different sort of meal: John the Baptizer’s head on a platter. And just as women and children are included among the crowds fed on the beach with bread and fish (a detail unique to Matthew’s version of the story), the female sex is also represented in the account of John’s demise. Herodias, sister-in-law of Herod, asks for the head of the Baptist; her nameless daughter, with no detectable squeamishness, delivers the request to the king and ultimately the plated head to her mother. That women in all of their moral complexity are present throughout Matthew’s gospel (recall also the women who appear in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in chapter one) is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas’ 1990 essay from Theology Today.

Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s murder) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. John’s death is a result of power confronted and hypocrisy exposed; where fear reigns, violence cannot be far behind. Herod’s birthday party is an occasion for the casual disregard of human life to come to a head (forgive the pun) in the expedient execution of a troublemaker. And while this blood-tinged birthday banquet represents the old order with its fear-mongering and death-dealing ways, the feeding of the five thousand represents the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children).

But abundance in the biblical sense is not gross excessiveness. The twelve baskets of leftovers should not be understood as justification for our tendency to accumulate and hoard; rather, they are a reminder that in God’s economy there is always more to share, more to give—and yet the “more” comes not from our own meager reserves but from God’s endless supply of goodness and generosity. And in the sharing and giving of what God graciously offers to us we ourselves are transformed.

I think of a line from Frederick Buechner: Greed is the mathematical truism that the more you get, the more you have. The opposite of greed—the selfless love of God and neighbor—is based on the truth that the more you give away in love, the more you are.

We know this from our experience of the Eucharist, which is never a private meal for me, but is instead that moment when what is taken, blessed, broken, and given (Mt. 14:19) becomes the occasion for the gathered church to understand its very life as gift; to know that the love of the triune God is what makes us who we are and therefore what makes it possible for us to bear witness to that love in a world where the crowds are hungry and there is (seemingly) only a little bit of bread and fish on hand.

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC (Harper, 1993), p. 5.

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