Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
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 multitude fed on the beach (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 serves up 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 the genealogy of Jesus in chapter one – is an observation worthy of closer scrutiny. See, for instance, Jane Kopas’s 1990 essay in Theology Today).
Also interesting is the juxtaposition of fear and death (in the story of John’s beheading) with that of fulfillment and abundance in the feeding narrative. The murder of John the Baptist 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 political 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 heralds the new order: fullness of life and health for all (even women and children). Read more