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Ruffin’s Renderings: A tale of two banquets

By Mike Ruffin The Gospels of Mark and Matthew (Mark’s Gospel came first and Matthew used it as a source, but that’s a column for another time) tell the story about Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand right after telling the story of King Herod’s birthday bash. You can read it all in Mark 6:17-44 and Matthew 14:1-21. It’s hard to imagine two more contrasting culinary events. Herod throws himself a birthday party (which makes you wonder if anybody else would have thrown it for him). His yes-men and hangers-on are there, as are the rich and powerful folks. It’s not hard to imagine the opulence and decadence of the celebration. No doubt the food was excellent and the wine abundant. The party has a backstory. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, whose name was Herodias. John the Baptist had criticized their behavior, and had for his trouble been thrown into prison, which can happen when someone speaks truth to power. During the festivities, Herodias’ daughter dances for Herod and his guests. Herod is so pleased with her performance that he tells her he’ll give her anything she asks for. Prompted by her mother, who was evidently quite unhappy with John’s observations about her and Herod’s ethical practices, she requests that the preacher’s head be served up on a platter (which, thankfully, usually only happens to us figuratively these days). Herod doesn’t want to do it, but he has promised right out loud to give the girl anything she wants. He has his reputation to consider and his power to maintain. So he gives the order, and the deed is done. Hearing about John’s death, Jesus wants to go away for a while. So he gets into a boat and sails across the Sea of Galilee to what he expects will be a deserted place. But when he disembarks, a large crowd is waiting for him. Jesus has compassion for them and heals the sick among them. As evening approaches, the disciples point out that the people will need food. They suggest that Jesus send them away so they can buy some in the nearby towns. When Jesus tells the disciples to feed the people themselves, they point out that they have only five loaves of bread and two fish, which isn’t nearly enough to feed the crowd. Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to his disciples to distribute. After everyone has eaten, 12 baskets full of leftovers are gathered. The Jesus-blessed and disciple-distributed bread had fed five thousand men, plus the women and children who were there. These two stories offer two different portraits of leadership. On the one hand is the leadership of Herod, whose desire for power inspired him to share out of his abundance with people who already have more than they need, and whose need for validation leads him to harm someone whose only crime was standing up for what he believes is right. On the other hand is the leadership of Jesus, whose compassion inspired him to use his power to heal the sick and to feed the hungry. I reckon each of us has to decide which kind of leadership we think is best. I further reckon that we’ll reveal which kind we prefer in the ways we think, choose, talk and act. Mike Ruffin is a writer, editor and preacher. His latest book is Fifty-Seven: A Memoir of Death and Life.

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