In a way, this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 14,13-21), together with the preceding verses, could be thus described. The first party is the one that King Herod throws to celebrate his birthday; the second is the impromptu picnic party Jesus throws in the wilderness for a hungry crowd of thousands.
At the first, a young woman dances for the king; captivated, he promises her anything she asks for. So she settles an old score by asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. John had committed the fatal error of condemning Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Criticise the powerful at your peril!
The second party is very different. Jesus takes a boat to escape from the crowds, but so charismatic is he that they follow him on foot in droves. He cures the sick among them, one by one. Jesus doesn’t turn them away – he puts their needs in front of his own.
But all this takes time. The sun begins to set, and the disciples worry. They tell the Lord to send the crowds away to find something to eat for themselves, but Jesus challenges them. “You don’t need to send them packing – you can feed them!” You can almost hear the sharp intake of breath. They are totally out of their depth. But Jesus saves the situation. He takes five loaves and two fish, blesses the loaves, breaks them and gives them to the crowds and there is more than enough for all. And note in passing that there are clear Eucharistic undertones to this, for to take, bless, break and give is precisely what the priest does at every Eucharist.
In these two contrasting parties, we learn more about the pathetic King Herod than we could possibly want to know, but what do we learn about Jesus from his impromptu party in the wilderness? He heals the sick, he feels compassion for hungry crowds. He discerns what can be done for them, and reveals the care and generosity of our loving God. The crowds are given sound reason to believe that God is still at work for good in the world.
Herod’s party becomes a celebration of death, not simply the man dead and decapitated in his prison cell, but the spiritual death of all those complicit in this orgy of self indulgence where life becomes just a commodity to be used or abused or done away with.
But these are not simply past events, they remain options, between which we choose repeatedly. One is the way to death. The other is the way to life. We are welcome at each of them, and the invitations are always there, waiting for an answer. Herod’s party is easy to find; it is the way of the world. The picnic Jesus puts on can be harder to locate; it occurs in an out-of-the-way place, but accept it, find it, and you will not regret the decision.
For all his finery, for all his opulence, Herod shows himself to be a slave to the world. Jesus wears no crown, yet he reigns as king.
You can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they throw; you can tell a lot about people by the kind of parties they go to.
Fr. Edward Bryant