A Tale of Two Banquets – Portraits of God Pt 3

Herod Antipas, the king, soon heard about Jesus, because everyone was talking about him. Some were saying, “This must be John the Baptist raised from the dead. That is why he can do such miracles.” Others said, “He’s the prophet Elijah.” Still others said, “He’s a prophet like the other great prophets of the past.”
When Herod heard about Jesus, he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has come back from the dead.”
For Herod had sent soldiers to arrest and imprison John as a favor to Herodias. She had been his brother Philip’s wife, but Herod had married her. John had been telling Herod, “It is against God’s law for you to marry your brother’s wife.” So Herodias bore a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But without Herod’s approval she was powerless, for Herod respected John; and knowing that he was a good and holy man, he protected him. Herod was greatly disturbed whenever he talked with John, but even so, he liked to listen to him.
Herodias’s chance finally came on Herod’s birthday. He gave a party for his high government officials, army officers, and the leading citizens of Galilee. Then his daughter, also named Herodias [or Salome], came in and performed a dance that greatly pleased Herod and his guests. “Ask me for anything you like,” the king said to the girl, “and I will give it to you.” He even vowed, “I will give you whatever you ask, up to half my kingdom!”
She went out and asked her mother, “What should I ask for?”
Her mother told her, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist!”
So the girl hurried back to the king and told him, “I want the head of John the Baptist, right now, on a tray!”
Then the king deeply regretted what he had said; but because of the vows he had made in front of his guests, he couldn’t refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner to the prison to cut off John’s head and bring it to him. The soldier beheaded John in the prison, brought his head on a tray, and gave it to the girl, who took it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came to get his body and buried it in a tomb.

TALENT

I must confess, even though I have refused to watch the show for the past 3 years, this year I have found myself once again getting drawn into the world of XFactor.

Please, don’t go – stay, just a while longer!

I know how much that news will upset some of you. I can see you now; shaking your head at the screen, tutting loudly, and wanting to give me that look. Maybe some of you feel that I should be made to wear the “cone of shame” (see Pixar’s Up) for such a terrible crime.

And for most you, I can completely understand why you’ll feel that way; I can’t abide talent shows either. I can’t stand the disillusionment, and the grovelling to the judges, and the offerings of false hope to less-talented people for the sake of us having a Saturday night laugh at their expense. There are times, when after watching this said TV show, that’ll go into our bathroom, splash water over my face and while looking at myself in the mirror I will cry, “Why! Why did you just let yourself do that?

I promise you, if you’re concerned for my well-being right now, that this is only a temporary “blip”; I’ll be “back on the wagon” once the final is out of the way. Just a few more weeks… I promise.

However, some of you are only shaking your head at me because you’re one of them (aka. a Strictly fan). And therefore, you’re opinion matters not to me.

But you can stay, too.

Whether it’s the XFactor or Strictly Come Dancing, or even The Apprentice, we understand how these shows work – it’s all about the contestant (or victim, depending on your point of view) putting on a good show.

There’s a panel of judges (or a judge, in the case of The Apprentice) that these (un)fortunate hopefuls desire to impress through giving a good performance; be that a song, a dance, a clever singing-dancing dog, or a good profit margin. And if one of them can impress this judge (and us at home) more than the others, they will then have bestowed upon them some honour, some special reward. The reward varies, of course: for the contestants of Strictly, it’s a shiny trophy and national recognition of your hard work; On the XFactor the reward’s a record deal, instant stardom and fame, maybe even a career in POP world; For The Apprentice, that reward is having the pleasure of not hearing the infamous phrase, “You’re fired!” and winning the investment of Lord Alan Sugar into your own start-up company.

This can be life changing, in many ways.

And so we can grasp the motive of these shows very easily; if we can please the Judge–the one who has the power to grant our requests–then some sort of transaction will take place.

We seek to get an audience to perform before a person of power and authority, hoping that if our performance (our song, our dance, our skills) will gain the pleasure of that judge, they will then respond by granting our requests.

Sound familiar?

THE DANCE

In the story we’ve just read, Herodias – the wife of Herod Antipas, formally the wife of Herod’s brother Philip – has a request she wants the king to grant.

She wants John the Baptist exterminated (to be as deceased, bereft of life, as shuffled of his mortal coil and firmly within the “choir invisible” etc. as a Norwegian blue parrot).

However, she can’t just go in and ask her husband; there’s courtroom etiquette to follow. You can’t just appear before a King. You have to get an audience with the king first, and even when you get this audience, you can’t just ask him to give you something or do something for you. You have to appease him. You have to bring him gifts, or tributes or exultations: you have to stroke his ego first. It all boils down to performing in the hope that if you can appeal to his vanity, he might possibly ask what he can do for you.

So Herodias has a plan.

During a birthday banquet being thrown for Herod, a banquet full of guests and high-court officials, she sends her daughter (Salome) into the courtroom to dance before the king in the hope of catching his attention and authority. Her plan works. Salome’s dance “wows” not only Herod, but all his guests, too. Try to imagine what would be going through Herod’s brain at this point. You can almost smell his ego, “how good must I look in front of all these distinguished people, when you come and dance like that just for me!”

With his vanity meter fully topped up and overflowing, Herod finds himself in a really generous mood: “What do you want, ask and you shall have it – even if you want half my kingdom, you can have it”.

Half a kingdom, imagine that! That’s a lot more of a share than Alan Sugar has ever offered, and it’s in totally different league altogether when compared with the oversized Christmas bauble that is given on Strictly.

“Of course I’ll have half a kingdom”… but this isn’t Salome’s response.

Salome’s stumped. She doesn’t know what to ask for. Obviously her mother hasn’t filled her in on the rules of this little game she’s playing. So Salome does what they do occasionally on Dragons Den: she goes to the back of the room to discuss the terms with her business partner.

Surely Herodias, being older and wiser, is going to jump at the opportunity of having half a kingdom – she can take as many heads off as she pleases with that sort of power. But no, Herodias doesn’t want half of the kingdom either. All she wants is just one head. And so she sends her daughter to once again stand before this “man of power”, requesting John the Baptist’s head, on a platter, “if you please”.

Talk about holding a grudge against someone! She’s offered power and authority and a life of reasonable comfort, but she’d sooner see someone who offends her decapitated.

Now this is a big favour she’s asking; Herod likes John, despite having him thrown in prison. He’s got to say “no”, surely?

Shockingly, Herod says “ok”. Mark, the writer of this gospel story, adds the insight that Herod wasn’t happy with this turn of events: Herod “deeply regretted” this decision. Herod says “yes” to a request he doesn’t agree with! He’s so concerned with his ego and image that’ll he’ll agree with anything.

The performance won over Herod’s will!

GOD IS NOT HEROD

So what’s this got to with Jesus, and a the better Portrait of God that he gives to us? Well, firstly, God is King. Secondly, he’s not a king like Herod.

Although, maybe, sometimes we think he is…

We talk about coming in faith to God: to be heard, to make requests of him in prayer. But even though we use the word faith, if we took the time to examine our actions and motives could it be that what we label as faith is really just  “performance”? Could it be that we may have misunderstood what it means to come before God in faith – that we think it’s about putting on a pleasing show in order to get a response out of God?

Well come back to this in a moment.

You see, in both Mark and Matthew’s stories of Jesus – stories that present us with a picture of God, stories that want us to see what God is actually like – both writers, after showing us this dance scene, then feel the need to tell us about this amazing miracle where Jesus fed five thousand with just a couple of fish and five loaves of bread: [In Mark, the Herod scene almost interrupts his story of Jesus: as if Mark is saying, “before I tell you this,  you need to hear about this first”]

The apostles returned to Jesus from their ministry tour and told him all they had done and taught. Then Jesus said, “Let’s go off by ourselves to a quiet place and rest awhile.” He said this because there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and his apostles didn’t even have time to eat.
So they left by boat for a quiet place, where they could be alone. But many people recognized them and saw them leaving, and people from many towns ran ahead along the shore and got there ahead of them. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat, and he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.
Late in the afternoon his disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.”
But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!”
“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.”
They came back and reported, “We have five loaves of bread and two fish.”
Then Jesus told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of fifty or a hundred.
Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share. They all ate as much as they wanted, and afterward, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftover bread and fish. A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed.

The writers are making a contrast here with placing this story where it is: drawing a sharp contrast about what a real King looks like, what God’s kingship looks like in comparison to Herod’s.

Have you noticed that both of these stories revolve around food? And that both stories contain a single request?

In the first story, Herod prepares a banquet for his birthday. Even though it says he’s prepared the banquet, please don’t imagine that Herod is running around preparing the food, dressing the tables, organising the entertainment and polishing a nice sparkle into his best cutlery. All Herod’s done is thrown out a command like Star Trek’s James T Kirk, “Make it so”, and a ton of servants have rushed about to make it happen.

When the feast’s prepared, and everything is ready, don’t picture Herod waiting on tables or showing his guests to their seats. Herod will come fashionably late, after the guests have arrived, in order to make a grand entrance – I bet the sight of this crowd of regal guests watching his entrance, all standing and applauding, would have made his ego swell. Herod would then have been led and seated at the highest table, with servants bringing him his food first, before everyone else, and making sure his cup of wine stayed full. And during this extravaganza, people would have come and gone before his high seat, appealing to Herod’s vanity by bringing him gifts and tributes; all hoping to be heard, all hoping to find pleasure in his sight, all hoping that the king will be impressed enough to ask them what he can do on their behalf. It’s all a performance. It’s all a talent show.

But, in contrast to this talent show, one day Jesus is out and about with his disciples looking to spend some real relational time with them, and as he arrives at the other side of a lake, a huge crowd is stood there waiting for him.

And Jesus, on seeing this crowd, is moved by compassion, not ego.

No one sings, or dances – there is no performance in order to get Jesus to do anything for anybody. Jesus, moved by his own compassion begins to teach them of the kingdom God wants them to freely receive, the kingdom God wants them to have in it’s entirety and fullness – no half quantities involved. And then, when the teaching is finished, Jesus decides to throw the crowd a banquet!

Jesus seats the crowd. Jesus serves the food. Everything is flowing from Jesus to the crowd; He is the one giving gifts to his guests. I find it remarkable that within this whole story, there’s no reference to Jesus serving himself or anybody serving him.

Everyone’s enjoying this banquet. Mark tells us that after the eating, everyone is satisfied. All this crowd has had is simple, unprepared bread and fish; mere “common” food compared to the succulent delights Herod would have had gracing his tables. But Jesus’ guests are filled – which is a description lacking in Mark’s telling of Herod’s party. There’s even left-overs at Jesus’ feast! And again, within all of this, there’s not a single reference to anyone having to come and dance, or sing, or perform, in order to manipulate Jesus into getting him to do something they want.

The only request that is made in Jesus’ story is the disciples asking Jesus to send the crowds away, which would have really appealed to my ego; “They listen to you, they do what you ask, the crowd hangs on you’re every word…”. But Jesus isn’t taken in by the ego game, he says “No” instead of “Yes”.

As with the other miracle-stories that we have looked at so far in this Portraits of God series, sometimes we can read these stories so focussed and in awe (or in scepticism) of the miracle that we miss the picture of God that the miracle is drawing for us. We miss the wood for the trees, so to speak.

This miracle shows us something about the kind of King God is like; Jesus shows us God, and he’s not a king like Herod.

FAITH IS NOT A PERFORMANCE

This should deeply disturb our ideas of faith.

Because our coming in faith is not supposed to be a religious version of Salome’s dance off! Approaching God is not a talent show. Getting a response out of God is not like trying to get a favour out of Simon Cowell or Alan Sugar or Len Goodman!

There’s no dance required.

Faith is not about us trying to perform before God in the hope that we can please him and stroke his ego, as a means of grabbing his attention, and thus providing us with the chance to make a request so that he would then (hopefully) hand over to us what we ask for on a silver platter! Even if he disagrees with it.

That’s not what faith is, but we can think it is, and in doing so we risk mistaking Jesus for Herod.

I’m saying this with compassion, not cynicism, so please hear me for a moment. There are certain ways we talk about prayer that breaks my heart; ways in which we talk about needing faith, saying that if we don’t have “enough” faith then we wont get what we ask for. And we understand this to mean that somehow, within the asking, we didn’t perform well enough. So, how do we react to our supposedly bad, non-pleasing performances? – We try harder. We tweek our performance. We think it’s us, believing that we haven’t given God enough pleasure.

We hold this crazy picture of God, sat in heaven like it’s a talent show, saying something like, “I wasn’t happy with how you just asked that, try it again, with a little more passion this time, more gusto, more ‘je ne sais quoi'”!

This kind of thinking holds onto a definition of faith that is a qualitative term about us. This is a very dangerous idea: one that deeply undermines one of the central features of the gospel – grace.

So let me ask a real honest question…

Either, God is good: a good parent who knows how to give gifts to his children and who delights in giving his Spirit to anyone who asks, or,  God is just an egocentric megalomaniac who needs to be told how good he is until he’ll return a favour to us – which one is it?

Jesus, the visible image of an invisible God, shows us that  God is not a tyrant, or a bully, or a narcissist, or someone who is so entrapped within their own vanity that you have to work-hard just to break-in, in order to get through to him. [This is the wrong way in which some people have read another gospel miracle story concerning a rooftop!]

In Jesus, God serves, God feeds his people, God comes to give his life as a ransom for many so that we may have the fullness of life he desires us to have through receiving his whole kingdom. And all of this flows from his compassion; prior to our request, and without giving us an audition to “wow” him with our ability. Let’s face it – how many of us asked Jesus to die for us?

Now don’t misunderstand me, faith is an essential. Faith is still required, but it’s not faith in our performance.

Our faith is not in our ability to dance; but in God’s goodness; in God’s grace; God’s love. Faith is a quality statement about him, not me. God comes and invites us to partake in his kingdom, and we don’t have to dance our way into it.

So yes, pray in faith! But, if you’re idea of faith is leading you to think that it’s about you doing something a certain way in order to grab God’s attention, God’s pleasure, God’s favour – then maybe we’ve misunderstood the God that Jesus visibly displays to us.

God”, Jesus tells us, “knows what we need before we even ask!” And that’s not Jesus’ subtle and sensitive way of telling us to, “stop asking God for stuff, stop bugging him with your list of needs“; it’s just the opposite. Jesus want us to stop thinking of God like a king/or a Judge who needs to be appeased before he’ll listen to us, before we can even approach. God is a good parent, or, like in this story of the five loaves, God’s like a compassionate shepherd; he knows our needs because we already have his constant attention, we don’t need to win it like we’re in some competition.

Now sometimes we don’t get because we didn’t have faith in God’s goodness to think we can just come and ask (to paraphrase the New Testament writer, James).

But prayer is a mystery, not a mathematical formula.

Sometimes we don’t get what we want, even when we have asked, but this is nothing to do with God being disappointed in our “performance”.

I can’t explain why we get “no’s”. I wish I could, though. I wish it was as simple as improving our “performance”; that all it would take is some better choreography and costumes on our part (and yes, sadly, there are books and blogs out there that sell it this way). But we should never forget that the bible is also full of prayers and requests that get a “no” – there’s one in this story, for example.

However, when we do get a “no”, we are still called to have faith in God; not in our dance style, or our prayer etiquette. These “no’s” are not rejections; we are still invited to come and to continue to trust in his leadership as King.

And maybe I’m speaking for myself here, but I’d rather trust in a God who isn’t led by his ego – who isn’t the kind of God that grants favours that go against his own desires just because he is too smitten with his own ego. I’d rather have a leader whose more like a shepherd than a Talent show judge.


The Header Image is Caravaggio’s Salome Receives the Head of Saint John the Baptist”

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