There are two tables set before us. Nowhere in the Gospels is the contrast between the banquets—the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world—more stark than in Mark’s gospel. Both Matthew and Mark set the story of John the Baptist’s beheading right before the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, but Mark makes the arrangement feel even more intentional by telling us that Herod “prepared a feast” (Mark 6:21, CEB). Looking at the two feasts side by side, one can’t help but notice the differences between the two kings and the kingdoms they represent.
For one, the people at the feasts were vastly different. Herod prepared a feast for “his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents” (verse 21, CEB). This was a party for the power players, for the “who’s who,” the movers and shakers. Herod was in control of the guest list and made sure there were only guests who could give him something. But Jesus found a crowd who had invited themselves. These were people from various cities in the area who arrived at the spot where they anticipated Jesus and His disciples would be. These people must have been desperate for something.
At Herod’s feast performance was everything—please the king and you just might get what you want. A girl’s dancing pleased him and got him in a request-granting mood. He told her to ask for whatever she wished, up to half his kingdom (see verse 23). At Jesus’s feast compassion was everything. Jesus saw the uninvited crowd and “had compassion on them” (verse 34, CEB). He taught the crowd “many things” (verse 34, CEB), and then He fed them. The people never asked for something to eat; Jesus knew that they were hungry. They didn’t have to perform for Him to notice them. He saw them from the beginning. And He loved them. So He fed them—with His words and with bread.
The climactic moment of Herod’s feast was someone’s death. The execution of John the Baptist was the real story of Herod’s birthday party. The conclusion of Jesus’s feast was abundance. There were twelve baskets filled with bread and fish, and everyone there had already eaten till they were full. At Herod’s party there was never enough—never enough power or pleasure or control. Someone had to lose for someone else to win. Someone had to die for others to live. But at Jesus’s banquet there was more than enough. There was enough for everyone to be filled, and then some more.
At the two feasts there are two different ways of becoming a guest, two different ways of making a request or getting a need met, and there are two different ways for the story to end. The first story is about power, performance, and ultimately death. The second story is about desperation, hunger, and ultimately life. Feast with Herod and you may feel powerful, but you will be bound to perform. The end is death. Feast with Jesus and you can come desperate and needy, tired and hungry, and you will be fed and nourished. The end is an abundance of life.
But this is not just a story about two feasts; this is about two kings and two kingdoms. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw the crowd, He had compassion on them for “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (verse 34, ceb). This is not a throwaway line. The shepherd imagery in the Bible is not some sort of therapeutic image of care and nurture. A shepherd was the most comprehensive metaphor an agrarian society could come up with: it represented a protector, physician, provider, and guide.
It makes sense, then, that when the prophets and poets of Israel wrote about their king, they referred to him as a shepherd. One prophet, Ezekiel, had a particularly scathing review—offered on behalf of God—of the kings of Israel. He called them the shepherds of Israel but then accused them of having only “tended themselves” (Ezekiel 34:2, CEB). Instead of tending the sheep, they drank the milk, wore the wool, and slaughtered “the fat animals” (verse 3, CEB). They didn’t “strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost.” Instead, they used “force to rule them with injustice” (verse 4, ceb). In short, the shepherds of Israel had not lived up to the metaphor; they were not protectors, physicians, providers, or guides. They failed at the job description for a good king. The very next verse of Ezekiel’s divine tirade includes the lines that Mark would quote: “Without a shepherd, my flock was scattered; and when it was scattered, it became food for all the wild animals” (verse 5, CEB). Then the Lord declared through Ezekiel that He is “against the shepherds” (verse 10, CEB). And not only that, He will come to do the job Himself.
Now we see it: the feeding of the five thousand is not Jesus doing some sort of party trick. It was a sign that the kingdom of God was arriving and that Jesus Himself was the true King. Herod was not the real king, and his banquet was not the real feast. Jesus is the king who provides a bounty for the people.
So where are you feasting? Are you at Herod’s banquet, hoping to satisfy yourself on the kind of power and pleasure the world can offer? Are you chasing influence and significance the world’s way, by working harder or trying to get in with the right group? Are you obsessively posting on social media, trying to get your “likes” and “views” up, hoping to be seen? That feast won’t fill you. It will lead only to death. Or are you desperately following Jesus, clinging to every word, hungry and needy? Are you opening the Scriptures, sitting and listening, shaping your life by His cross-shaped love? It will be for your good, bringing you nourishment, healing, and health.
The table you choose reveals the king you serve.
Adapted excerpt from Blessed Broken Given: How Your Story Becomes Sacred in the Hands of Jesus. Available now wherever books are sold. Official Amazon link.