Two big events in our reading of the New Testament today.
First we see Herod order the death of John the Baptist based on the wishes of his step daughter. The first obvious implication of the story is to demonstrate how arbitrary and capricious Herod is with his power. The passage tells us that the daughter did this at the request of her mother. The question is why the mother wanted John the Baptist dead? The answer is that she had been married to Herod’ brother but then married Herod to gain more prestige and power. The union was illegal according to Leviticus. (Contrast that w/ our OT reading today in which Judah wanted his oldest son’s widow to marry his younger sons. Those rules change and become more complex after the coming of Moses). John the Baptist had been preaching against the union. Thus the wife / mother wanted John the Baptist dead because he had been publicly chastising her for marrying her brother-in-law. Another interesting aspect to the scene is Jesus’ reaction. He is told of what has happened and He withdraws to a deserted place, no doubt to mourn. John the Baptist was a close relative of Jesus and a holy man. Thus on both levels of family (the natural and the supernatural) he would have been very important to and loved by Jesus. His reaction shows a very human side. Even though as God He knows John’s eternal fate is no doubt secure he needs time to be alone and mourn. His divine reaction is to then extend mercy to the crowds that find him. It seems as if he does those particular miracles in John’s memory.
John the Baptist death is followed by the feeding of the five thousand. First, make note that the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle that appears in every Gospel. For that reason alone we should find it significant. Next note that they are in the wilderness, “a deserted place”. This evokes the Exodus and Israel’s time in the desert. The messiah was expected to be a king and a political ruler, a new David but he was also expected to be a priestly religious figure, a new Moses who would lead the Jewish people on a new exodus. The new Moses would provide the new Manna from heaven. The manna was the miraculous bread that appeared every morning while the Jewish people were in the desert for 40 years. By feeding the five thousand with miraculous bread Jesus is revealing himself as the new Moses. Next, look at how the feeding is described:
Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and TAKING the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a BLESSED. Then he BROKE the loaves and GAVE them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ATE and were satisfied.
This will be the same actions described in the last supper. The distribution of the bread is always described in the same way – He takes it, he blesses it, he breaks it, he gives it and then they eat of it. Thus the feeding of the five thousand is meant to evoke the last supper. In John’s Gospel we will see that this event takes place outside of the city of Capernaum and that it is immediately followed by the bread of life discourse.
Many people make a point of noting that there were twelve baskets of left overs. The find significance in the fact that there are twelve baskets, twelve Apostles and twelve tribes of Israel. No doubt that has some meaning. I think the detail of the twelve baskets of left overs as simpler but more profound meaning. Leftovers mean they actually ate. When people talk about leftovers it’s a detail that they instinctively include to impress upon the listener that they ate until they were full and then there was still more. Leftovers envision that there is food on your plate and you have to stop eating because you are too full. It like thanksgiving, when everyone describes how much leftover turkey there is. This detail is included to impress upon us that the bread was really there. It was real food and it was really eaten. It is not symbolic. The people were not sustained by the word. The crowd did not just feel full because of the miracle even and sustain themselves on the preaching of Jesus. They ate, until they could eat no more. This goes along with what Jesus will say the next day at the bread of life discourse, “for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” and at the last supper, “This IS my body, take it all of you and eat of it…”