Well if we back up a few verses in Matthew 14, we come upon the answer. Jesus has just been told that his cousin, John the Baptist, had been beheaded at a lavish birthday party in the royal palace. Think about this for a moment. Can you picture the grieving of a family whose loved one has just been killed at the whim of the state? Maybe you remember the journalist who was beheaded over a decade ago and realize that a beheading is meant to make a public statement and to terrorize others.
Well, perhaps it is better to say he went to the wilderness. The Greek word, ἔρημον, used here is the same one used earlier in Matthew to describe where John the Baptist was proclaiming the coming of the Messiah. It's the same word used to describe where Jesus is when he faces his temptations after being baptized by his cousin.
So what is Jesus response to the death of his cousin? It's to go to a place they experienced together: the wilderness. A place where the coming of God's reign was proclaimed by John and where Jesus hears his Father's voice claim him as his beloved son. A place where Jesus faced temptation in solitude and where he now comes to grieve by himself.
Yet the connection to these cousins doesn't end with just a geographical connection. Both are at the center of lavish feasts as well. John, a prisoner in the royal palace, sees a lavish birthday party is thrown for Herod, the appointed ruler over his people by the occupying Roman forces. A feast that probably involved an extravagant bounty of food that left no guest hungry. A feast that excluded John and the other prisoners whose experience of food was likely quite the opposite.
Jesus on the other hand finds himself at the center of a feast because he has compassion on a large crowd of people who have sought him out in the wilderness. Crowds that are likely struggling to get their daily food and, like many malnourished persons in every age, find themselves sick and in need of healing. Jesus offers to heal them and tells his disciples that they need to feed the crowd as well.
In many ways the disciples are being practical in wanting to send the crowds away. There is not enough food to feed so many people. Yet on the other hand their solution, "let them go to the villages to buy food for themselves," would mean most of the crowd would go to bed hungry and right back on their way to being malnourished and sick.
Jesus makes a bold statement to Herod in this feeding of the five thousand. In Herod's kingdom, access to an abundance of food is dependent on political connections and your economic status. In God's kingdom, food is made available in abundance to those that society leaves behind to fend for themselves.
Could these two experiences of lavish banquets have anything to say to us here in Ohio today? What is the experience of food for those who, like John the Baptist, find themselves imprisoned? Are we as a state more inclined to follow the example of Herod's kingdom or that of God's kingdom?
We as a state are patting ourselves on the back. We have a budget surplus due in part to the privatizing of feeding prisoners that has saved $15 million. If I did my math correctly, this is because we signed a contract with a private company that allocates $3 per day per inmate for food. That's to buy food for three meals. That's to pay employees involved in the feeding of inmates. And that's to make sure there is a little bit of profit in there for the private company.
By the way, I think it's time we revisit the idea of privatizing prisons in general. Do we really think there should be a profit motive in the running of our prisons? After all there really are only two ways to increase profit from the way I see it. One is an economy of scale--more prisoners means more profit. Or said another way, we are putting a system in place that encourages us to incarcerate more of our citizens. Another way to make more profit is to cut overhead by reducing payroll and other costs.
Of course as you may have seen in the news reports, it's easy to put all the blame on the private company when the inevitable happens. When prisoners are served live maggots in their food, when some prisons run out of food before everyone is fed, and when food workers decide to supplement their income by selling cigarettes to inmates at $300 a pack. But the blame also belongs on us. We demand our legislatures to continue to cut the cost of doing government. Eventually the only way to cut more is do things like feed prisoners on $3/day so that we can feast lavishly on all that we have saved.
Yet as troubled I am about this situation, I feel powerless to do anything. What can I do as an individual citizen of Ohio? I can of course talk to my local representative and senator but the cynic in me says that really won't accomplish anything. As a citizen of God's kingdom, I find Enriching our Worship confession particularly speaking to me in this situation when it calls us to repent of "the evil done our behalf." And in this gospel reading I hear the call for us to join John and Jesus in the wilderness.
We are called to follow Jesus into the wilderness where we can vividly be reminded of God's love for humankind and our dependence on God's grace. It's a place where our ancestors wandered for forty years being fed by manna and place were Jesus takes bread, breaks and blesses it to feed the hungry multitudes. It's place where we are called in our brokenness by John to repent and to experience the healing ministry of Christ. It's a place where we are our hunger is fed by Christ so that we may leave the wilderness "a people, forgiven, healed, renewed; that we may proclaim [God's] love to the world and continue in the risen life of Christ our Savior. Amen."