These two stories usually are not linked together. Usually we deal with Herod's misuse of power as separate from Jesus' feeding of the five thousand. After all, what do they really have to do with each other?
On the surface this first part of the passage has political overtones that remind us of stories we hear today. Here you have Herod throwing his birthday party. In comes his own daughter who dances for him and delights him so much he will give her whatever she wants: a corvette, her own music video, even half of his own power! To be sure, Dr. Spock would not approve of this parenting style. To be sure, I find it a bit disturbing. Herod never comes across great. In Matthew's gospel, Herod is so threatened by Jesus' birth, the Jesus' family has to flee down to Egypt, a la Joseph, because Herod said he would kill all the first born sons, a la Moses right before the Passover.
But lest we think Herod is a one dimensional character, it should be noted that Herod does not really want to harm John the Baptizer. In fact, it says in verse 20, Herod even "protected" John. It seems like Herod has a soft spot for John, even after John calls him to task for marrying his sister-in-law, Herodias. But Herodias can't let her grudge go.
Mother and daughter consult on what wish they want Herod to grant and come up with John's head on a platter. It is violent and we see just how much anger and resentment builds within us when we are unable/unwilling to forgive. We see first hand how much revenge can blur our vision and leads to hurting people.
That being said, what in the world does this have to do with the feeding of the five thousand? I am glad you asked.
Jesus hears John is dead. He is heartbroken. He wants to get away, go to a deserted place by himself (vs. 31). But just as he tries, he sees a crowd. Not just any crowd, five thousand! That is the most people to gather around Jesus so far in the gospel. It is a huge crowd. And Jesus is moved with compassion, which means something within his gut compelled him that he could not just keep going on as planned. So, he stopped and taught and when the disciples wanted to send the crowd away, Jesus said, "You give them something to eat."
One part that I find so compelling when you connect these two passages is that Jesus takes a moment of profound grief and pours it out in love. Rather than drawing inward, which is usually the most natural response, Jesus moves outward to an extreme number of people. The other part that is so compelling when you connect these two passages is that Jesus invited the disciples (and us) to do the same.
We live in a world today where people want to circle the wagons in fear. We want to protect our own and think that fences will keep all the bad parts of life at bay. That is not always the case. Life, true life, is a risk. We can be proactive, create all kinds of plans and lists, and even try to plot the trajectory of our life. At some point, there will be a bump - big or small. And we will need to confront that we don't control everything. Some things are out of our hands. Some things happen in spite of our plans and in spite of God's grace and love. That does not mean that God's grace and love are not present in the bumps along life's road. But I think in order to find that grace - at times- we need to be more open and draw the circle wider.
Again, that is hard. My natural instinct is to protect myself when I hit a bump. And I believe there are times when you do need to protect yourself and not over extend yourself and not expose yourself to more hurt/harm. There are also times when drawing inward doesn't help us and does not open us to the traces of God's grace. Sorting out when to draw in and when to draw out is not easy. For me, that is why I am a part of a church and try to engage in conversation with those I respect. God's presence, traces of God's grace, can be found when I talk openly about the bumps in life's road and listen to the response of those around me.
So, may you notice God's presence and grace and love in times of grief and in time of joy and in those ordinary times in-between.