To Serve Man: This post contains spoilers for an episode of The Twilight Zone, called “To Serve Man.”
Season Two of the original The Twilight Zone series featured a loose adaptation of the 1950’s short story by Damon Knight called “To Serve Man.” The episode, of the same name, introduces us to Michael Chambers. He is lying on a bed. A voice over a loudspeaker asks him what he would like to eat. He answers that he doesn’t want anything to eat at the moment.
All innocent enough, but then the narrated flashback begins. One day, flying saucers appear in the skies over every nation on Earth. A race of aliens, the Kanamits, arrive with promises to help human beings resolve all the pressing problems facing the planet. All they ask in return is the trust of human beings. The Kanamit ambassador accidentally leaves a book behind as he/she/it returns to a ship.
Chambers is a military codebreaker. He’s is charged with translating the book. He succeeds in understanding the title: “To Serve Man.” The ambassador returns and answers questions while connected to a lie detector. No deception is detected. All the Kanamits want, it seems, is a trusting relationship with human beings. Earth is only the latest planet to benefit from their philanthropy.
The Kanamits keep their promises. Soon Earth is demilitarized, and earthlings are well-fed and prosperous. The Kanamits invite human beings to visit their home planet, which they portray as an unimaginable paradise. Hundreds of people accept the offer. The only condition for travel is that each voyager must be weighed before embarking.
Chambers accepts the offer and is standing in line to board a ship. As he nears the scale, his assistant rushes to talk to him. She is restrained by the Kanamits, but she is able to scream out, “To Serve Man: It’s a cookbook!” But it’s too late for Chambers. He is hustled on to the ship and heads off to his fate.
In the final scene, the Kanamits encourage Chambers to eat. He looks at the camera. Chambers asserts that whether you are on Earth or on the ship, it doesn’t matter because sooner or later ‘you’ll be on the menu.’ Chambers, consigned to his fate, then sits down to eat the food prepared for him by the Kanamits. Fade to black.
I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel anticipated Rod Serling by two millennia. But I have sometimes wondered about how deep the irony runs in the writer’s account. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” we read in Mark 10:45, “and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The play on the word “serve” doesn’t hold up very well when we move from English to New Testament Greek. But I’m not sure it breaks down entirely either.
One of the aspects of Mark 6 is that it contains “The Tale of Two Tables.” In this week’s reading, we witness the bloody birthday banquet in the palace of Antipas. Next week we get the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the wilderness. These seem to be companion texts, designed for edifying comparison and contrast. Herod dines. John dies. End of story. Jesus dies. We dine. Beginning of story. I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel missed this theological opportunity.
So, the preacher may offer the first installment of a two-part sermon. Good luck with that in the middle of the summer? But the table where cruelty is the point is offset and opposed by the table where service is the center. John the Baptizer is served up as a sacrifice to the casual cruelty of the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. The bloody platter is a meal where death triumphs once again. Jesus prepares us to come to the table where he serves us with himself that we might have life in abundance.
Noegel notes that eating while others suffer, dining while others die, constitutes “a hitherto unrecognized artistic device rooted in social protocol that represents an inversion of the custom of abstinence during mourning” (page 256). In our case, Antipas may have revered, honored, and even enjoyed John and his preaching. But in the end, he was celebrating his birthday while John rotted in jail. Such a meal “thus functions to underscore the contempt of those dining for the dying by depicting their deaths as unworthy of lament” (page 256).
I am reminded of the standard scene in novels, television dramas, and movies. The victim, captive, or enemy (often the hero of the story) is brought into the chambers of the villain for questioning, gloating, or some necessary plot exposition. The villain is invariably eating some elaborate meal during the interview. Often the conversation is punctuated by the application of violence to the prisoner – an event which may even enhance the dining experience for the villain. We’ve seen this scene before.
This provokes a disturbing thought for me when it comes to our eucharistic practice as Christians. How often do we gather at the “Feast of Victory” while victims languish in the dungeons of mass incarceration, hunger, poverty, abuse, and oppression? From one perspective, we could observe that we do so every time we come to the Lord’s table. It all depends on that perspective. Mark’s identity question asserts itself as always. Not only “Who is Jesus?” but also, “Who are we?”
Notice who is at each table in Mark 6. At Herod’s table we find representatives of and collaborators with the Roman domination regime: Herod’s cabinet members, Roman tribunes, and members of the “first families” of Galilee. Smit notes that the guest list at Herod’s table is nothing but elite males. At Jesus’ table, we find the poor, the homeless, the hungry, and the outcaste. And we find men, women, and children in the crowd.
If we sit at Herod’s table, it doesn’t matter much if the feast is in a palace or a pew.
Noegel notes that the inverse perspective can also apply to meals. He points to the Passover as a feast that takes place in spite of oppression (and in anticipation of the deaths of the Egyptian firstborn). The image of the feast of liberation is taken up as well, he notes, in Isaiah 25 and the description there of the Messianic feast. God’s people eat while the oppressor is destroyed. God’s people celebrate while Death itself is dying. In fact, in Isaiah 25, Death becomes part of the main course!
Smit provides an interesting comparison of the two hosts and the two tables in his 2016 article. Smit notes that Herod is portrayed as a “king.” Immediately, however, we have doubts about his ability to control his situation – as an effective king would – especially when it comes to the attitudes and behaviors of his wife. Throughout the banquet, as I hinted in earlier posts, Herod is a textbook example of a man utterly lacking in self-control. Herodias manipulates and out-maneuvers Herod and reduces him to a pawn in his own game of power.
The result, Smit suggests, is that Herod fails as the host at the table. “Herod is unable to serve his guests the kind of meal that he should have,” Smit writes, “in fact he only serves them death and chaos, the disintegration of himself as a man and a king” (page 337). He fails to create the banquet of comfort and control expected from a man who would be king.
Instead, Smit notes, “violence and chaos are the outcome. John’s literal loss of his head,” Smit observes, “was caused by Herod’s figurative loss of his head to his wife’s daughter and his subsequent less-than-willing (v. 26) surrender of all power and control to his wife and her daughter and his subjects, becoming little more than a puppet in their hands…He has lost the contest” (page 337).
Herod stages a banquet in a palace. Jesus meets God’s people in the wilderness, a deserted place. As John’s gospel will expand and expound in chapter 6, the scene, Smit notes, has all the hallmarks of the manna story in Exodus 16 and Numbers 11. The question posed in pairing these two tables is, Smit suggests, “Will Jesus succeed where Herod failed?” I’m not sure that’s a sharp enough question, however. I think, as other commentators note, the question is much more about the identity of the real king. In addition, the question is about the identity of those at the table.
Smit notes that the wilderness table is spontaneous as opposed to Herod’s carefully planned and provisioned palace banquet. The disciples are sure that Jesus has lost control of the crowd and the schedule, but Jesus does not fail as the host. Instead, Smit notes, he takes inventory of the resources. He blesses the food. He orchestrates the serving and the cleanup. There is plenty left over and no bodiless head on the dessert platter. Jesus creates and sustains a table of peaceful abundance – a royal task that Herod cannot accomplish.
Do we dine while others die? Or do we commit ourselves to be served up as the body of Christ for the life of the world? The former puts us at Herod’s table. The latter puts us at Jesus’ table.
Are we being served?
References and Resources
Jennifer A. Glancy , ” Unveiling Masculinity : The Construction of Gender in Mark 6:17-29,” Biblnt 2 (1994): 34-50.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.
Kraemer, R. (2006). Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy? Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 321-349. doi:10.2307/27638363.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
Noegel, Scott B. “CORPSES, CANNIBALS, AND COMMENSALITY: A LITERARY AND ARTISTIC SHAMING CONVENTION IN THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST.” Journal of Religion and Violence, vol. 4, no. 3, 2016, pp. 255–304. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26671507. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Sandmel, S. “Herod (Family).” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2. Nashville, TN.: Abingdon Press, 1962. Pages 585-594.
Smit, Peter-Ben. “The Ritual (De)Construction of Masculinity in Mark 6: A Methodological Exploration on the Interface of Gender and Ritual Studies.” Neotestamentica, vol. 50, no. 2, 2016, pp. 327–352. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26417640. Accessed 1 July 2021.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.