by David Baer, July 15, 2018
Text: Mark 6:14-29
This is a terrible story. I won’t pretend otherwise. In our church, after we read the scriptures, we say, “This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” That’s bad enough. But in some other churches, after a gospel reading like this, they would say, “This is the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But is it really? How is it possible to believe that this is good news? And Jesus himself barely gets mentioned at all, and then only because King Herod thinks he’s the second coming of the now dead John the Baptist. And what happens to prophets who stand up to powerful rulers and tell them the truth? They get killed. If Herod thinks Jesus is John reborn, then that only means they’re coming for him next.
This is a terrible story. In it we see all the flaws of powerful, prideful people bent to serve evil and violent purposes. At a drunken birthday bash, Herod fawns over his step-daughter’s dance, and makes a rash promise to reward her with up to half of his kingdom. When she asks for John’s head, in spite of his conscience telling him not to, he has John executed so that he can save face in front of his dinner guests. There is so much sordidness, so much brokenness packed into these few verses of scripture that it just makes your skin crawl, and the outcome of letting these appetites and impulses run amok is always the same—the suffering and death of innocent people. At the end, John, the faithful prophet of God, lies in the tomb, and Herod is still on the throne.
This is a terrible story. Who designed this lectionary, where we’re invited to spend this week mulling over what happens when a good and righteous person bumps up against raw egotistical power? There are some awful stories in our Bible. The one where God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac is one of them. But as awful as that story is, both Abraham and Isaac get to walk back down the mountain in the end. And there are stories of monstrous tyrants who get their comeuppance in the end, but this is not one of them. Where is the good news here? How do we read this story in a way that builds us up in faith, hope, and love?
One good thing we can take from this text is God’s empathy. What I mean by that is that we have this story here where everything doesn’t turn out OK in the end. And in that story we see a reflection of so many of the injustices we see and experience in this world.
Comedian Mike Birbiglia tells a story about being in an auto accident. His rental car was “t-boned” by a drunk driver, who left the scene. (Though he didn’t get too far—he turned the corner and promptly crashed into a tree.) He was shaken up, but basically OK. But when he got home, the rental company called him up and told him that, according to the accident report, he was at fault, and that he was going to owe $12,000. He complains that the accident report was riddled with inconsistencies: “They’re saying that I crashed into my own car. I mean, I’m pretty self-destructive, but I would never crash into my own car with my own car, nor would I understand how to do that!”1 Birbiglia goes on to talk about how the absurdity and unfairness of the situation made him obsessed with getting justice. He argued with the police, talked to a lawyer, started looking up information on the other driver—until his girlfriend finally convinced him that everything he was doing was only hurting himself, and he dropped it, and paid for the guy’s car in the end. And he married his girlfriend. Because, as he says, sometimes holding on to the people and things that are important to you is better than being right.
Now this isn’t the most monstrous injustice in the history of the world, but I share this particular story, because someone like Birbiglia is easy for us to identify with. This is an injustice that looms large in your life when it happens to you, but ultimately is pretty small. He could afford to absorb the $12,000 in damages and move on with his life. But imagine the unfairness of dealing with something like this if you’re poor or vulnerable. And imagine what happens if it’s not negligence, but somebody looking to take financial or political advantage of you.
Sometimes the drunk driver, the jerk, the thief, the liar wins, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
So what would it mean if we were to read a Bible where the good guys always won and the bad guys always lost? It might make for more uplifting stories. But it wouldn’t connect, in the end, with our experience. Sometimes you pay for someone else’s crime. Sometimes you get sick, and there’s nothing redeeming about it. And sometimes people die when they’ve done nothing to deserve it. It’s not pretty. It’s terrible. But that’s the world we live in. So we have a Bible that depicts a world where the bad people often win and the good people often suffer. And yet this is the same world where God is present and working toward redemption, toward justice, toward a new creation. If the world of the Bible were fairer than our world, if its stories always had a happy ending, then how could we possibly trust that the God it shows us is powerful enough to save us, who struggle under so many burdens? This story is about honesty about the depths of brokenness and sin in our world. We don’t have to exercise our imaginations too strenuously to see how power and pride and vanity among those in authority, today as in the time of Jesus, lead to the suffering of innocent people. Without the Bible’s honesty here, our trust in God would be only so much pie in the sky.
And I think we’re meant to reflect that honesty in our care for each other, and in the way we bear witness. When you reach out to someone because you’re hurting—whether it’s an illness or a difficult boss or getting crushed in the gears of a justice system that isn’t always just, you don’t need them to feel obligated to make you look on the bright side, or find some kind of redemptive value in what you’re going through. Sometimes it’s enough for them to hear your pain, and to acknowledge that it’s real, that it’s not just something in your head. Honesty, and a refusal to try and wish away the darker sides of our stories and the stories of others, is the only foundation for a faith we can really stand on.
And yet it’s also the case that when we tell the darker part of the story honestly, we’re not telling it completely. Now, Mark’s gospel is the shortest of all the gospels, and usually that sparsity of words is reflected in the individual stories Mark tells. Most of the time, if a story that appears in Mark also appears elsewhere, Mark’s version is going to be shorter. But that’s not the case with his story about the death of John. He uses almost twice as many words as Matthew does. He includes more detail about Herod’s fascination with John, and he draws out the scene where Herod asks the girl Herodias what she wants, and Herodias asks her mother, heightening the dramatic tension. Why is this story relatively so important to Mark in his overall message, which he titles, “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)?
I believe the picture of Herod and his court, their vices and violence, is meant to be a grotesque mirror-image of the Kingdom of God. Herod hosts a banquet of death, where an innocent prophet gets served up on a platter. In a couple of weeks, we’ll hear a story about Jesus hosting a banquet of life, where a little boy’s meager offering is multiplied to feed thousands. The guests at Herod’s banquet were his rich and powerful friends, jockeying for position. They were there because they were people who could do things for Herod, and if they ever ceased to be useful to him, they knew they’d be excluded. The guests at Jesus’s banquet are there because they need his healing and wisdom, and they receive that as well as unexpected, miraculous nourishment. Herod’s family is bound together by lust, grudges, and grievances, whose outcome is death. The family Jesus is creating is bound together by an eagerness to hear the will of God and do it (Mark 3:35).
These two banquets reflect each other, and the one is never completely absent from the other. That’s why even with Herod, there is a faintly flickering glimmer of conscience that leads him to listen to John, though John never does get through to him. And in one telling of the story of the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the five thousand, he realizes that he hasn’t quite gotten through to them either, as they try to seize him to make him king by force (John 6:15), to make his banquet look more like Herod’s.
To have these two opposites set side by side is to be confronted with a choice. Which banquet do we aspire to attend? Is it the banquet hosted by a vain, pompous, egotistical ruler who holds out the promise of a share of a vanishing pie—and some really good dancing entertainment—in return for our loyalty? Is it the banquet that serves up cruelty to the weak, so that the powerful can feel yet more powerful still?
Or do we go to the banquet hosted by Jesus, where everyone is invited, where those who have something to share will see it blessed and multiplied a thousand times over, with more to spare?
Lastly, when I read this story, it looks to me like one of those poems that you’re supposed to read forward and then backward. You might have seen one called “Lost Generation” by Jonathan Reed—if not, look it up. When you read it forward, all the lines in order, it sounds utterly devastating and hopeless, but when you read starting with the bottom line and go all the way up, the meaning is completely different. It’s the same words, but the order of presentation changes the way you hear them. The evidence for hope is right there, if you take the time to look.
And I see that here too. Even in the rich, powerful, prideful Herod, there is a flickering conscience. The grandees of Galilee gathered at the feast do nothing to stop John’s execution, but there are other communities—John’s disciples, who faithfully care for his body and treasure his teaching, and Jesus’ movement, which Herod sees as the reincarnation of John. The good that is done in God’s name persists, and it outlives the corrupt and violent opponents who try to destroy it.
If you’re having a hard time finding hope, as you look at your life or our world, try re-ordering what you see. You will find friends and neighbors working to make a difference. You will see people who act with kindness and generosity. You will find all the elements of God’s future here already, just waiting to be set in the proper order.
God’s kingdom persists, in spite of every blow struck against it. Strike it down, and God raises it up. It’s more durable than all the scheming and all the violence and all the injustice that stand against it. Face up honestly to the world as it is, but pray and work to reverse the order, until it shines in all its glory as God meant it to be. Amen.
Mike Birbiglia, “D-u-Why?!” This American Life. https://www.thisamericanlife.org/379/return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime/act-one. Accessed 7/13/2018.