Week of Sunday July 15 - Pentecost 7
Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
Then he went about among the villages teaching. 7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ 15But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’16But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’24She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. 31He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat..... 42And all ate and were filled; 43and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
This is an important reading. In his terse, almost hurried gospel (and immediately) Mark gives the death of John the Baptist 15 whole verses. This event is significant for Mark’s message of the Kingdom of God which is at hand (1:15) and which can be seen in the person of Jesus.
The story is about Herod and his feast. Traditionally, we call it the story of “the death of John the Baptist,” but I think this distracts us from Mark’s prime intention.
Like any story it offers us multiple insights, and does ‘double duty’ for the author, but the key intention is to contrast the Kingdom of Herod with the Kingdom of Heaven.
The minor themes may include making it clear that John the Baptist was subordinate to Jesus.
John was an alternative Messiah for some, and still is. John’s gospel is very keen to make John the Baptist’s subordinate role clear; Mark’s concern about this is muted by comparison. In Mark, (1:7) John the Baptist pronounces his subordinance, not being worthy to untie the thong of the Messiah’s sandal. The same words are in John’s gospel, but he goes on to strongly emphasise this: [John the Baptist]...
confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ (1:20-21)
The issue is much less important to Mark.
We will also notice that John’s death is a reflection of what will happen to Jesus. The difficulty— or unwillingness— of the disciples in hearing Jesus warn of his own death three times, later in the gospel, is ironic given what has happened to John. Herod’s belief that Jesus is John risen from the dead is another pre-echoing of what will happen to Jesus.
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In the dramatic flow of the gospel we have seen Jesus come with a promise of the kingdom of God.
Jesus is saying the world will be put to rights. Even the basic enmities of creation will be overcome, the wolf will lie down with the lamb, (Isa 11) as justice and compassion become guiding principles for living, rather than the maintenance of power and privilege. This healing of injustice will be reflected in the healing of disease; we see Jesus doing this. The authorities hate him, (3:6) his family reject him, (3:31) and his own home town, even though they acknowledge the reality of his power, reject his vision, and will be no part of it. (6:2, 6)
In all of this we see Jesus’ acts of power increasing, right up to the reversal of death. Those who do believe, the disciples, are able to replicate his acts of power. It is not the power which matters, but what it signifies. Even dopey disciples with limited and compromised understanding and commitment— Mark is careful to make sure we see this— become adequate good soil (4:8) in which the kingdom may flourish and bear fruit. (Tolbert; Sowing the Gospel)
And now we come to Herod. “King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.” Significantly this statement is made immediately after the report of the disciple’s success. Herod has heard how the kingdom of heaven is beginning to spring up where ever Jesus and his disciples go.
This is a superb segue. The good disciples of God, the prophets of the Lord who are destroyed, rise back up and continue! And this from the mouth of Herod!
What we see, in the guise of an explanation about Herod’s role in John’s death, is a show of power. It is a contrasting power to the power of Jesus. It is the power of privilege and military might. It is the power that comes from being a player in the structures of Empire. It is a feast where Herod can do as he pleases, wine women and song, daughters to dance as desired, and people to be beheaded if needed.
Here is the Kingdom of Herod. Here, John’s death is a minor event, a single verse in the story. Here, people are not fed, they are used. The guests are not being hosted, let alone loved. They are there to be impressed, to provide admiration, even to worship. Herod uses his guests, like everyone else, to promote and preserve his power. Look at me! Look at what great feasts I can provide! It is the unsubtle preening of a peacock, without the beauty.
Despite his ugliness, there is something inexpressibly sad about Herod. He listened to John gladly. And yet, in a bizarre and twisted understanding of honour, because of his guests, (26) he ordered John to be murdered.
I’ve seen Herod dismissed as someone idly titillated by John’s preaching; a sort of intellectual dalliance. He was never really interested; John was just for entertainment. I think this is wrong. Herod longed for what John had. He glimpsed in John the “something more” for which we all long. He protected John from his wife, who seems to have been as much a piece of work as Herod himself!
It says Herod was deeply grieved. This is not the description of someone giving up an entertainment. This is the description of a man who is trapped. The status and power of the Kingdom of Herod asks an appalling price for our privilege. We are utterly compromised.
Jensen says “ Herod is an example of seed sown among the thorns.”
Herod was in a tough spot. He was deeply perplexed. But he sold out! He had made an oath. His guests had heard it. He must keep his word. And so it was that the cares of the world choked out the word he had heard. The seed that John had sown yielded nothing! [Preaching Mark’s Gospel pp. 109-110, quoted by Brian Stoffregen]
It is not only the choking out of the word which happens if we insist on being a “player”; but the choking of our essential selves. Our humanity is throttled, even suffocated, by our desire to hold onto power and position. Ultimately, what Herod’s feast shows us is his lack of power. He is a minor player. He is enslaved. He cannot follow his heart. He is captive to the opinion of the very guests who were supposed to be building him up.
The sad story of Herod continues beyond our set reading, in a sense, for 30 the apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. Do you see that Herod has become merely the filling for yet another Markan sandwich? In all his might, he is the only the object of a lesson about discipleship and power.
Unlike Herod, the disciples had nothing “except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; [just] sandals, [not even] two tunics.”(6:8) In contrast to his leisured feast, they had no leisure even to eat. “(6:31)
So Jesus takes them away (in the boat: in the church?) to a quiet place. Even here they cannot be at leisure; they end up having to serve yet again! And we see the second feast of the gospel, where people are served, rather than exploited. “Because they were like sheep without a shepherd... he began to teach them many things.” It is a complete contrast to Herod. Jesus had compassion on the crowds, rather than using them for his own purpose.
And Mark describes a feast deeply reminiscent of all Israel’s hopes of God’s Promised Land. We see the King of Heaven breaking in again, with food left over.
Here is the choice for us. Do we seek to be a player in the Kingdom of Herod, or will we trust Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. Mark shows us the two kingdoms. He goes on with more feasting, more healing, more acts of power. We see a different power, not exploiting, but healing and building up. We see compassion.
And at the end, just before the midpoint of the gospel, that highlight where Peter finally understands (sort of) that Jesus is the Messiah, we hear one more warning: now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he cautioned them, saying, ‘Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.’ (8:14-15)
When we in the boat, in the nave, who are church, have only one loaf, and things are lean and grim, the temptation is to go the way of Herod. Let’s become a player in the world, and get more bread. The trouble is it comes infected with the kind of compromise that will throttle the life out of us.
The Kingdom of Herod is not some fantasy place, maybe in the corridors of power in Canberra, which is of no concern to us. The Kingdom of Herod is here. It is the derivative power of Empire, just like Herod. And it is here. It is the greasy pole, the power structure of society that we are all urged to climb. It is wherever we decide to get ahead, to be a “somebody,” and live for ourselves instead of for the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is every time we buy something we don’t need so that we fit in, or can impress someone. It is every time we let someone suffer so that we can maintain our position and privilege.
We live forever wavering on the edges of a weedy patch of paddock.
Loader describes Herod’s feast as “a black eucharist: John’s head is brought forward on a platter at the height of its ‘liturgy’.” It is a perversity which will sacrifice even the prophets of God for its own purpose. It is as evil as the black mass of Satanism.
I have problems with the “coloured” language here; there are black people in my congregations and they are exemplary Christians. But the intended message is true. The Kingdom of Herod, Mammon, is the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is an evil charade, and deadly to us.
In the dramatic flow of Mark we have now seen the alternatives; Kingdom of Herod, and Kingdom of Heaven. Which will we choose?
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