From whom will a little girl learn?
Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
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 to 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. 32And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.
About the text at verse 22:
The SBL text says τῆς θυγατρὸς αὐτῆς τῆς ⸃ Ἡρῳδιάδος [the daughter of Herodias herself], and the Nestle text says τῆς θυγατρὸς αὐτου Ἡρῳδιάδος [the daughter of him Herodias]. The Textual Commentary by Metzger (p90) decided "somewhat reluctantly" in favour of this reading and gave it a D rating, which is "a very high degree of doubt" and sometimes "the least unsatisfactory reading" (pp xxviii) for a text where there are variations.
From whom will a little girl learn?
Suddenly the death of John the Baptist is injected into the story of Jesus. It has always felt slightly out of place to me. Just as the disciples begin to succeed, we are told of John's death. And the story "is the one scene in all of Mark's Gospel in which Jesus makes no appearance." (Lohse)
I first began to understand John's death as the one of three feasts; a feast which stands in appalling contrast to Jesus' two feasts with the crowds in Mark 6:30-44, and Mark 8:1-10. Jesus' feeding of the crowd is everything Herod's banquet is not. His feasts are for the common people rather than the top end of town; all people, even Gentiles, are included. His banquets are not characterised by violence and murder; rather than the coveted place to be, they are an image of blessed life in the presence of the shepherd of Israel, in green pastures far from any palace. In those two feasts, Jesus is a shepherd rather than a Herod.
Mark pictures Jesus looking out on the assembled crowd and seeing them as sheep without a shepherd. The metaphor of Israel as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ derives from Hebrew scripture (eg. Nu 27:17). Israel needs a shepherd. Shepherd was a common image for a ruler, a king and probably hints at Jesus as Messiah. Rulers, governments, have a responsibility of care. Already in ancient Egypt we find the image in this sense in relation to pharaohs. In our passage the image of David, the shepherd king, may play a role and possibly the mention of ‘green grass’ in 6:39 alludes to the ‘green pastures’ of Psalm 23. Bill Loader
But Mark's artistry and inspiration goes far deeper than this beginning. He contrasts the feasts of the kingdom with something at once ordinary and terrifying. And seemingly inescapable; it's the oldest story in the world.
Jesus has just handed the power of God, that is; his authority over unclean spirits, to the disciples. (Mark 6:7) I take this to mean that disciples of Jesus have authority to discern the things about our way of being which separate us from God, for separation from God is the basic meaning of unclean. Disciples also have the power to live and be in another way, and to show this way to other people. Therefore, as in Mark, "they cast out many demons, and anoint... with oil many who [are] sick and cure... them." (Mark 6:13)
The story of John, who "was a righteous and holy man" is sandwiched into this story of the disciples; the disciples' story begins at Mark 6:6b, and ends at Mark 6:30, after the death of John. In the midst of the disciples' healing ministry is the death of a "righteous and holy man." This is the cost of discipleship. This is the cost of not joining Herod's game of thrones. A comment by Mark Davis highlights the utter ordinariness of the horror:
Just like that, God’s prophet is put to death. It is the sniper’s bullet that hits Romero in the heart as he serves the sacraments. It is the “disappeared” among base communities. It is the Atlatl raid on the religion faculty of the University of Central America. This is how Rome and its offspring deal with truth.
Just like that... and yet, also, with a deliberate, cold, unerring hatred. Perhaps accidental that it comes home to you or me specifically, and yet, outside the Kingdom of God, inevitable and unavoidable. Someone must be killed. David Lohse tells us why this story, devoid of Jesus, so fascinates us.
We watch programs like Mad Men, The Newsroom, Game of Thrones, West Wing, The Sopranos, and the like because we see ourselves in them. We might not always like what we see, but at least it seems real. And Mark is, if nothing else, a realist. He is writing, after all, in the wake of the devastation caused by the Romans exercising their brutal power by destroying the Jerusalem Temple. So part of why he tells this story is because this is the world as he knows it, the world he lives in and, by extension, the world we live in as well.
The world of a disciple is our small home town world. Game of Thrones is simply a more grandiose version of Neighbours. As I read the commentaries this week, and grappled with Girard's chapter on John's death in The Scapegoat, my reflections came home to the school bus, where a constant dance for supremacy went through its predictable posturing each morning and evening. It continued throughout the day in the school yard: kids looking for a way to be; kids looking for someone to follow. There was always simmering violence amongst the boys on the bus, a constant competitive bickering and jockeying to be on top, and there was always someone who was the butt of contempt or ridicule, and occasionally given a beating whilst away from the teachers; they were the scapegoat who relieved the pressure on all the others.
Field hockey was introduced to this school, which knew only football, tennis, and cricket. It was greeted with derision, violence, and even hatred. The boys on top could never quite let it go; it fascinated them despite all their scorn. I have slowly understood that part of that hatred was that the hockey players slowly became immune to the power-plays of the other boys on the bus. We unwittingly became a sort of judgement upon their way of being; a scandal, because we had left their game.
To Herodias, John the Baptist is a scandal because he speaks the truth, and there is no worse enemy of desire than truth. ... Whoever reproaches men (sic) for their desire is a living scandal for them, the only thing in their opinion that keeps them from being happy. We think no differently today. (Rene Girard The Scapegoat Chapter 11 pp572 in my eVersion.)
Of course, we hockey players had our own rivalries, but in our lack of competition with the main game we spoke a kind of truth to it. We did not respect the desires of the others.
I wonder if one day a little girl, whose name was Salome, started school, and started a new chapter in her learning how to be a person. And on the bus were two brothers, Phillip and Herod, vying for supremacy, in rivalry for each other, seeking a way to be 'a somebody'— anybody, for who of us knows who we are?
Herod's noticing of girls has been limited to some caution about "girl-germs," but then Phillip gets enamoured with a Year 10 girl called Herodias, so suddenly Herod has to have her for himself, and becomes besotted. I'm placing the story on the school bus in an effort to show just how banal, how ordinary, how basic, it all is. The same story is told for the first time in Genesis 4, where the rivalry of two brothers ends in a murder.
And little Salome watches with wide eyes.
Rene Girard suggests she is not the seductress we often imagine. It says in the Greek that she is κορασίῳ; it is a diminutive of girl. This is the same word Mark 5:41 uses to translate the Talitha cum with which Jesus says, "Little girl, get up." She is young enough that promised up to half Herod's kingdom, she does not know what to desire!
Neither Mark nor Matthew gives a name to the dancer. We call her Salome because the historian Josephus speaks of a daughter of Herodias by that name. Salome has no desire to formulate. This human being has no desire of her own; men (sic) are strangers to their desires; children don’t know how to desire and must be taught. Herod does not suggest anything to Salome because he offers her everything and anything. That is why Salome leaves him and goes to ask her mother what she should desire. (Rene Girard, The Scapegoat Chapter 11 pp512 in my eBook.)
The frightening thing about Salome is that she does return in innocence. She comes back full of desire; her own desire.
The girl hurried straight back to the king and made her request, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, here and now, on a dish.”
Hurried, straight back, here and now. It is not unintentional that a text that normally gives so few details provides so many signs of impatience and feverishness. Salome is worried that the king might be sobered by the end of the dance and her departure and might go back on his promise. And it is her desire that is worrying her; her mother’s desire has become her own. The fact that Salome’s desire is entirely patterned after another desire does nothing to lessen its intensity. On the contrary, the imitation is even more frenetic than the original. (Ibid pp514)
And so we learn the dance of our culture. Be like Mummy. Be a winner like Dad, who is urging you on from the sidelines, swearing at the umpire, teaching you the desire to win.
Years after leaving school, I visited the family farm, and one evening drove to a nearby town to buy us a bottle of wine for tea. Facing me from around the corner of the bar, sat the king of the heap from my school days; the footballer. I flinched and braced myself for the inevitable sneer. He observed me with that careful interest which cannot afford to acknowledge itself. He looked sad and, even then, I wondered if he had discovered that life was somehow empty. In the palace, or in the small home town, Salome finds that what she desired is tasteless, and I grieve for a boy who I now recognise was full of the same wide eyed wonder at life which I recall from my first day on the school bus.
The similarity between Mark's telling of the deaths of John and Jesus is obvious, and surely intentional. John's story begins with "Some ... saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." And the story ends with disciples laying their master's body in a tomb. (cf Mark 15:46) The speculation around who Jesus is (6:14-16) is the same speculation which is reported to Jesus, by the disciples, when Peter confesses him as the Messiah (8:27-30)
John is killed by the same crowds who kill Jesus.
Just like the Crucifixion, the slaying of John the Baptist is not directly carried out by the crowd, but it is collectively inspired. In both cases there is a sovereign who is the only one with the authority to issue the decree of death and who finally decrees it in spite of his personal desire to spare the victim: Pilate on the one hand, Herod on the other. In both cases the ruler renounces his own desire and orders the execution of the victim for mimetic reasons, not being able to withstand a violent crowd. Just as Pilate does not dare confront the crowd that demands crucifixion, Herod does not dare confront his guests who demand the head of John. (Girard I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Chapter 2, quoted by Paul Nuechterlein.)
Do you see that Herod, like Trump, does not need to keep his word to Salome as some kind of test of honour or keeping face. We all know Trump lies; it is one of his consistencies, and his supporters do not care. Trump needs to separate the children, and send their parents back without them because the crowd desires victims to be punished. It is the same "populism" which drives the inhumanity of Australia's immigration policy. We want someone to punish. We want a victim so that we can feel that the victim is not us; we are not there, we are among the ones who belong. This school bus is ours.
It is critical then, that Jesus will be a victim just like John. There is not something holy about his death compared to John's death.
Jesus’ death was not unique; it was the same as all the “prophets” who went before him. What was unique was the revelatory power it bore because of the total absence of complicity of Jesus in any of the events. Jesus neither succumbed to the perspective of the persecutor in any way, nor took a position of revenge. Rather, there are many passages that suggest that Jesus knew exactly what was happening to him and why... (Paul Nuechterlein)
Indeed, if we make his death somehow holy, then we will use it to justify our choice of victims. We will have to win the argument, whether it be over sexuality, immigration, or some other issue because we are on the side of right. Not to win when we are right is to let Jesus down, and so we will continue the same old game where someone has to die. If that seems extreme, remember church history and all the killings by those who knew they were right.
If we strive to make Jesus’ death unique, because he was the Son of God, what does that do to our theology? Doesn’t it separate it from exactly those whom the gospels seem to go to great pains to join us with, namely, the countless victims of the scapegoating mechanism? Doesn’t the cross mean to bring Christ and us into solidarity with those folks? But what happens to such a solidarity if we make the cross a unique death? Isn’t the gospel instead about the uniqueness of the cross’s revelatory power so that we might choose to join Christ in being in solidarity with victims? (Ibid)
Jesus gathers his disciples who cannot eat for the "many coming and going," who are starved because they do not desire the competitive feast of Herod, and takes them to a deserted place, a place empty of Herod's kingdom. The little boat of the church sails off to another way of being. It leaves the game.
And Jesus starts a new feast which is about the Kingdom of God, about a table set in the presence of enemies, for the fascinated yet scandalised disciples of empire will always follow.(Ps 23:5) And, as John the Gospel Writer sees, the feast is the giving of himself. He refuses to compete. He simply gives. And teaches us to give. That makes all the difference. And which feast we attend will make all the difference to us.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Mark 6:14-29 - Hurdy Gurdy Horror (2015)
Mark 6:14-29 - Winning and losing, or something else? (2015)
Mark 6:14-29 - Changing Everything (2012)
Mark 6:14-29 - Foul Feast of an Evil Kingdom (2012)
Mark 6:14-29 - First of three feasts (2009)
Mark 6:14-29 Head on a Platter (2006)