Week of July 12 – Pentecost 7
Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
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.
Your life is not your own. This is the great scandal of Christianity and other religions. They say to us that we are subject to forces greater than ourselves. These are often forces over which we have no control.
John's murder shows us the same desire/mob/scapegoat mechanisms by which the crucifixion will happen. But whereas the crucifixion is followed by the proclamation of resurrection and the invitation to trust/faith, (Mark 15:6-7) John's story shows what happens when there is no trust in the way of Jesus, but a refusal to trust.
It is a story for our times. It shows us the truth that our life is not our own.
After discussing hostile responses to Derrida and Jung's insistence on religious realities, David Tacey says
The fact that Jung's work generates rage, and not just intellectual criticism, indicates that a complex has been triggered. Criticism of his work degenerates into ad hominem attacks on his person... Some writers lose their focus as soon as religious elements are raised. Their thought is derailed by irrational factors, and their thinking becomes reactive and embittered – usually in the name of defending ‘science’. It is as if they are warding off trauma, or reacting as if an enemy needed to be opposed by a cynical and debunking attitude…
The numinous is that which takes ‘command’ and displaces our will with its own. This is alarming to us, and disturbing to those who want to believe that human integrity hinges on our refusal to bow down to any commanding will, especially one that is invisible and not accessible to science. (David Tacey: The Darkening Spirit Both quotations are from Chapter 8)
Anything to avoid the fact that we are not our own.
The story of John the Baptist's murder is a terrifying lesson that we are not our own, and that when we pretend to own ourselves or to be independent beings, we fail miserably. We either give the wider forces of our reality their due by relating to them with the wisdoms of our religions, or we will be destroyed by them. Because Herod does not listen to John— who is present to him as the wise voice of his religion, he is destroyed by the powers around him. Acting as though he had real independent power— he was Tetrarch, after all— his denial of the greater powers around him meant he was at their mercy and oblivious to them as they manipulated him.
The question the story of Herod and John raises for me is this: How do I avoid being destroyed by the forces within and around me? Who or what can I trust/faith for my survival? Who do I believe?
Although we may see the rage of a Richard Dawkins well described by Tacey's analysis, we Christians breathe the same air as Dawkins. Our danger is that we somehow tame the message of Christ's death and resurrection, and thereby also do not give the power of God its due.
The Prosperity Gospel is perhaps an extreme example of this. It is a gospel of desire. It perverts the death of Jesus into a sanctification of the very desires of wealth, power and sex which destroyed Herod. And so we are left open to the same destruction as Herod.
I sometimes characterise our situation in the west as seeking salvation by consumption. I am not sure that is correct. It would be more accurate if I said we see desire as salvational— the desire to be like, and then exceed, those around us! Advertising always aims to show us how much better we will be if we own something, how much we will be like the model.
In our salvation; that is, in the evolution of our humanity, perhaps we need to lift our aspirations; there is only one person it is finally worth being like. Humans are defined by their innate tendency to imitate— it’s how we learn. But imitating the right person and the right things, is what makes us truly human.
In the Christian understanding of reality, Jesus is the person to imitate. Imitating him, and desiring to be like him, is what puts us 'in the right place' relative to God and other forces of reality we find it so hard own up to.
What I have written above outlines my wider thinking about our Faith. What follows is consists is how I see the text this week contributing to this wider thinking.
John's death always seemed to me to be an interruption of the flow of the story. Why put it here, I wondered? As I have learned more about the way narrative works, I see that John is a key part of the story. In Mark's fast paced and lean writing, John's murder is a long story, and very detailed. It is longer than the story of the feeding of the five thousand, and longer than the parable of the sower. This means Mark considers it a pivotal story for understanding Jesus. We should spend a long time in this long text.
The story of John's murder is part of a Markan sandwich. The bottom slice of bread is the sending out of the twelve in whose footsteps we are to follow. Then, for filling, we have the story of John. And finally, in Mark 6:30, "the apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught." The sandwich structure means that discipleship is meant to be understood in the light of John's death.
Jesus suffers the lack of honour which comes to a local prophet, and then sends out his disciples to be local prophets! It is the Jesus way to spread the gospel. I said last week
… this local, vulnerable living, might be the only strategy… We have to become vulnerable and powerless. We can only feel-with (com-passion) when we suffer-the-same.
This is the essence of compassion... The true prophet steps down to live with the people, to enter a new home town. And because we can therefore no longer lord it … [an] … authority behind us, it means that when they say, "It's just the carpenter's kid," there is not much we can do. Sometimes we can walk away. Sometimes we can "pass through the midst of them," (Luke 4:30) and sometimes we will be crucified.
I fear that if I seek to make myself in-vulnerable to John's ending, then not only may my witness to the Christ be compromised, but I may open myself to becoming a pawn of those forces we do not control. I may become a Herod or Herodias, or one of the guests. Life seems to be with an option: imitate Jesus and John in their submission to God, and pay the cost, or imitate Herod and lose everything; that is; pay the cost.
This is a story of feasts, not just sandwiches! Mark contrasts two feasts. Bill Loader suggests Herod's feast "is a (sic) black eucharist: John’s head is brought forward on a platter at the height of its ‘liturgy’." I take this to mean that violence is served up as the food of salvation, rather than the broken bread of Christ's body.
John's life is taken to satisfy the desires of the mob— the use of the word satisfy ought to make us shudder at that notion when it is expressed in theories of penal substitutionary atonement. Whatever validity that may have had in Anselm's time it can now only be another version of prosperity preaching in the sense that it also "perverts the death of Jesus into a sanctification of the very desires which destroyed Herod." (see above) It sanctifies violence.
By contrast, In Jesus' feast he gives his body— both in the feeding story and in the liturgy of the Eucharist. It is not taken from him.
We should note that Herod's banquet is a banquet of scarcity rather than the apparent surface plenty, and of anxiety and fear! He invites the rich and powerful— the "players." This was an event not to be missed, or you could end up slipping down the greasy pole of status and advancement. If you didn't play the game right, there would not be enough for you! Three years ago I wrote,
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.
[Herod] wanted to hear what John had to say. He was looking for God. But he chose power. He had John, who was offering him life, killed. He killed John because he did not want to risk losing his kingdom, as so he killed his great hope.
Here is the thing about living for ourselves; it costs us everything. It means we may end up destroying the very things that will save us and give us life. We sacrifice truth and beauty, all because we have to impress other people to keep ourselves safe, or on top, or privileged. Because we are so keen to keep ourselves safe, we make ourselves a slave.
None of us, I think, fail to see how perverse and evil life was in Herod’s palace. But the thing to see here, is not only his oppression and violence. The thing to see is the feast. Because after Herod’s feast, we will see Jesus’ feast.
The next section of Mark is a deliberately contrasting feast to Herod’s feast.
The guests are nobodies.
It’s in a wild place, not a palace.
No one is killed or sacrificed; instead Jesus teaches them.
There is no palace banquet; there is not enough food, just a few loaves and fish. And yet there is enough for everyone, and plenty left over.
It’s a feast where instead of Jesus setting himself up to be admired; you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, Jesus sets himself up to serve the people.
What manner of story is this?
It's a common place to say there are no new stories. All stories fit a form. RomCom, tragedy, boy meets girl— even good-news-bad news jokes. Some of the themes of John's story are obvious. Greed, lust, power gone mad— I recognise all these.
But I am learning from Girard— my understanding is very partial— that this story of John is one of the foundational stories of human culture. The quotations below come from Chapter 11 (I have only an eBook version, so no page numbers) of his book The Scapegoat. As he says of the gospels in general, the story of John is "talking about the original murder that is found at the heart of all mythology…" the story that began with Cain and Abel.
What is the real question? Sibling rivalry. The brothers are condemned to rivalry by their very proximity; they fight over the same heritage, the same crown, the same wife. It all begins as in a myth with a story of enemy brothers….
Underlying John's specifc moral objection to Herod's behaviour, Girard sees the story's deeper morality. Ethics, at their best, reflect our human wisdom about how to live in the presence of the powers around us. They are, in more traditional language, God's gift for healthy living, an orientation to God and reality, rather than an end in themselves. So he says
To have Herodias, to carry her off, is forbidden to Herod not by virtue of some formal rule but because his possession can only be at the expense of a dispossessed brother. The prophet warns his royal listener against the evil effects of mimetic desire…
Girard gives the story an autonomy of its own so that the characters almost become automaton pieces rather than people. This is appropriate because part of our insistence on our own personal autonomy, is to ignore and become blind to, real forces that are able to shape and mould us. What I mean is this: Herod, and his brother, and Herodias were all real people, like us. But they each end up playing a 'set piece.' They become like dancers in a choreographed drama; the early choices they make determine the steps the later steps they are able to take. They begin a dance with only one ending. They are owned by the forces of the story.
We know how this works. Families have often have someone who fits into the role of the 'black sheep,' for example. As you live it, so you become it. We become pawns to a greater story than ourselves.
Except for the prophet, there are only enemy brothers and mimetic twins in the text: the mother and daughter, Herod and his brother, Herod and Herodias. The latter two names even suggest the twin quality, phonetically and they are constantly repeated, one after the other…
The proof that Herod desires above all to triumph over his brother is that, once possessed, Herodias loses all direct influence over her husband. She cannot get from him the death of an insignificant prophet. To achieve her ends Herodias must by means of her daughter establish a triangular configuration, similar to that which established her influence over Herod, by making her a prize for the enemy brothers. Mimetic desire is extinguished in one place only to reappear a little further away in an even more virulent form…
I am finally old enough to begin to see just how much the dance of life, with all its set pieces or roles, can control us. I grew up as one of the outsiders we school kids needed to keep the peace among ourselves. I still feel the invitation to become the willing sacrificial victim; it constantly sabotages my attempts at self-care. I am always in danger of secretly enjoying 'outsider status' and finding meaning from it because of my early embracing of the role. And as a minister, I am constantly pushed to conform to other people's expectations of the role, rather than live my calling of discerning the Word among us. We laugh when someone jokes of the millions who buy identical Apple products in order to be an individual, but roles await us and, often, we are completely unconscious of them or, worse, know their power but find we can't get off the hurdy gurdy on which we started.
What saves us from this?
It has to do with the direction of our desire, what we imitate, what we model ourselves upon.
By imitating my brother’s desire, I desire what he desires; we mutually prevent each other from satisfying our common desire. As resistance grows on both sides, so desire becomes strengthened; the model becomes increasingly obstructive and the obstacle becomes increasingly the model, so that ultimately the desire is only interested in that which opposes it. It is only taken with the obstacles created by itself. John the Baptist is that obstacle; inflexible, inaccessible to all attempts at corruption, it is that which fascinates Herod and, even more so, Herodias.
Somehow we need to step out of the cycle of escalation. Herod and Herodias cannot do this so the tragedy recycles.
Girard considers that the daughter is quite young, unlike many imaginings. Petty notes the spread of opinion
This was probably Herodias' daughter by her previous marriage, though this is not made clear. It would seem that any daughter produced by Herodias and Antipas would have been, at this point, much too young. (On the other hand, Mark uses the word korasion for the girl, which is a diminutive and may mean "little girl.") (Petty)
It's the same word used in Mark 5:41 which Jesus uses of 12 year old Jairus' daughter. So
The child Salome simply does a dance pleasing and ingratiating to the crowd and then becomes victim to her mother's desires. (Nuechterlein)
So this innocent little girl dances for her father and his guests and
Something very odd happens after Herod’s offer, or rather, nothing happens. Instead of mentioning the precious or foolish things that young people are supposed to desire, Salome remains silent… 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. But does the mother really communicate her desire [let the reader understand] to her daughter? Perhaps Salome is merely a passive intermediary, a good child who obediently carries out her mother’s terrible errands. She is much more than that, as can be seen from her haste as soon as her mother has spoken. Her uncertainty disappears and she changes entirely… 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.
Girard claims that here we have the
striking spectacle of a Salome suddenly transformed, mimetically, into a second Herodias. After “appropriating” her mother’s desire, the daughter is indistinguishable from her. The two women take turns playing the same role with Herod. Our unshakable cult of desire prevents us from recognizing the process of uniformization; it “scandalizes” our accepted notions…
Desire makes us all the same, in a sense. The guests become caught up in it all. Not one of them calls on Herod to desist. In the ruling party, no one will call out, "No. This is not right. We cannot abuse children like this!" We let the abuse happen. The whole country— all the guests— follows them. They have made the choice for power and now it controls them. And we are swept up into it. Even some of my Christian friends are not scandalised by Abbot and Dutton, and Morrison before him. They are scandalised by my complaints and criticisms of their inhumanity!
And little Salome becomes another Herodias, and the children in the concentration camps are forever scarred. Herod regrets it. He is deeply grieved. He has heard the truth in John, but is powerless. He has become a pawn in the dance. He is one more tethered horse on the hurdy gurdy, with his path mapped out, and his end clear. Herod, who has everything, loses Herodias. He loses his daughter, he loses his brother, and he loses John. In the end he has lost everything. And when he hears about Jesus, it is as if John has come back to haunt him. He is helpless on the hurdy gurdy and its endless cycle.
What is the end?
"When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb." Just as Jesus will be laid in a tomb also at the hands of Herod and all the rest.
Jesus continues on after John's death, and hosts his own feast, which is a feast of plenty. All are invited, a great crowd of five thousand men; sexist but intended to symbolise of all Israel fed at last by the God of the five books of Torah. This is a feast of true giving; Jesus and the disciples went to recover, and perhaps to mourn, and ended up giving more of themselves.
And then, like John, Jesus is murdered. Except this time the jealousy and the scapegoating and the powerlessness of the Herod/Pilate figure are all amplified. Girard would say the nature of the scapegoating process is made clear. As Luke has it: … this man was innocent! (Luke 23:47)
When we are asked to go back to Galilee to see him, we are being asked if we will go back and live like him; that is, live the Galilee life of discipleship, which is to forgo the climb up the greasy pole of power and to live compassionately like Jesus. Will we model ourselves on him? Will we model ourselves on the resurrected Christ who even when he comes back in great power in John's gospel— passing through locked doors—brings only peace, and not revenge and violence?
If you have endured this far, you will sense that I am stitching together disparate bits of understanding. I am trying to make a whole quilt, if you like, and it is slow going. But already I see a clear outline for life, a pattern for the quilt. It is remarkably simple, despite the great risks it asks of us: model yourself on Jesus. Seek to imitate compassion, outdo one another in love. Even if we never hear of the scapegoat, compassion is a grace which cuts through the desire to imitate and better our rivals. It enables us to say child detention, the abuse of little Salome, and so much other mob driven violence, is wrong. Because compassion imitates Jesus. It serves. It has nothing to prove, nothing to lose, therefore it can see clearly. It lifts us out of the desperate cycles of escalation which otherwise can only be paused a while by the death of another victim.
And all that talk about the powers and forces around us? Compassion, imitating Jesus, gives them their dues. It puts us in the right place. It opens us to the Goodness which is God, and inures us to the destructive and evil side of desire.
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!
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