Grace Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2015, Ordinary 15B
Requiem For a Prophet
This is a strange story.
Or perhaps it’s not so much a strange story as it is a strange story to be telling now, at this point in Mark’s gospel.
We’ve been following this gospel for some time now, catching some of it before the Easter season and resuming the journey after Pentecost. We’ve seen the beginning of Jesus’s ministry; a number of miraculous healings and exorcisms, causing the crowds to throng around Jesus to the point that it became impossible to travel in the cities and towns; we’ve observed the first stirrings of opposition from religious leaders from Jerusalem, as well as the embarrassment of his family; and, after a couple more healings, last week we saw Jesus face the rejection of his hometown folk who “took offense at him,” and send out his disciples on their first “independent” mission. Now we get what looks at best like a sidebar, in which Jesus is quite absent except as a point of discussion at the royal court, and a flashback revealing how things finally turned out for John the baptizer. Remember him?
We had met him back at the beginning of this gospel, out in the wilderness preaching and challenging his hearers to repent. Jesus, you’ll remember, shows up to be baptized by John, and then is driven into the wilderness for a period of temptation. Meanwhile, the last we hear of John is in 1:14: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
We’ve come back to that last part many times since then. But that first phrase of verse 14: “Now after John was arrested…” Wait, what? This seems like a big deal, something that deserves more than a throwaway phrase.
Well, maybe Mark agreed with that sentiment. For whatever reason, five chapters later, our author suddenly returns to John and picks up his story after his arrest by Herod. It turns out that story didn’t end well.
First, though, we get an insight into just how much Jesus’s reputation is spreading. It turns out that the authorities in the Temple aren’t the only bigwigs who have taken notice of Jesus and his following. Unlike those Temple authorities, though, the level of concern in the courts of King Herod runs more towards idle, bemused speculation than serious interest and wariness.
One might imagine the conversation, something like this:
“So, how ‘bout this Jesus fellow?”
“Who? What’s this?”
“You know, this rural rabbi making the rounds up in Galilee, doing all these healings and miracles. The one who’s got the prayboys over at the Temple all aflutter.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about him. Big miracle worker. So what about him?”
“Who is he? I mean, obviously he can’t just be this hick-from-the-sticks preacher, not with all these things going on around him. So who is he, really?”
“Well, there are some talking about him as if he’s John the baptizer come back from the dead. You know that would drive Herod crazy.”
“Yes, but there are others who say he’s Elijah returned, or a prophet like the old prophets who used to roam around this benighted kingdom and make kings’ lives miserable.”
When the chatter made it to Herod’s desk, though, it stopped being idle. One can imagine Herod turning pale as a sheet, eyes stricken with fear, mumbling to himself, “It’s John. I had him killed, and John has come back to get me.” And then, as if suddenly remembering that he hadn’t gotten around to telling that story, the author now does so.
It’s a pretty sordid story, and one that has lived on in the arts and culture in a way that few such New Testament stories have done. Aside from the obvious “biggies” like the Crucifixion or the Nativity, this particular story has been one of the most fertile subjects for painters, novelists, playwrights, and even composers of any of the New Testament. Aside from a number of paintings, probably the most famous such artistic products are the scandalous Oscar Wilde play Salome and the also-scandalous opera by Richard Strauss based partly on that play. For arts lovers, those products may actually be unhelpful in reading this story, so a moment to clear away the clutter is appropriate here.
First of all, get that “Dance of the Seven Veils” from the Strauss opera out of your head. The girl in question was a younger girl, possibly no older than the little girl raised by Jesus back in chapter five. For another, you’ll note than in this account she isn’t even given the name “Salome”; rather, Mark sticks her with her mother’s name Herodias (although there’s some uncertainty about whether Mark is actually trying to refer to “the daughter of Herodias herself”). The name “Salome” is given in extra-biblical accounts like that of the Jewish historian Josephus. So bear in mind that what Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss give us is, as you might expect, quite an exaggeration of the original.
Not that the story doesn’t have its own intrigue. Herodias is more than willing to use that young daughter to get Herod to do what she (Herodias) wanted, and what Herod could have done at any time. A whole roomful of courtiers and hangers-on are on hand to see just how Herod (who in this telling is nobody’s idea of a great king) handles this particular pickle.
But perhaps the most intriguing, or maybe most curious part of the story is: why had Herod kept John alive for so long?
He, as king, could have had John executed at any time. He didn’t even have to bother with imprisoning him, really, although it might have been expedient in order to keep the possibility of a revolt by John’s followers under control. He could have had any crowds dispersed or put down and then had John killed. Instead, for some reason, he keeps John around, not only letting him live but even going to hear John occasionally, even though he had to know they only thing John was going to do was to condemn him for stealing his brother’s wife.
In the end, though, political expediency won out. Herod, like any politician, lived in mortal fear of appearing weak, and once he was put on the spot there was nothing to it but to have John’s head served up on the requested platter.
So, what then to make of this story? There are a few lessons, some obvious and some less so.
Maybe the easiest lesson is that speaking truth to power is not always rewarded with success and honor. Sometimes it just gets you killed. While history offers a multitude of examples of this tendency, one of which I was reminded this week was William Tyndale, the sixteenth-century English scholar who determinedly produced the first complete translation of the Bible into English drawing directly from Hebrew and Greek texts rather than Latin translations. For his trouble, Tyndale was arrested and imprisoned for a year, then finally executed by strangulation, after which his body was burned at the stake. Even as vernacular translations were appearing across Europe in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, Tyndale’s effort to bring scripture into the language of the people brought him to a violent end. Tyndale is just one example; students of history can probably come up with many others who confront the powers that be, and end up crushed by them.
Not all such persons ended up executed, of course, and we today are fortunate to live in a place and time where we don’t face execution or other such punishments for speaking truth to power. It still can cost us, though, particularly when one looks at powers other than the state. The ability of large corporations, for example, to crush those who speak out against their practices is something that should frighten us all. So it still remains true that speaking truth to power can not only be rejected, but cause harm to us as those trying as best as possible to follow Christ.
There’s another lesson, though, in that wishy-washy way Herod keeps going back to hear from John, one that gives a preacher like myself great cause for concern. In a way, there might just be a fate worse than facing punishment for speaking truth to power; the fate of, in trying to proclaim the news of the kingdom of God at hand, of being reduced to an entertainment, or a sideshow.
I think that’s a fear for preachers in particular, yes, but not one irrelevant to anyone trying to be a follower of Christ. They’ll come back to hear us, sure. They might even commend our preaching, or our music or whatever aspect of the church’s worship or practice strikes their fancy, but nothing really happens. The sermons or anthems go out and are heard, but … nothing. Nothing changes. Nothing “takes,” and everything goes on the same as it always has been.
I fear in some ways that this is how the Christian Church in general, particularly in the United States, passed much of the twentieth century. We built our big fancy buildings when we had the influence that came of being something people just had to be part of. We put out our radio shows – like, say, “The Protestant Hour” or the old broadcasts by the likes of Bishop Sheen – and, comfortable in our place, were content to be simply influential, without much actually happening. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we thought we had found our place in society, when in fact society had found its place in us.
Then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves on the outside looking in. Finally people had noticed that the church wasn’t really doing anything with all that influence, at least not anything that really made anybody’s life better. Things like racism, or sexism, or poverty, or all manner of injustice were rolling along unchecked, and instead of making a difference or at least speaking up against these injustices it seemed like large chunks of the church were getting all bent out of shape over what went on in people’s bedrooms. Faced with this kind of disconnect, society decided the church wasn’t really worth the trouble anymore, and they’ve been drifting away ever since.
So now, we try to speak, even try to speak up against real injustice, and society looks at us and says, “that’s cute.” And they go on about their business, and we remain on the fringe, looking irrelevant, more like a curiosity than a serious messenger with good news to proclaim.
Finally, we have to acknowledge that Mark is engaging in some literary foreshadowing here. The final result of John’s encounter with Roman power is not exactly like what happens to Jesus later in the gospel, but the effect is pretty similar – except, of course, for the small detail about Jesus not staying dead. And it’s hard not to wonder if Jesus, fresh off rejection in his own hometown, doesn’t have some inkling of this. You have to think Jesus knows what happens to those who speak truth to power in the age of the Roman Empire.
And yet Jesus didn’t go silent. Jesus didn’t retreat from his mission. Jesus didn’t stop acting out of compassion for the crowds that continued to flock to see Jesus, and Jesus didn’t stop lighting into the Pharisees and scribes when they continued to nitpick at Jesus and the disciples. The ministry, the mission continued, and Jesus continued to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news.
And that’s our mission as well. Whether we face opposition or bemusement, our call continues to be to proclaim the kingdom of God come near, and the good news. And for that call, enduring and unchanging, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (PH ’90):
#482 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
#418 God, Bless Your Church With Strength
#409 Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice
#420 God of Grace and God of Glory
That's one kind of legacy...