Herod’s Party Trick

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 6:14-29

This story of the beheading of John the Baptizer functions as a kind of flashback for Mark’s storytelling, sandwiched between the story of the disciples being sent out two-by-two and returning with their stories of healing and exorcism. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus exhorts the disciples to come away to a deserted place in order to rest and, perhaps, escape the gaze of those with Herod’s ear bent to their whispers? 

Undoubtedly, this story, sandwiched between the sending of the disciples to preach repentance, cure, and cast out, is meant to warn the growing church of Jesus’ disciples of the real danger implicit in the church’s ministry. But perhaps more compelling is the contrast between the powerful “King” Herod and the Lord Jesus presented in this sandwich narrative. 

In this flashback, we see the chasm that exists between the powerful ruling class and those subject to their whims. John the Baptizer is Herod’s prisoner, and the text tells us that Herod is intrigued by John, if not a little fearful of him. Who can blame him? John doesn’t exactly have a nursery-rhyme message, especially for those with a Herodian moral compass. But John’s powerful message of repentance also means he is well acquainted with the powerful means of enfranchised retribution wielded by Herod. Yes, Herod is intrigued and a little fearful. But Herod is also the strong man in this story, as of yet unbound in the household of Israel, and he has the means of controlling the narrative as he sees fit with the power of incarceration and, as we will see, death. The powerful so often demonstrate their fear by brandishing these powers, both then and now. 

Nevertheless, it seems as though Herod has no interest in killing John the Baptizer. But his spouse does have said interest. 

I want us to consider the sheer banality of John’s death; consider how absolutely tragic and stupid it is that this great prophet, who stands as the signpost at the crossroads of history, is murdered by an indifferent ruler as a birthday present. It is almost as if Mark is holding this great figure in front of us, showing him to be the forerunner of the Christ, the inaugurator of the message of repentance and the forerunner of the Kingdom’s Gospel proclamation, and the one with whom we have now closely identified the ministry and message of Jesus, and he is killed as a party trick for the ruling class. Such is human life in the hands of those far removed from the common life of the underclasses. 

There might be some question of keeping oaths, here, but we shouldn’t be too caught up in Herod’s insistence on keeping his oath. Remember the folly of Jephthah, who swore an oath to God: “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judges 11:30-31). Perhaps these stories are precisely why Jesus commands his disciples to abstain from oaths: But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” If we take this teaching from Jesus applied to this story, we can see that Herod’s oath goes hand-in-hand with his megalomania and self-interested “regard for his oaths and for the guests.” (Read: He did not want to look bad.) What does it take to regard one’s oaths and peers above the life of a fellow human being? Such is the value of the Forerunner’s life to this ruler; such is the value of so many lives to the rulers of this world. 

We should take notice, here, of the ways in which an oath (of office?) seemingly gives Herod a sense of absolution in this gratuitous violence. It is, after all, for the purpose of seeming true to his word, whatever his own feelings might be. He will stand by his decision, even if that means “collateral damage” is done. As a ruler, one cannot become attached, after all; ruling requires breaking a few eggs with dispassion for the sake of order. What would they all think if he broke his oath now? Would he make the tough decision when the time came, or would he let his passions get in the way of ruling efficiently and effectively? The king cannot be concerned with the fate of the pawns, anyway.

But Jesus receives the disciples and invites them to rest (Mark 6:30-31), understanding that their ministry in the towns and villages has likely left them exhausted and in need of recouperation. This is the beginning of the contrast between Jesus and Herod for this sandwich narrative. If we read on into the story, the disciples are unable to escape the crowds following them. Mark tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). How far removed is this from the rule of Herod? Compassion is impractical. The disciples see this, and they suggest the people go buy their own food. Jesus will instead enlist them in the work of the Gospel: “You give them something to eat.” Perhaps this is but another way of saying, “Feed my sheep.” 

This is the way of the Reign of Jesus: the compassionate lamb among his sheep, the shepherd who lays down his life, the King who elects shame for the sake of each little one. As the rulers of this world hold humanity at arm’s length, the Lord Jesus embraces humanity as his own, and with the solidarity borne of compassion, feeds his sheep until each is filled with more to be shared. 

Mourning and Joy

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

2 Sam 1:1,17-27

Mark 5:21-43

The OT reading and the gospel reading for this Sunday are a study in contrasts.  Second Samuel begins with David’s song lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, who died in battle against the Philistines on Mt. Gilboa at the end of 1Samuel.  Those familiar with 1 & 2 Samuel know that a host of conflicting motives flow through David over the course of his life. The political, the religious, and the personal combine in complex ways in this future king of Israel.  In this case, I suggest that his grief for both men seems completely sincere.  

This is unsurprising when one thinks of the abiding friendship between David and Jonathan.  Theirs was a “wonderful love,” “surpassing the love of women.”  It is David’s equally sincere grief over Saul which is striking.  For some time, Saul had been trying to kill David.  As a fugitive from Saul, David had even gone so far as to work for the Philistines as a sort of mercenary.  Despite Saul’s animus towards him, David refused to treat Saul as his enemy, sparing his life on multiple occasions.  Whatever relief David may have felt at the demise of his tormentor, it is overshadowed by the loss of Saul and Johnathan.  Perhaps David’s mourning is so intense because he was unreconciled to Saul and exiled from Jonathan when they died.

This calls to mind so many scenes that we have witnessed over the past 18 months as COVID claimed the lives of people who were isolated from the very friends and relatives they would have most wanted to engage in their final days and hours.  

This sadness in the face of death is in sharp contrast to our gospel reading.  Jesus forestalls the death of Jairus’ daughter and he seems to radiate such healing power that an unnamed woman with hemorrhages only needs to touch Jesus’ clothing to be healed.   Both Jairus and the woman share a level of desperation, Jairus for his daughter and the woman for herself.  They also share an almost ferocious confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  Their concern is whether Jesus is willing to heal them.  This is similar to the leper who comes to Jesus in 1:40 saying, “if you are willing you can make me clean.”

As one of the leaders of the synagogue, Jairus would have been a man of some stature in the community.  In order to discern Jesus’ willingness to heal he takes the direct approach, falling at Jesus’ feet and begging repeatedly.  He must have been relieved when Jesus agrees to go with him. 

The woman, who is known to us only by her ailments, shares Jairus’ confidence in Jesus’ capacity to heal.  She, however, lacks Jairus’ social standing.  Moreover, her hemorrhage would have made her ritually unclean and would have made anyone she touched unclean as well.  As she is socially isolated from her fellow Jews, she assumes that Jesus will not willingly touch her, but if she can touch him… 

This episode of two healings concludes with Jesus admonishing Jairus and his family to tell nobody about this incident.  In our world, where no incident or thought goes unrecorded and unremarked upon, this is extremely strange.  It is strange even within Jesus’ world.  Especially in the first half of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus often orders someone he has just restored to health to “tell no one.”  It is clear that this is as ineffective as it is odd.  

I don’t know if there is a single way to make sense of this Marcan phenomenon.  Nevertheless, if we contrast this reading with the reading from 2 Samuel, some things may come into better focus.   Although both Jairus and the woman seem most interested in Jesus’ willingness to direct his power on their behalf, Jesus seems most interested in their faith or confidence in him.  He tells the woman, “Your faith has made you well.”  He tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”  When Jesus cannot do any work of great power, it is because of unbelievable unbelief of the people of Nazareth (Mk: 6:6).  

It would be fairly easy for a reader of Mark to assume that if one simply believes that Jesus can heal, one will be healed by Jesus.  From that it might well follow that failure to be healed is a sign that one has not believed or not believed enough.  In this way of looking at things, faith, confidence, or belief in Jesus can become a product of our own will power through which we can access healing from Jesus.  Any failures to be healed are on us. 

Those orders from Jesus to “tell no one about this,” may be small indicators that Mark inserts into his gospel to remind us to be very careful about what we say about Jesus the healer; to not say more than we actually know; to be hesitant to infer too much.  This becomes especially important for those of us, like Mark’s first readers, who live in that time between Jesus’ resurrection and the final reconciliation of all things under Christ’s lordship.

Although we live in the light of Easter and Pentecost, our time shares much with David’s.  We will shed tears in the face of death; we will know the pain of being separated and alienated from others; we will live as pilgrims on the way to our true home.  At the same time, we also rejoice in healings, reconciliations and foretastes of the kingdom as we long for that day when God will wipe all tears from our eyes.

Image Credit: Ilya Repin, The Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter

Hidden, Humble, and Transformative

Third Sunday After Pentecost

Ezekiel 17:22-24

2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Mark 4:26-34

What’s unseen but potentially everywhere? It’s so small that it’s hidden, but can spread rapidly and with great impact, consuming and altering communities, people, and nations that appear indestructible. You might be thinking of a virus, specifically the COVID-19 virus that has wreaked havoc on lives, economies, and the social fabric across the globe. But that’s not the answer I’m looking for. Instead, I propose that this is the way of the Kingdom of God.

Pay attention! Our imagination can train us to develop eyes that see and ears that hear Jesus helping us understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. What is this kingdom like? As we look through a few of Jesus’ tiny parables clumped together here in Mark 4, I suggest that the Kingdom of God is ubiquitous, ordinary, and hidden.

Jesus has a way of breaking down empires, dismantling the kingdoms of this world, and dislodging our sense of control over our own lives. In these two parables in Mark, the Kingdom of God is literally down to earth, earthy, humble, common. When talking about God, we often prefer to speak of God as Lord or King, especially when talking about a kingdom— a kingdom needs a king, obviously. But throughout the Gospels, in Jesus’ parables we meet a sharecropper working a field, a trash tree, a baker (and a female one at that), a merchant (and so on). These are common stories of ordinary working-class people doing everyday things. Hardly exciting, and certainly not exalted. Jesus’ parables aren’t fantastic tales like Aesop’s fables of talking animals, or like Greek or Roman myths of gods in disguise stalking unsuspecting humans. God’s kingdom isn’t someplace in the “esoteric sweet by and by” when the roll is called up yonder; rather, it’s up close, it’s near, it’s as close as the wheat seed, growing underground secretly, subtly.

Or… the mustard seed. Jesus has a sense of humor—his listeners would probably have chuckled when hearing this little parable. Where Jesus lived, the mustard seed, brassica nigra, was not a crop they would’ve planted. In fact, it was actually a common, robust weed. (In many parts of the world, it’s considered an invasive species!). The reign of God certainly isn’t much of a cash crop. But it’s not easily eradicated either. It’s like a yard full of dandelions or thistles—so common they’re certainly not appreciated. Hardly magnificent. The mustard seed is the kudzu or mulberry tree of its day. It’s not sown or nurtured like my tomato or zucchini plants. It shows up often where it’s not welcome. And then it spreads and spreads and spreads… like kudzu covering entire hillsides, like prickly thistles in a bed of lavender— it’s invasive, it’s unpredictable. Doesn’t sound very appealing. And yet, Jesus says that this weed tree becomes a place where birds of the air come and make nests— it provides a place of shelter and nurture. 

What others have determined to be junk, God identifies as redeemable, and transformative. It is so ordinary we may not even notice it— that’s why Jesus calls us to pay attention, to train our eyes and ears on this kingdom. It’s ubiquitous— everywhere. The Kingdom of God is not merely coming. It has come; it’s already among us, as Jesus says in Luke 17.21. 

There are a couple things about the kingdom we have a tendency to misunderstand— the misperception that the kingdom of God is something that will occur only in the future, and that its presence is contingent upon us. To the first, we might say that yes, the kingdom will come, but the kingdom of God has already come… in the person and spirit of Jesus. And to the second, the misunderstanding that the presence of God’s kingdom is dependent upon us, we might attend to the words of Willie James Jennings. In his incredible commentary on the book of Acts, Jennings explains that, just as Paul & Barnabas resisted being identified as gods by the people of Lystra in Acts 14, so the work of disciples is the work of clarification, that is, separating the messengers of God from the presence of God; we too often confuse our presence with the presence of God in a place. Rather, God is here; God is at work, with or without us.

In the words of Episcopal priest/chef Robert Farrar Capon, “for every second of time the world has been the world, it has also been the kingdom [of God]. The world’s progress through history isn’t a transition from nonkingdom to kingdom; rather, it is a progress from kingdom-in-a-mystery to kingdom-made-manifest,” that is, the Kingdom of God revealed. If the presence of God is in this place— and I believe it is— then this is God’s kingdom. This is the hiddenness of the Kingdom. 

It might be worth exploring at this point, what is the kingdom of God? If the presence of God is everywhere, where do we see it? We’re all practiced at telling stories that reveal the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. Where do you see the ordinary, hidden, presence of God— the reality of the kingdom of God, in your particular place? If the kingdom really is ubiquitous, what we really need are eyes to see it, and apocalyptic discipline to reveal it, even in its hidden ordinariness.

Our stories that reveal the Kingdom might sound small, insignificant, or maybe even unrelated to what you think of when you think of the Kingdom of God. But it’s our telling of these stories which reflect the hidden ubiquity of God’s Kingdom. They can remind us that God is at work in the world here and now, bringing about a new creation (2 Cor. 5.17).

The Humility of God

Second Sunday After Pentecost

Guest post by Johnny Serratt

1 Samuel 8:4-11, (12-15), 16-20, (11:14-15)

Psalm 138

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1

Mark 3:20-35

Christians, and the people of Israel before them, confess that The Lord is almighty, high, and lifted up. There are not kings who can challenge our Lord and King and there are no gods who rival the glory and honor due to our God, the Father of Jesus Christ. Rather, the glory of the Lord is searing, and his holiness is unapproachable as he sits high, and enthroned. From there, all that exists is being sustained by him, kept afloat by his hands. “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deut 6:4)

Likewise, God is near to us, he is not an aloof or distant patrician who collects our praises from a distant land. Our Lord is one who hears the cries of oppression from his covenant people and draws near to them. His holy breath sustains our life, a nagging reminder of God’s invisible presence amongst us. The hidden presence of God is mundane and that, due to humanity’s pride, has made it easy to dismiss. We want a king who impedes on our life with arrogance, lifted high with almost no thought given to the insulted Celestial Monarch. Even still, the Lord is faithful and unwilling to be puffed up with a pride we so often glorify.

How is God both almighty and lowly? Holding all things together yet rejected as king of his people? Exalted on high and intimately near to us? Why does this faithful Lord allow his covenant people to reject him for an earthly King? To insufficiently answer these questions: our God is humble and patient. The Lord has not seen fit to emblazon creation with the Holiness that is his life; nor are our minds melted by Providence, removing our ability to will. Life with all its freedom and oddities is sourced by this humble and patient Lord. He has freely chosen to be holy, glorious, and able to intimately see the lowly, even taking a place amongst them.

The humility of God is on full display in our attempt to talk about God, either in churches or amongst ourselves. It is with respect for Karl Barth (who said “we ought to speak of God. But we are humans and cannot speak of God. We ought to do both, to know the ‘ought’ and the ‘not able to,’ and precisely in this way give God the glory”) that we claim, against his words, but with his spirit, to be able to speak of God in a real yet limited way. God is truly glorious and categorically distinct from creation; however, our Lord is compassionate, humble, and willing to enter the tricky creature that is our language. This is the gift present to us in scripture, preaching, prophesying, and prayer. Our praises reach the heavens, and our tears can stain the shoulder of our invisible Lord because he humbly chooses to inhabit his creation. 

These gifts are not just available; they come from the work of God’s indwelling Spirit. We hear Paul attest to this, “We have the same faithful spirit as what is written in scripture: ‘I had faith, and so I spoke.’ We also have faith, and so we also speak.” (2 Cor 4:13 CEB) Our Lord is not visible to all eyes and cannot be attested to by just any witness. No, the Spirit must provoke faith in us, that drives us to speak with and of God. Our act of humility, by submitting to the work of God’s Spirit in us, is opened to God’s wider act of humility, as he makes himself lowly for us to praise and speak of him adequately. 

 We must not, however, objectify God, claim his name, like the family of Jesus does. (Mark 3:31-32 CEB) Nothing inherent to humanity gives us the pride of place to call on God. We must join with the primordial humility of God, which is signified in his act of creation, by humbling ourselves to the faith brought about in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. By responding in humility, which is the first step of following God’s will, we are brought into the family of Jesus Christ. Here we receive the joy of speaking to God as a brother, sister, or as other family members do. It is one of God’s most humble acts of joining us in the cramped intimacy of family life.

We are the people of a humble and celestial King. There is nothing created that measures up to the compassionate presence or boot-quaking glory of our God. This reality, though, only comes into view once we respond in humility to the faith brought about in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. Then, while becoming intimately aware of this One’s true majesty, we are showered in his love and life. Thus, when we look at our life we find assurance in the words of Paul, “We know that if the tent that we live in on earth is torn down, we have a building from God. It’s a house that isn’t handmade, which is eternal and located in heaven.” (2 Cor 5:1 CEB)

Johnny Serratt is a Master of Divinity student at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, NC, where he lives with his wife and 21-month-old son, Thomas.

Image Credit: St. Giles’ Chapel, Edinburgh