notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Mark 6 - John, Jesus and the haunting of Herod
Good Shepherd Communion service 15/7/2006
Amos 7.7-15, Mark 6.14-29
Here's a familiar story. A person in power, behaving like people in power tend to do, as if they didn't care what anyone else thought, comes face to face with an outsider, a scruffy ruffian who seems to speak for God, whose words to the powerful person are words of judgement about their behaviour. And the powerful person realises that despite their scruffiness the outsider speaks the truth, and speaks it with authority.
This sort of talk reveals that the powerful person does, after all, care what other people think. This sort of talk makes the powerful person uncomfortable; and they know that if the outsider keeps on about them it might threaten their position.
The only thing the powerful person can do, they think, is to get rid of the outsider. By any means possible. But preferably by a means which looks legal and has everyone else's approval. So the powerful person isn't tainted or open to accusation of being a murderer.
Fortunately for them, it is always possible to get rid of an outsider. In a way that looks legal and has everyone else's approval. All you need is a crowd, and something to stir them up.
Whose story do you think I am telling? (Discussion follows on the following matrix:)
It's the story of every prophet who ever lived - as bible history shows, they all came into confrontation with powerful people like these, they all came to sticky ends. Amos had to seek political asylum in Judah to escape the wrath of King Jeroboam in Bethel, because he prophesised against him. No wonder Amos tried to wriggle out of any responsibility for what he'd been saying: "I'm just a herdsman, not a prophet or a prophet's son, " he said, "God told me to do this."
Now, so far we have thought about these stories as the confrontation between two parties - John and Heroditas, Jesus and the religious leaders. But we know that stories of this kind always have a third person involved. Events like these always happen in threes.
The reason for this is that it is human nature for us to play one person off another for our own benefit. To benefit herself Heroditas needed someone to play John off against; to benefit themselves the religious leaders needed to find someone to play Jesus off against.
Heroditas had Herod; and the religious leaders had Pilate. Powerful men themselves, with the means to shape the decisions of the law, the legal process, in the interests of justice - perhaps; or - in their own interests. And, as we know, it was their own interests, in the end, that they acted on, Herod and Pilate.
It seems that for all their great power in the land, Herod and Pilate could be manipulated by others because of the greater power of a large, loud, baying crowd.
So Pilate, though deeply moved by the innocence and integrity of Jesus, washed his hands of Jesus and sent him to his death because the religious leaders stirred up the crowd to demonstrate for the relaeas of Barabbas.
And Herod, though deeply grieved about the thought of killing John, nevertheless ordered his execution because Heroditas had got the birthday party on her side through the luscious dancing of young Salome.
Herod and Pilate could have acted in the interests of justice and said no to the crowds who confronted them. But they knew that it was in their own interests to go along with them. If they'd have said no, then the crowds would have forgotten Jesus or John and turned on them instead. Meanwhile Heroditas and the religious leaders quietly, successfully, through their subtle manipulation, got what they wanted.
Let us end by thinking about Herod in this story of Heroditas, Herod and John. No doubt he was a vicious and brutal ruler but the way that Mark writes this story you can almost have a bit of sympathy for him.
Mark tells the story as a flashback: when Herod started to hear about Jesus, he listened to what people were saying:
Some were saying, 'John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.' But others said, 'It is Elijah.' And others said, 'It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.' But when Herod heard of it, he said, 'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.'
Herod thought that John had come back to haunt him - in the shape of Jesus. It seems that Herod had probably spent every day since John's beheading being haunted by John; he'd perhaps spent every day since Heroditas persuaded him to imprison John, being haunted by him. Because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man and, Mark tells us, Herod tried his best to protect him.
So when Jesus came, Herod thought that John had come back to haunt him - or even worse, perhaps to condemn him, maybe to get his revenge.
But Jesus doesn't act like that. Of everyone who has ever been the victim of an angry crowd stirred up by someone with an agenda against them, Jesus was the most innocent, free of condemnation, in no way vengeful.
Herod didn't stand in the way of the religious leaders when Jesus went to the cross - though he took a back seat and passed on the responsibilty to Pilate, he was guilty, again, by association. But at no time did Jesus look for revenge or condemnation for his treatment, or John's death, or the death of the prophets who had gone before.
What makes Jesus death so unique was not the way he died - hundreds, thousands, probably millions throughout history have died in circumstances like that.
No, what makes Jesus death so unique was that he died loving his accusers, not condemning them. What makes Jesus death so unique was that he died loving those who sent him to his death, not looking for revenge.
We sang, in our opening hymn, that he was
Humbled for a season,
to receive a Name
from the lips of sinners,
unto whom he came,
faithfully he bore it,
spotless to the last,
brought it back victorious,
when from death he passed
We can carry on singing these words in our hearts every day. Because they tell us why, of all the prophets and all who have died the victim of others' accusations, it is Jesus who we worship.
I'm getting better, I'm no longer stealing wholesale from Girardian reflections on the lectionary. But I still owe a great debt of thanks to Paul Nuechterlein for the notes he has compiled for these readings.