The Great vs. the Good

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10), Year B.

Track I

King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, 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.” 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.”

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. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When 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.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately 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.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14-29

I’ve known exactly one person whom I am sure has the gift of prophecy. He is a good friend of mine that I met in seminary who has all the fire, passion, sense of justice, and outright stubbornness that it takes to be a prophet. He is perhaps the greatest friend to any and all who are victims of injustice and unrighteousness, and the ceaseless thorn in the side of any who would be an oppressor. His charity and sense of duty are as unshakeable as his confidence in speaking the Truth of the Gospel to a world not interested in listening. I am so grateful to call him a dear friend, and I have learned many lessons from him. I can honestly say that knowing him has helped me understand really what prophecy is all about in the truest Biblical sense.

Knowing him also taught me why they killed all the prophets in Jerusalem.

Speaking in a way only a loving friend can, if you catch his ire, or failed to uphold the Godly standards that we as Christians are called to uphold, he is completely insufferable to be around. His insufferably of course is always out of love, never malice, but as the other prophets of old he sees the World as God intends it. There is no compromise with what is right, no willingness to back away from justice or righteousness for the sake of politeness or incremental progress. We called him impractical, stubborn, unrealistic, and as much as he drove us all crazy, we all knew that in the end, he is right.

“What manner of a man is a prophet?” The one who speaks God’s Truth to all people, especially to those in power. A prophet is someone who sees the World as God sees it, with high standards for holiness, justice, and righteousness, and carries the will, integrity, and courage to call the World back to holiness, justice, and righteousness.

For how good and necessary they are for giving hope, guidance, and a vision of how the world is intended to be, prophets, in their uncompromising ways and high standards tend to run into trouble, especially with those in authority. As the status quo remains fundamentally unrighteous and unjust, so do the protectors of the status quo catch the ire of the prophets, and as a result use their power to silence them.

Today’s Gospel is a strange interlude between Jesus sending out the disciples in pairs, granting them the authority to heal and exorcise evil spirits, and one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, the feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness. Considering the stories that bookend our Gospel lesson today are focused on Christ’s power, magnanimousness, and glorious immanent kingship, it is rather jarring to be interrupted by this sad tale of John the Baptist’s violent death. Our lovely romp through the Galilean countryside is interrupted with a tragic and frightening question: Is John the Baptist’s fate the fate of all prophets?

Though jarring, this interlude is intentional on Mark’s part. Mark is rather fond of using an A-B-A story structure; that is, having two similar stories “interrupted” by another. We saw this pattern just a few weeks ago with the healing of the bleeding woman and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. Today, our bookends are Jesus sending out the disciples to preach, heal, and exorcise and them returning to Jesus. But in-between we have this story of John the Baptists’ death. Why put it here? Considering it is told as a flashback, it could fit elsewhere in the Gospel. The reason presented in the chapter is that Jesus and His disciples are becoming famous enough for the elites like Herod Antipas to notice. But that is not the only reason we learn about John the Baptist’s fate here. By placing this story in-between Jesus sending out His disciples with authority to heal and over unclean spirits, and the feeding of the 5,000, Mark is inviting us to compare two expressions of kingship, and two truths: the truths of the world and God’s Truth.

Kingship and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth are prevalent themes throughout the Gospel of Mark. At this point we have seen numerous episodes of Jesus demonstrating kingly power over creation: showing authority over nature in calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee, authority over life and death in raising Jairus’ daughter, having the authority to delegate power to His disciples as they go out and preach the message, and as we will see in a few weeks, the power to feed His people. Compare all of that to the king we meet in today’s story: Herod Antipas.

Not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas is the embodiment of earthly kingship. He’s not a terrible king, but certainly not a great king like his father. Herod Antipas was in the most literal sense the last choice of his father to inherit the throne, but after all his other siblings were executed for various political machinations, Herod the Great reluctantly altered his will for Herod Antipas to rule after his death. And if you want to get technical, unlike his father, he never held the title of “king”. I’ll spare you the political maneuvering of it all, but that title was stripped of him before he even took the throne after his father died. Herod Antipas’ official title was “Ethnarch”, something more along the lines of Governor or even “Ethnic leader”. Mark is mocking Herod Antipas by calling him “king”, as much of Herod Antipas’ career was spent scheming to reclaim that title, yet always failing. For all his political maneuvering, Herod ended his career by being forced into exile.

Herod the-not-quite-king represents a kind of earthly kingship we all know too well. A politician who spent more time scheming to protect and improve his own prestige and reputation than caring for his people. Someone who has been given substantial earthly authority, but doesn’t really know how to use it. Sometimes being generous and respectful of the people he rules, but often blundering then scrambling to save his own reputation. Herod rather famously built his capital city Tiberias on top of a burial ground, deeply offending religious Jews as that would render the whole city ritually unclean. He named the city after the Emperor Tiberius, his patron, but when Jews refused to live in it, he had to force migrations of the poor, bring in foreigners, and give outlandish incentives to Roman elites just to save face and show that he had built a thriving cultural metropolis. He never seemed to settle on, or perhaps never understood, how to effectively rule the largely Jewish population. Throughout his career he would seem to show utter contempt for their culture and religious practices, but occasionally thoughtfully honor it, such as by breaking from Roman tradition and issuing coinage without imagery of himself or the emperor on it, out of respect for traditional prohibition against graven images. Mark captures this all-too-familiar earthly kingship in today’s lesson, showing how Herod respects John, but forces himself to go against his own desires because of his hubris and desire to save face, all at the cost of the prophet’s life. Herod is the kind of earthly king we are all familiar with, more foolish and fearful than outright evil, perhaps even some goodness and magnanimity, yet more concerned with preserving his own false kingship than caring for his people. And as always, it is the people and the prophets who in the end pay the greatest price.

As much as Herod is the embodiment of all earthly kingship, John the Baptist is the embodiment of the prophetic voice against the false king. John, being an effective prophet, constantly proclaims the Truth that the real king over the earth is God. Like the prophets of old this has gotten John into trouble. But what is remarkable is that John, and the Truth that John proclaims is so powerful, even Herod the false king seems to have some inkling of the real Truth. He fears and respects John, even though he is perplexed by him. The story of John’s relationship with Herod and even his death foreshadow for us the relationship between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and Jesus’ own death. God’s Truth and legitimate kingship of the earth is so outside the understanding of these politicians that they simply cannot comprehend it. Yet the Truth is so powerful though they do not understand it, encountering it causes even them to pause with fear and respect.

But for all the comparisons between Jesus’ kingship and earthly kingship that Mark invites us to make, we are still left with that troubling problem: is what happened to John destined to happen to any who proclaim the Truth, Justice, and Righteousness of God? Are we forever stuck in this cycle of inept politicians failing to understand God’s abundance in the world, and His mandate to care for all people, while those who prophesize this Truth end up with their head on a platter?

That’s the troublesome part of the gift of prophecy. There are many who think themselves prophets without understanding the consequences of it. There are equally many who think that they know and proclaim God’s Truth, yet in their own crusade forget the Truth that we are called to respect the dignity of every human being, from the poor and lowly to even the false kings on the earth. This is perhaps the gravest misunderstanding of prophecy, that it is a singular gift held only by “great” people. For as much as this story about Herod and John is about the conflict between earthly kingship and True kingship, between these “great men of history”, this story is equally about the disciples.

After the death of John, his disciples reclaim his body and honor him with a burial, once again foreshadowing what some disciples do after Jesus’ death. But this story is bookended by stories about Jesus’ disciples exercising the authority given to them by the True King, Jesus. The disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus, most of whom are unnamed, are the ones continuing to prophesize God’s Kingship. If prophecy was reserved solely for “Great” individuals, then God’s Truth would never survive being proclaimed in the halls of earthly power. There are few such prophets and sadly plenty of platters. Which is why we who know God’s Truth are sent out as disciples to prophecy who really is king over the earth. As individuals, our voices are too small to be heard, but as a community, we cannot be silenced. We are called to fight tyranny and false kingship in all places, no matter how small. As we have all seen how the greatest tyrannies can occur in smallest places. As a community, tyranny we may impose is held in check by our fellow prophets. We must work together, with our community and with God, only then will all false kings be removed and the True King can reign.

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