What are we to do with the Gospel lesson today? Where is the “good news” in this story?
The story of the fate of John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel comes as a kind of a rude interruption to the narrative flow.
Jesus has just sent the disciples out two by two, and we’re told that “They cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
What one would expect to come next would be the “welcome back” event where Jesus commends the disciples for their work.
What we should have here is a moment when the news about the Kingdom that Jesus has come to proclaim begins sweeping across the Judean landscape.
What we get instead is this perfectly awful “flashback” story of the beheading of John the Baptist, where Jesus is not even mentioned!
It is like a bucket of cold water to the momentum of the spread of the Kingdom.
Instead of an ever-advancing Kingdom of God, we get a story of the kingdom of this world, its exercise of political power and where manipulation seems to rule the day.
Instead of a report of the Disciple’s successes on the streets and back alleys of Galilee, we get a story of court intrigue, deceit, and subterfuge in the halls of power.
It is a story about how certain things “must be done” in order to save one’s face in front of one’s own guests and how certain events (once set in motion) cannot be pulled back or changed but must move toward to their inevitable and unfortunate end.
For those who would prefer that the church not talk about politics, Mark seems to plunk a story down that makes examining political forces at work in this world unavoidable, and wants us to see that the story of Jesus will indeed interweave with them.
In fact, you cannot avoid them because the kind of Kingdom that Jesus and John come to proclaim is always a threat to the “business as usual” of this world, the business of kings and rulers.
You can pick your reason for John the Baptist’s displeasure with Herod Antipas. Herod had married his deceased brother’s wife Herodias to consolidate his claim to the throne.
In order to do so, he had divorced his previous wife and broken a treaty with Nabateans (modern day Jordan) that had resulted in conflict on the borders.
He had claimed the title of “king” even though he did not rightfully have any legitimate claim to it. He was simply a puppet king set up by Rome, the real power broker in the region.
John had come proclaiming repentance. Herod had plenty to repent about and was simply having none of it!
When John calls Herod Antipas out for his actions, he ends up imprisoned and finds himself caught up in the machinations of politics and the court. He incurs the wrath of Herod’s new wife and runs afoul of the political expediency of Herod having to “save face” in front of his own banquet guests.
Herod knows that what the young girl asks for when she asks for John’s head is not what she really wants. But the King is pushed into an untenable position. He does not want to appear weak in front of his guests.
So it is that Herod reluctantly gives the order and the prophet’s head is served up.
This is a perfectly awful story, but it is not one with which we are totally unfamiliar. We live in a world full of awful stories where injustices take place and the abuse of power is ever possible and present.
“What is wrong with people these days?” We exclaim as we hear the latest news reports of a shootings, or of angry people railing against this person or that issue.
“What is wrong with people these days?” We ask as we hear of the assassination of the President of Haiti and watch the scramble for power that takes place. We hear of back channel political dealings, watch the maneuverings of those in power in what appears to be a never-ending cycle of payback and brinksmanship.
“What is wrong with people these days?” We cry out.
And then, we read this Gospel lesson; and it suddenly becomes clear to us.
What is wrong with people these days is what has always been wrong with people in every day an age.
In the kingdoms of this world, local, regional and worldwide there has always been a lust for power.
There has always been a desire for control.
The desires of the flesh have always resulting in the seeking of satisfaction, or been used to influence, or to entice, or to silence the good and cover up the misdeed.
The desires of the flesh have been used to get what one wants, or what one thinks one needs, what one convinces oneself of being the “better option” or “the preferred outcome” at any cost.
The need to save face, protect reputation, look good is universal.
Whether you are a pretender king in front of your dinner guests, or you are just an ordinary person in front of your own co-workers, family, or friends.
The temptation to do anything, to say anything, to manipulate even the innocent to make yourself look better is always there, and always has been in the kingdom of this world!
This little interlude in Mark’s Gospel is a snapshot reminder to all those who have gone out two by two with the intent of changing the world, that the world as it stands does not care much about changing.
It does not care much about Jesus or his Kingdom!
John and the call for repentance is a curiosity at best for Herod, and he will treat Jesus in the same fashion at the end of this Gospel.
John is someone that Herod likes to listen to, maybe hear more about, but certainly not take too seriously!
So, in the middle of the moment when the word about Jesus and the Kingdom should be spreading like wildfire, we have in Mark’s gospel this “fire break.”
Don’t believe for a second that those who rule this world are just going to roll over and let the Kingdom of God come and change the workings of this world without putting up resistance!
Don’t expect them to eagerly welcome a message that threatens their power, their status quo, or questions their dealings.
This is what resistance to the Kingdom of God looks like.
It looks very much like “business as usual” for this world!
Mark tells us this story about John’s death in an almost “matter of fact” fashion. Notice how understated it all is. How he just describes that macabre request as if this sort of thing happens all the time.
This is what Herod’s banquet is like, and it feels strangely familiar to us; does it not? As awful as it is, we can imagine it in our minds because we’ve seen it, sometimes around our own tables.
We’ve sat in meetings where the conversation turns to “political expediency” – what has to happen.
We’ve sat in family gatherings where politics are on display, and watched as people avoided one another or certain topics, or where requests have been made that shock our sensibilities.
Oh, this is all too familiar territory for us. We have all walked on eggshells, watched as schemes unfolded, witnessed perfectly legal parliamentary procedures be employed to get one’s own way, or to impede the actions of others.
We’re all very well acquainted with how things can be set into motion that can only really have one outcome and have found ourselves hooked into or discovered that we were complicit with the conniving behind the scenes.
Mark wants us to see that this is what Herod’s banquet looks like, what “business as usual” in this world is like. We watch it unfold here. It feels all too familiar to us.
It is as if Mark is saying; “Now, as you watch the Gospel spread, don’t forget what the world without the Gospel looks like!”
It looks like Herod’s table, where there is no repentance, no forgiveness, no remorse, and no love. A place where even your own wife and daughter can conspire to get something out of you, where the innocent are exploited and you get backed into corners and make awful decisions. A world where orders are carried out unquestioned and where people are sacrificed on a whim of a pretty face and a thoughtless comment.
Is this the world you want? Mark seems to ask?
This is the world that you will have without Jesus!
The world of a banquet where everyone is after what they can get, or can get hold of, or can keep for themselves, or can coerce someone else to do for them.
Look at that world!
Is that the world you want?
Or are you ready for something different?
The next story that Mark will tell in his Gospel will be the story of Jesus’ banquet, the feeding of the 5000.
This is the kind of banquet that Jesus throws, the one that he promotes, and instructs his disciples to serve.
It starts with coming away from your accomplishments and your use of power to cast out demons, heal, and proclaim with power to simply rest for a while.
The banquet that Jesus invites you to continues with a recognition that, “yes the work never really stops,” .. but it also doesn’t depend upon you either, lest you begin to think that you have to hold it too tightly – can’t step away from it. Even Jesus takes a break!
It is a banquet where you are called upon to serve, and where you learn to trust that God will provide.
There is no scheming.
There are questions asked, of course.
“How will we ever get enough bread?”
“How many loaves do you have?”
But such questions are asked not to figure out how to get more by hook or by crook but rather to show how a little can become more than enough in the hands of a true king who cares for his people.
There is no flashy maneuvering of how to get things done. There is no differentiation of place, where one sits, where one ranks, and there are no places of greatness.
All sit in the presence of Jesus.
All will eat their fill, and there will be leftovers aplenty.
This is the kind of banquet that Jesus gives. It is not a banquet where those attending have to jockey for position, or where face must be saved, but rather one that is given out of compassion, for they were “like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus says.
This is how a banquet looks in the Kingdom of God. All are welcome, all are fed, all are given a seat and none are turned away.
In other words, the Kingdom of God is not like the kingdom of Herod or this world.
Are you ready for something like that?
At which table would you rather find yourself seated? The table of Herod, of this world, that place that we all know all too well?
Or, are you ready to have a seat at another Kingdom, another table, the one where can safely graze under the watchful eye of the shepherd?
Mark gives us this perfectly awful story as a way of taking a pause to consider.
Very soon in Mark’s gospel Jesus will set his face to go to Jerusalem, and the powers of this world will make known their displeasure with the Kingdom he proposes, for it is their end.
For those of us who follow Jesus, this is a reminder.
The temptation to sit at Herod’s Table is always there, but it is a dangerous place. So, which banquet do you really want? Which table are you seeking?