Monday, July 13, 2015

Silent Bystanders and Scattered Sheep

Pentecost 7B, July 12, 2015
Gentileschi's Salome and the head of John the Baptist
Mark 6:14-2914King Herod heard of it, 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.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For 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. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for 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. 21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When 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.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 
Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio, "Salome with the Head of John the Baptist"
25Immediately 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.” 26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Think about a classroom when the teacher steps out of the room. They’re no longer there to impose order, to keep the kids on task. What happens next? Usually, there’s a rabble rouser who starts launching paper airplanes, or worse, spit wads. The target of the trajectory responds with yelling, and chaos erupts. But when the teacher returns, order is restored.

In our gospel text today, we hear about an important teacher, John the Baptist. We know from other descriptions that he was the kind of guy that could draw a crowd. People came from miles around to hear him. He boldly spoke the truth that no one else could say, and he did it in such a way that people wanted to change their lives, seeking to wash away the old ways in baptism ceremonies in the Jordan River. The gospel writers tell us that the students in his classes were a mix of ordinary folk and high ranking officials, and people as different as Jesus and Herod listened to him.
Nicolas Pousin, "St. John the Baptist Baptizes the People"
Jesus liked what John had to say and his ways enough to be baptized by him, but Herod, even though he liked to listen to John, never did get baptized, which is unsurprising when you think about how thick the Herod family was with the Roman emperor. They were puppet rulers for Caesar, and they were Roman-wannabes, living by all sorts of Roman customs. Those Roman traditions certainly didn’t make Herod very popular with the locals in Israel, however. Marrying your sister-in-law was a perfectly acceptable thing to do in Roman circles, but in Jewish tradition, although it’s not explicitly forbidden, would not have been as a faithful observation of a marriage covenant.

Beheading of St John the Baptist
Benozzo Gozzoli, The Feast of Herod and the Beheading of John the Baptist, 1461
So Herod might have liked to listen to John, like a student likes to listen to an interesting teacher, but he hadn’t been swayed enough to leave behind his wayward life. Which leads us to today’s story. While the hungry poor are suffering elsewhere, Herod throws a lavish birthday party, at which he makes a public and rash promise to his stepdaughter-slash-niece. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, Herod finds himself in an ethical quandary. He could either go back on his word in public and spare a man’s life, or he could stand by his word, thereby keeping his reputation in the eyes of his constituents, but in so doing, kill an innocent man. Perhaps needing to impress his Roman guests, he keeps his word and executes John. And then, Mark tells us in verse 29, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Rubens, Feast of Herod
They laid it in the tomb? They didn’t riot or complain? What about the Roman guests? Didn’t anyone stand up and name how twisted Herodias’ request was? And where were all those people who had been baptized by John? Why were they not crying out for justice?

This beheading story is so weird, so strange, that it’s difficult to see how it might speak to our own lives today. But essentially, this story is about bullies and people in power who aren’t using it well. It’s about fear and victimhood, and it’s about what happens when we as humans stand by when injustices are done.  

Where do you fit in this story? Are you like the disciples, standing by as injustice is wrought upon others? Are you like Herod, afraid to step up lest you lose your reputation? Or perhaps you are like the Roman guests, more powerful to stop the injustice than you even realize? What makes this story so uncomfortable is that we are all of these at different points of our lives. 

Wherever we find ourselves in this story, in the next chapter, we hear how Jesus felt about the crowds of people, many of whom would have gone to listen to John. “The crowds gathered,” Mark tells us, and “Jesus had compassion on them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.”

Jesus has compassion on us, too. Where there is chaos, when we are wondering what to do, when we are trying to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and wondering how to counteract injustice- Jesus comes with comfort for our wounded hearts. And then he calls us to work together, to act with love and grace and mercy and compassion, and to work for peace and justice for all- the bullies and the victims, the Herods and the disciples, the wolf and the lamb together. Amen.

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