Mark 6: 14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
In his message last week, Brother Eduardo reminded us that where John the Baptist’s ministry was cut short by the sword of Herod’s henchmen, John’s ministry continues with the disciples of Jesus, both to live the message of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Lord, and to preach it. That makes us, therefore, a prophetic people.
Which sounds like quite a compliment. The Hebrew prophet, Elisha, was quick to pick up the cloak of his mentor, Elijah, after Elijah was taken up to heaven. With that mantle, Elisha carried on Elijah’s ministry. But let’s not put on the prophet’s mantle too quickly, not without knowing what it entails. Some people like to be considered prophets, when really, they may mostly be cranky or just critical toward others. But the real prophet’s mantle can weigh most heavily on the prophets themselves. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel said in his famous book , The Prophets: “The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed, and stunned, at man’s fierce greed.” Of course I know of women with prophetic spirits about whom the same can be said.
Today’s gospel passages tell us just what some of the costs of prophethood are. Yet there are even greater rewards. So that I might end this message on an uplifting note, I will begin with the costs, and then go to what Jesus called, “a prophet’s reward.” Or think of this as a good news/bad news balance sheet, like one of those good news/bad news jokes that were popular some thirty years ago. Like the one about the doctor who said to his patient, “I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you are going to be famous.”
“Then what could possibly be the bad news?” the patient asked.
“You’ll be famous because of the disease they’re going to name after you.”
The bad news this morning, from today’s Bible texts, is that: 1) Cain is not yet done with Abel; 2) what Heschel called “man’s fierce greed” still runs amok and afflicts even the most sacred relationships; 3) the powerlessness of all human “power” (so-called) in this world. That’s the bad news.
The good news is what Jesus called , “the prophet’s reward” that falls, with the prophet’s mantle, to a prophetic people: you and me.
Now let’s unpack the bad news, beginning with Item 1: Herod’s way with John shows us that Cain is not yet done with Abel. Cain, as you may remember, was the first killer in the Bible, the son of Adam and Eve who killed his brother, Cain, for jealousy. Jealousy always stems from fear. Cain was jealous of the fact that Abel’s sacrifices to God were accepted, while his were not. We’re not told why Cain’s sacrifices were not accepted. Maybe hatred and murder were already in Cain’s heart before he raised a hand against his brother, and that disqualified his sacrifice. For, as Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “if you remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your offering at the altar and go seek to be reconciled.” For “God desires mercy, not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.” God does not want worship from us without justice between us.
In the Bible, the Cain and Abel story is not just an event but a type, a theme, a way by which to measure and interpret our attitudes and actions. For all the children of Adam and Eve, every moment of envy, hatred and murder is a reprise, a replay, of Cain versus Abel. Another John said as much in I John 3: 11 ‘For this is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. 12 Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous.”
So don’t be like Cain, John was saying, and hate your brother or sister. But don’t be surprised either when people act toward you like Cain, John added. For in the next verse he says, “13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you.” So Cain is not yet done with Abel.
Which may seem surprising in this so-called age of tolerance. But United Nations statistics back this up, that religious and political persecution are on the rise worldwide. Yes, some of the usual culprits are Islamist extremists with their harsh vision of Shariah law. Most of their victims are fellow Muslims, especially Shiite and Sufi Muslims. But recent events in Sudan, Nigeria and Mali, where Islamists are killing or driving out Christians, show that persecution for the cause of Christ and justice is just as real today as it was in Herod’s dungeon. Similar things are yet happening in parts of China.
If anything, then, its our relative safety as Christians in America today that should surprise us. Paul warns us that the gospel of Jesus Christ carries a scandal, an implied affront, certainly to everyone who believes that it is within their own power and responsibility to justify themselves before God. The cross bears an implied affront to all worldly ways of wisdom that rely on human status, and which worship worldly success.
King Herod was likely scandalized that a mere subject of his, John the Baptist, should hold him, a king, accountable to the same law that applied to mere commoners. Yet, that too can be, for some, a scandalous implication of the cross. Though Herod identified himself with the Jewish part of his family, though he often affected being Jewish, he had only enough of the prophetic religion to serve his political purposes, but not enough to curb his appetites and treat his subjects to some modicum of social justice. So he dumped his first wife to take another man’s wife, who history tells us was also his niece, thus violating three biblical laws. Herod was Jewish enough to restrain himself from killing John the Baptist, and to keep talking religion with him, but not Jewish enough to keep from imprisoning John, or to release him. Herod had enough Jewish conscience to feel miserable, guilty and frightened when Jesus showed up, but not enough to keep him from believing pagan ideas about John being reincarnated as someone else. In that respect, our versions of civil religion that makes God a chaplain and cheerleader for political agendas of the left and right are not all that new.
If John the Baptist were here to preach to us, he would likely urge us to repent if we have put our heads in the sand and expect a cost-free proclamation of the gospel, which is finally no proclamation of the gospel at all. John would also challenge, I believe, our all-too-common expectation that if we say it right enough and polite enough, the gospel should only get either a welcome reception, or polite indifference, the same as a free trial offer for a new laundry detergent.
Now I’m all for politeness, consideration and no unnecessary scandal. There are plenty of people adding unnecessary scandal to the unavoidable scandal of the cross, with hatred, ignorance and insensitivity. But something about John the Baptist reminds me that a gospel with no cost nor risk of rejection or hostility is finally no gospel at all. That’s why the story of John’s death is laid out so clearly in this manual of discipleship that we call The Gospel of Mark. Its a warning to the effect that if we too would follow Jesus, as a prophetic, Spirit-empowered people, that could prove costly.
But it wasn’t only John whom Herod abused and betrayed. Another victim in this story is Herod’s step-daughter, known to tradition as Salome. Through the centuries, with her dance before Herod and his drinking buddies, Salome has been depicted as a dangerous temptress and seductress. From what we know of drinking, dancing and parties among the Roman imperial elite, I doubt that she was only doing a sweet interpretive tap dance about the coming of spring for a 4H project. But if there’s any truth to “the dance of seven veils” that has been depicted in movies and operas (don’t ask me which ones, I don’t want to go there), I still blame Herod most for encouraging such behavior of a young woman whom he effectively promised to guide, to protect and to honor when he married her mother. He was supposed to be a caring, protective father figure to this young woman, and not a leering, lecherous spectator.
Nor is Herod the only coward and criminal in this story. There is Herodias, the dancer’s mother, who exploits her husband’s oath in order to extort from him the death of John the Baptist. She even makes of her daughter an accomplice to murder. As dysfunctional families go, this one takes the cake.
So, the second item of bad newstoday is that this “fierce greed,” of which Heschel wrote, which breaks the heart of God and his prophets, which cost John his head, and Herod his soul, is still very much alive and well, afflicting even the most sacred, intimate relationships. Whether its a “fierce greed” for pleasure, power, or prosperity, it is still greed when a desire grows out of control to become an idol and an identity. We might think that Herod’s prosperity, status and power would take away such “fierce greed,” for he already had all that he needed, and more. But if anything, power, prosperity and status can excite this “fierce greed” for more, and more and MORE!, as readily as might poverty and scarcity. Not even the most sacred and tender relationships can always protect or distract us from this “fierce greed,” for we see how it formed, and then deformed, the family of Herod. Finally, this fierce greed took the life of John the Baptist.
So let’s pass a law against persecution. And while we’re at it, one against the exploitation of youth and children, like Salome. For that’s what the sex trade and pornography amount to: the marketing of someone’s beloved child, usually a daughter, to excite this “fierce greed” in others, and then to profit from it. Which makes Herod the patron saint of persecution, human trafficking and pornography.
Actually, there already are such laws on the books. Still, persecution of all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons is growing worldwide. And the exploitation of youth for pornography and the sex trade is one of the biggest businesses around, right up there with the global trade in weapons, drugs and dubious, speculative financial schemes. Which demonstrates the third item of not-so-good news: the powerlessness of human power.
To understand what I mean by “the powerlessness of human power,” ask yourself, who had the royal title, the throne, the crown, the scepter and the soldiers in this story? No-brainer: Herod. But now ask yourself, who was the prisoner of his own lust, his own status, his so-called circle of friends? Who was stuck in indecision, unable to kill John, yet unable to release him, until his wife forced his hand? Again, Herod. Sure, he put himself in that powerless position, long before he promised to give his step-daughter anything she wanted, even up to half of his kingdom. He put himself in that powerless position when he refused to take responsibility for his desires for his niece, his brother’s wife, betrayed his first wedding vows, and refused to repent of it. He put himself in that position when he chose his crown and his throne over his own integrity and his salvation. Herod became like the man in the Chinese proverb, who once he climbs a tiger and rides it, has not the power to dismount, not if he wishes to stay alive.
Or like the presidents of both Israel and Iran today: they have the power to destroy each other’s countries. But can they schedule a simple lunch together? Not if they want to stay presidents. Yet wouldn’t that be a really powerful, game-changing event? But they too are riding tigers, tigers of militarism, belligerence and mutual antagonism from which they dare not dismount.That’s what I mean by the powerlessness of human power.
Those three items of bad news can make it scary to carry out our part of God’s prophetic purpose in the world. But remember, Herod was much more afraid of John the Baptist than John was of him. So why, then, is it that so many disciples of Jesus Christ, today’s John the Baptists, are convinced, or afraid, that they are the dangerous, destructive ones, always guilty of intolerance, insensitivity, judgmentalism and oppression? And not just for sharing their beliefs and values, but even for having them?
I’m just as opposed to being intolerant, insensitive, arrogant or judgmental in our witness as are you, I hope. Yet sometimes I feel the hostility, and the accusations of intolerance and imperialism from the world like a weight upon the chest, or like wading through wet cement.
But then I hear or see some paid political advertizement (whatever party or candidate), the trailer for some new movie, or some advertizement that wants to convince me that I’m not young enough or with-it enough unless I buy this brand, believe this corporation, or behave like this celebrity, and I begin to wonder, Who’s really being judgmental, insensitive, imperialistic and intolerant here? We’re being evangelized all the time, and the messages are just as religious as anything I might say from this pulpit. But rarely are they good news. So how did so many modern-day Herods convince so many modern-day John the Baptists that they are the ones who need to shut up and put up in the name of justice, love and peace?
Just as we do no service by shouting people down, nor do we do anyone a service by staying silent. Least of all to ourselves. There’s a Yiddish story about a prophet who preached for years to his community, and who got only ridicule and rejection as a result. Finally, one of his neighbors asked him, “After all these years without converting a single person, why do you keep on preaching the word of your God?” To which the prophet replied, “I keep preaching so that you don’t convert me.”
Yes, there’s a cost to wearing Elijah’s mantle: Cain is not yet done with Abel; what Rabbi Heschel calld “man’s fierce greed” is still consuming all that God called “good;” and what we consider power looks more powerlessness all the time. There is also good news in John’s story, but if and only if we want what John wanted: the kingdom of God and the coming of Christ. Its good news if we care most about God’s evaluation of our lives.
As for Herod, Jesus called him, “that fox.” As for John, Jesus said, “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Here’s what Jesus meant: he went on to say, “all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” Jesus considered John to be the supreme achievement of all the law, the prophets and the prayers of the Old Testament. Everything from Genesis to Malachi finds its best representative, its supreme expression, its finest moment, in John the Baptist.
And yet, Jesus went on to say, “whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptist.” Not because we are any greater than John, but because the kingdom of God, that came with Jesus, is greater than what came before it. And John apparently agreed. Joyfully. He saw his ministry as one of preparing us for that which was greater than himself and all that he knew: Jesus Christ.
In today’s gospel story, John had the greatest power and freedom of all the people: the power to overcome his fear, the power to stay true to himself, true to his God, true to his calling and convictions to the end. Though John’s body was imprisoned, his spirit was free, free of the fears, the guilt and the appetites that enslaved King Herod. Those are just some of what Jesus called, “a prophet’s reward.”
John himself described his own reward this way, in John, chapter 3: “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John’s reward is like that of celebrating at your best friend’s wedding. Jesus is the groom; we, the church, are the bride. In effect, you and I and our life eternal, our life together, are the prophet’s reward. The love we share, the grace we enjoy, are the prophet’s reward. That, by the way, is my supreme joy as a pastor, too: your relationship with God and each other through Jesus Christ, and the growth of that relationship.
If those are what we value, then its obvious, John the Baptist, in chains, in a dungeon, armed with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, is the winner of the fight that King Herod picked with him, even though Herod had the sharp, pointy weapons. If it should come to it, its better to lose one’s head, as did John, than to lose one’s soul, as did Herod.
As Eduardo reminded us last week, John only got so far with his God-given task of preparing a people who would prepare the way of the Lord. Like Elijah’s mantle falling to Elisha, the rest of that task, and the risk, remain to us.
So does the reward.