Speaking Truth to second-order Power
We have just read one of the oddest stories in the New Testament. It has no teaching, no parable, no miracle, in fact Jesus is only in the story incidentally in the opening paragraph and the point is confusion over his true identity that this story never solves.
It’s a gruesome story – a head on a platter at the end; if it were a film, the review would speak of “gratuitous violence”. The author, Mark does not just narrate the fact that John was killed, or even specifically that he was beheaded; he actually makes it part of the story we mentally “see” as we read that the head on the platter was brought in and given to the girl, who then took it to her mother; we don’t just glimpse it passing by, we watch it change hands.
This is also a creepy story. It would be bad enough if it were a story of a lusty king who was seduced by a dancing woman into making a foolish promise at his drunken birthday bash, but it’s worse. The dancer that gets him all worked up his his niece. Herod (Antipas) has just recently seduced his own brother (Philip)’s wife into leaving him; she is now living with Herod, along with the daughter she and Philip had. Can it get any creepier? Yes! She is referred to as a “girl,” not a young woman.
Mark tells us that John got into trouble with this family by criticizing the immoral relationship between Herod and his brother’s wife – surely this is Mark’s short-hand for what must certainly have been John’s critique of the debauchery that manifested itself in this family in every imaginable way.
Among these people, it is more honorable to have an innocent man executed and his corpse degraded than to back down publicly from a rash oath. If you are horrified by these people, then you are following the story as Mark intended you to do.
Why tell it?
So, why tell this story at all? What does Mark want us to take away from it; and furthermore, what does this nasty little tale have to do with us, in our time? I believe this story is important, and even the gross elements help make the point that we need to hear, especially in our time.
First, this is a looser-story. John may be the character we like, but he gets killed. This is not like the story of the prophet Elijah, speaking truth to power, confronting king Ahab, and getting away with it. It is not like Daniel, refusing to eat the king’s food in spite of the risk, and being rewarded for his faithfulness with approval and success. In this story, it is the “Goliath,” not the “David” to gets to do the decapitating. In this story, the hero looses. John, who dedicated his whole life to preparing the way for Messiah, who lived rough, out in the desert, who, when crowds were coming to him and he was at the height of his success was so humble and willing to defer to Jesus – receives no divine rescue; he doesn’t even get to make one of those last-dying-breath martyr-speeches.
Goodness ≠ predictable success
Why do we need to know this story? First, because we live in such a success-culture. We live surrounded by the cultural expectation that good deeds get rewarded with success, and that, conversely, failure is a tell-tale sign that you were on the wrong side. “You get what you deserve.”
There are a number of reasons why we need to be disabused of this notion. First, because it is simply not true. Or at least, not as true as people make it out to be. There is, it must be admitted, truth to the general idea that if you work hard, if you are honest and disciplined, if you get a good education and are dedicated to your craft, you will have lot more chance of making a success of your life than if you are lazy, sloppy, irresponsible and negligent. In general, this is the message we try to send to our kids; be honest, play fair, do your homework, study, and some day it will all pay off for you. “Goodness will lead to success,” we tell them.
But we know it does not always work out that way. Tragedies do happen; some people get sick; some die young. Some marry badly; some have children that get involved in destructive behaviors; others just seem to catch all the bad luck (and Presbyterians do not even believe in luck). So the first reason we do not believe that goodness is always rewarded by success is that it just isn’t an accurate picture of the world.
Failure ≠ fault
The flip side of that coin is the second reason we need this looser story about John. It is simply not true that failure is a sign of fault. It may be: it is easy to see how irresponsible choices in life leads to failure, but it is not at all a consistent clue. This is crucial for us as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, to understand. When there is a poor person at our gates, as in Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, he is not lying there with the dogs licking his wounds because he was bad and God is punishing him. Over and over Jesus finds people who are sick, lame, blind, dying, or having died – and there is never a suggestion that they deserved their fate. In fact the opposite. Remember the man blind from birth? Jesus’ disciples asked him whose fault caused this result – and Jesus emphatically said that it was no one’s!
It is never appropriate to withhold ministry to the poor because they may not be “deserving”! Jesus never did that. Some people are poor because they make bad decisions – yes. And some who make those bad decisions were raised by a parent who never once made a good decision for them to witness, never delayed gratification, never practiced self-discipline; it would be a miracle if they somehow overcame all of that on their own without help and guidance.
But in any case, we are not put here on earth to be the enforcers of some divine retribution scheme; we are here to be channels of God’s healing, forgiving, restorative love to a hurting, needy world. Failure in life – like John the Baptist’s early and awful demise, is not a sign of fault.
Who controls the universe?
So, success is not necessarily a sign of goodness, and failure is not necessarily a sign of fault; there is yet another reason why this story is so powerful for us today. It has to do with the question behind the question: who is in control? Why do bad things happen?
I love the way Mark tells this story because he makes this point with subtlety and with power. First, he sets the story in the the heart of power and influence. King Herod is there – so is his woman, a princess in her own right (her daddy is a neighboring king too). Of course the little dancing girl has royal bloodlines – she is probably destined to follow her mother in power and influence. Then, mark allows us a glimpse at the guests at that exclusive royal birthday party. He mentions the presence of three kinds of people:
Verse 21 ... courtiers and officers and … the leaders of Galilee.
Courtiers: these were the extended royal family and the people who had weaseled their way into being important faces in the halls of power. Next were the officers: the top military brass – tyrants and dictators often have them at the ready. Finally, the “leaders of Galilee” would include the wealthy families, the aristocracy, the people who controlled the economics. These are the people who collectively have all the power in their hands. They are in control.
But Mark brilliantly undermines this picture of power and control in a subtle way. At the very beginning of the story, he shows us Herod the king, in a double bind. First, he has had to submit to the demands of a woman who is not even yet his wife, and imprison a person he finds interesting – so much for being king and having it your way. But second, this whole story is told as a flash-back, so in the opening paragraph, we get a glimpse of the internal state of this monarch after he has already had John killed. He is being tortured by the idea that Jesus – who bears a striking resemblance to John – is in fact John raised back to life!
What does this mean? It means that even if you are king, with the authority to have someone’s head chopped off, at they end of the day, you are not in control at all! In fact, the only one who could raise the dead would be God, so if Jesus is John, back to life, then God has just raised the guy you killed: presumably God is not happy with what you have done at all. This leaves Herod the opposite of the man-in-charge. Now he is a man-on-the-run with no place to hide.
The whole point of this juxtaposition of earthly wealth, power and muscle with a mixed up mistaken belief in ghosts is to deconstruct the surface appearance. Herod is wrong about Jesus being John, but he is clearly not in control, and neither are his courtiers, officers, nor the leaders of Galilee.
We need this looser story because people who believe that God is ultimately in charge of the universe are not afraid of loosing.
- We are not desperate to prove our goodness by our earthly success, and
- we are not tortured by guilt when we go through hard times.
- We do not refuse to help people who are hurting out of some belief in Karma,
- nor do we take it for granted that the successful of the world are good.
There is a deep sigh that I feel coming from this story. It’s a horrible story of bad people being bad, and a good man suffering unjustly, but in the end, it is embedded in a story of redemption. John’s story is a chapter in Jesus’ story. There is no panic here. Instead, though this is a sad story, it ironically asserts what on the surface seems to be denied: that God is indeed in control. John’s death foreshadows Jesus’ death at the hands of the powerful; another version of the unjust murdering the righteous – but somehow, mysteriously, God is at work. Jesus’ story is our redemption story. Take one step back from this story and realize: it’s OK. It’s going to be alright. You are not in control; that’s OK too. Take a deep breath, sigh; God has it under control. It’s OK.