7 Pentecost, Proper 10 – July 12, 2015
What a story! John’s head on a platter. But why does Mark tell this story: the longest of the Gospel’s anecdotes and its only flashback? Aside from the Golgotha plot (Mark 14:1-2 + 10-11) and discovery of the empty tomb (Mark 16:1-8), this is the only tale in which Jesus never appears. Its villains never reappear (cf. Luke 23:6-12). It’s a strange story about John in which the baptizer himself never appears. Even stranger: beneath this story of John is the story of Jesus. The flashback is a flashforward. The story foreshadows Jesus’ own grisly death and it serves as an interlude between Jesus’ sending of the disciples and their return some time later.
David Lose believes the reason Mark tells this story is to show the contrast between the two kinds of kingdoms available to the disciples, and to us, both then and now. Consider that Mark tells this story as a flashback, out of its narrative sequence, which means he could have put this scene anywhere. But he puts it here, not simply between the sending and receiving of the disciples but, more specifically, just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God and when he then joins them in making that kingdom three-dimensional, tangible, and in these ways seriously imaginable.
Herod’s Kingdom – the kingdom of the world and, for that matter, Game of Thrones and all the other dramas we watch because they mirror and amplify the values of our world – is dominated by the will to power, the will to gain influence over others. This is the world where competition, fear and envy are the coins of the realm, the world of not just late night dramas and reality television but also the evening news, where we have paraded before us the triumphs and tragedies of the day as if they are simply givens, as if there is no other way of being in the world and relating to each other.
Which is why Mark places the story here. Just previous to this scene Jesus sends his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return. And just after this scene comes a different kind of feast altogether. What follows is instead a banquet of mercy, so markedly in contrast to the birthday bash Herod throws himself that its almost stunning. Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it is blessing and surprising abundance that characterize this meal.
And that’s the choice that Mark puts before us: which kingdom do we want to live in? Or, at least recognizing that we have no choice but to live in the kingdom of the world to some extent, to which kingdom will we give ultimate allegiance?
Sounds easy when it’s put it that way, doesn’t it? Jesus’ kingdom, we’ve been trained to answer. But we all know it’s not that easy. Jesus’ kingdom is the world where vulnerability and sharing and mercy and justice and grace lead to abundant life, to be sure, but it’s also where those very same qualities can get you killed, or least make you feel like you are vulnerable to being taken advantage of. And truth be told you might be. But the other truth to be told is that you can give yourself wholly and completely to the world of power and still never, ever quite feel secure. Why? Because once you’ve accepted that power – whether defined as wealth or possessions or influence or whatever – is the most important thing in life, than you are always vulnerable to those with more power. You are, most simply, at the center of a never-ending contest where there are no ultimate winners, only those who prevail for a time and until they are unseated by someone else.
If you cannot articulate the seat of your power, that you have it, that you know what to do with it, then your power will have the potential to disempower. If you do not know the starting place of your power — and whether or not it comes from love and dignity and honor and glory — then abuse of power is just around the corner. Because here’s the thing — how does our God manifest power? God’s power has as its end the hope of approach, the hope of relationship. God’s power is outside of itself and not turned inward. God’s power is for the sake of love.
“When you play the game of thrones,” a central character says early in the story of that name, “you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” The kingdom of Jesus is a little different. When you play it – or, really, are draw into it, captivated by, and surrender to it – first you die…to all you once thought was important…and then you not so much win as simply are given all you could ever want: life, love, acceptance, and purpose.f
So when we are faced with decisions and choices in life. Think about the seat of power and ultimately who we are serving: the worldly kingdom or God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom is forever. Amen.