What Jesus is Not — Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines

7 Pentecost B 2021; read Mark 6:14-29.

Today’s gospel reading should come with a content warning. We have graphic and explicit violence. We have visual depictions of torture and decapitation. We have misogynistic stereotypes and bias. We have, according to some interpreters, strong sexual content, including the sexualization of a minor. We have the use of a minor in the commission of homicide. We have alcohol consumption and abuse. And those are the warnings you might expect.

More than that, we witness a performance of toxic masculinity. We have rampant abuse of political power. We have a detailed description of elitist privilege. We have manipulation, court intrigue, deception, and stupidity. Public perception of power and position is a higher value than the preservation of a human life. People simply are pawns in one another’s prestige games.

Photo by Sides Imagery on Pexels.com

We witness the cynical operations of the domination system that kept Galileans under the Imperial Roman thumb. We see leaders who are craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel.

In short, we observe business as usual in the world of power, privilege, position, and property.

We conclude the reading by declaring that “this is the Gospel of the Lord.” We respond, perhaps with some confusion if we’re actually present and listening, “Thanks be to God?”

Why in the world does the writer of Mark’s gospel include this text in the “Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”? And why in the world do we read this text in our public worship?

Herod is everything Jesus is not. That’s the point the writer of Mark’s gospel wants to make here. And that’s the point of our reflection together today. Herod is everything Jesus is not.

“Where’s the good news in Mark 6:14-29?” C. Clifton Black asks in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “There may be none. The drive shafts of corrupted politics torque this birthday party. Everywhere greed and fear whisper: in Herod’s ear, among Galilee’s high and mighty, behind the curtain between mother and daughter, in a dungeon prison. When repentance is preached to this world’s princes,” Black concludes, “do not expect them to relinquish their power, however conflicted some may be.”

Because this is the main point, the current message is Part One of a two-part reflection. I know it’s summer in the Church in the northern hemisphere. Thinking that people will be in worship two Sundays in a row and paying enough attention to connect two Sunday’s worth of reflection is asking a lot in some quarters. But that’s the deal in Mark’s gospel.

I don’t write it, as they say, I only report it (well, you know what I mean).

The “Herod” in this account is Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. The use of the dynastic name, “Herod,” can cause confusion among readers of the text. We are not talking about the terrible tyrant of Matthew’s infancy stories who tries to manipulate the Magi and who orders the Slaughter of the Innocents. No, the “Herod” in Mark’s account is Herod Antipas.

Antipas was the man who wanted to be king but never got the chance. Certainly, one of the reasons the writer of Mark’s gospel uses the title of “king” for Antipas is to do some historical nose-tweaking of Antipas and his successors. Of course, as readers of the gospel account, we also know who the real King of the Jews is, and we shall see how that plays out in the later chapters of the gospel of Mark.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

In our reading, we see what a weak pretender to the throne looks like in comparison with Jesus, the real King. This comparison foreshadows a similar contrast between Jesus and Pilate in the passion account in the Gospel of Mark. We also see the depths of human cruelty expressed in the careless privilege of the elites and the real risks involved when one is perceived as a threat to that privilege.

Mark chapter 6 contains “The Tale of Two Tables.” In this week’s reading, we witness the bloody birthday banquet in the palace of Antipas. Next week we get the Feeding of the Five Thousand in the wilderness. Well, we don’t really get the whole feeding story next week, but we will need to refer to it.

In any event, these seem to be companion texts, designed for edifying comparison and contrast. Herod dines. John dies. End of story. Jesus dies. We dine. Beginning of story. I don’t think the writer of Mark’s gospel missed this theological opportunity.

The table where cruelty is the point is offset and opposed by the table where service is the center. John the Baptizer is served up as a sacrifice to the casual cruelty of the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. The bloody platter is a meal where death triumphs once again. Jesus prepares us to come to the table where he serves us with himself that we might have life in abundance.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

The writer of Mark’s gospel is challenging disciples – then and now – to discern under which table we are putting our feet, the banquet table of Herod Antipas or the table of abundant life where Jesus is both the host and the meal.

It should be clear from the text of Mark’s gospel that this will inevitably be a political choice. It will be a choice between kings – the pretender and the Messiah. That choice faced the first listeners to Mark’s gospel, and it faces us as well.

We white, western, Enlightenment Christians have often resisted the notion that politics should find a natural place in our pulpits. In fact, that resistance to politics in the pulpit is, I fear, a sign of our allegiance to the domination system which guarantees our privilege, power, and position. That resistance is not a sign of our piety or deep spirituality. That resistance to politics in the pulpit is a mark of Herod’s table, not Jesus’ table.

“How might Jesus’ words inform a theology of political witness of the church?” Esau McCauley asks in Reading While Black. “Jesus shows that those Christians who have called out injustice are following in the footsteps of Jesus” (page 57).

Politics in the pulpit is not an irritant or an option. Indeed, it is required. When we affirm our baptismal covenants in the Rite of Confirmation, we promise to “…live among God’s faithful people; hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; serve all people following the example of Jesus; and strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

Unfortunately, many ELCA Lutherans get to about the halfway point of these vows and decide that half a loaf is better than none. Too often we white Christians are pretty much everything that Jesus is not.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this text for us today is that some of us seem to celebrate Herod’s style of “leadership” as the image of a “real leader.” Herod is craven, crass, crude, criminal, and cruel. He wants to rule everyone but cannot even govern himself.

That sounds to me like a description of numerous public leaders in the United States today – many of whom are celebrated by certain sectors of the Christian tribe.

John names what everyone knows – that Antipas has broken the law and violated cultural and religious norms. More than that, he, and his household, assert that this arrangement is normal and good. Nothing to see here, they say. Move along and tend your business. Everything is fine.

But John declares that everything is not fine. No amount of power, position, and privilege can change the facts of the case. John is, therefore, faced with a choice. Be quiet or be killed. By the time we get to our narrative, that choice no longer exists for John. The question is not if he will die but only when and how.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

When Truth confronts Power, the response is violent rage. We can see that in the character of Herodias in our text. We can see that as well in the characters of the Jerusalem elites who make sure that Jesus is silenced after he calls out the charade going on in Jerusalem and in the Temple. Such Truth-speakers have, on average, relatively short life spans – especially in authoritarian regimes.

I want to connect this to current conversations about anti-racism, critical race theory, history, and the like. We can, I think, leave the details of critical race theory aside. The real issue is that CRT speaks the Truth about Power. It simply asks, “What really happened? How did things get this way?” It is, like many academic disciplines, an attempt to get a glimpse of the “man behind the curtain.”

Therefore, we should not be surprised when the response is white rage, verging on homicidal insanity. Certain commentators have mused that perhaps critical race theorists should be erased from the conversation somehow. And certain of those commentators are not all that choosy about how the erasure happens. Short of that, state legislatures are erasing the conversation itself from school curricula in order to sustain the overarching mythologies of white supremacy and white innocence in those curricula.

Herod is everything Jesus is not.

Perhaps this is part of why John’s execution is in Mark’s account in such exquisite detail. We can kill in order to sustain self-serving superstition, or we can die in opposition to it. There’s a topic for discipleship discernment, eh?

What we learn is that Jesus is the compassionate shepherd – not the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Stay tuned for more next week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s