I’m up to the next pericope in Mark 6 this week which is Herod (Antipas) take on Jesus and the story of his beheading of John the Baptist.
I think in many ways this story is sort of a puzzle that goes unaddressed partly because it’s just so darn fascinating. All the drama of Herod’s marriages, incest pettiness, childishness, etc. distracts from the basic question “how does this story function in the overall narrative?”
Part of what’s going on in the Gospel texts is of course the renovation of the vocation of Messiah. A big piece of that is its complicated relationship with Jesus’ sub-vocation of prophet. John the Baptist is seen very much in the line of the OT Hebrew prophets and his denunciation of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife (and niece BTW) is in keeping with that. This makes Jesus (recorded) silence on the topic all the more interesting. Jesus doesn’t step into that vocation as John the Baptist does. Is there a lesson here?
This question gets intensified when Jesus actually does get arrested and his silence before the petty, corrupt, morally offensive political leaders of his region. Jesus will make side comments about their lack of quality but he never takes it upon himself to take up that prophetic vocation as does John in the tradition of Elijah. The Apostle Paul seems to follow in this manner.
It’s helpful to remind oneself what types of leaders these were. For all the banality, corruption and foolishness of our current POTUS we are, thank God, not at the level of the Pilates, Caesars or Herods. Over the years we’ve heard Christian pastors decide to take up that prophetic mantle to denounce a Clinton or a Trump or even a puritanical Obama or Bush. Jesus and Paul don’t seem to do this against rulers that make the Donald look tame.
I’m not interested in defending the indefensible in my opinion and I don’t like reading moral teachings into a story which seems to be working more from silence than explication. The purpose of the text certainly seems to communicate
1. Jesus was on Herod’s radar
2. Herod’s guilty conscience (over John’s execution) was coloring his view of Jesus
3. The text is clearly working on the question of how Jesus’ miracle working vocation is playing in the zeitgeist
4. There’s plenty of interesting philosophical pondering one might do on the nature of reality with respect to miracles, mind and matter
I’ve been thinking about politics and religion lately in terms of first century culture war and the various parties involved. The relationship between politics and religion is very nuanced and complicated and seems to defy simply definition. Politics is certainly downstream from religion, and we are always in some position with both. It seems to me there is an agent/arena difference at work also involving time.
Politics is about the Now, and religion about the Always.
The Always is always present in the Now, and the Now is never disconnected from the Always, yet Now and Always impact priorities and value hierarchies. You manage Now and Always based on judgment calls within both. We can only act within the Now yet actions within the Now can jeopardize our ability to impact the Always. What is obviously required is Wisdom.
It’s helpful that the previous text had a great deal to do with “authority”. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Mark+6&version=NIV
The disciples are sent out with authority over “unclean spirits”.
Now in my previous sermons (here’s the church channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCh7bdktIALZ9Nq41oVCvW-A, and here’s the rough-draft playlist https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGoDTlnoWPQ&list=PLYSXopxC8Z9sz6J-uMFspRPxpUgnYooY2, rough drafts are relatively short generally) I noted the frame in which the spirits are beheld. “Demons” is not an unbiblical motif but “unclean” pulls in Mosaic law which very much framed all of life. CS Lewis in the beginning of the problem of pain notes the bridging between the numinous (dread) and the moral (ought). The disciples also go out and preach repentance.
While it’s always dangerous to note silence it is highlighted when compared to non-silence of John the Baptist. Again my motivation (not that stirring up a bunch of Voicers to revisit their trench warfare over the OSJ isn’t both fun and easy…) is to figure out what exactly Mark is doing with this passage. It isn’t “random” meaning “without intent” or skill. It can’t be strictly chronological either because the death of John the Baptist can’t be pinned down that easily in this timeline. I doubt it’s simply anecdotal.
What is the intent of placing this passage right after the missionary journey of the disciples to deliver Israel from it’s “unclean spirit”? John of course was looking to do his own cleansing by his prophetic rebuke of Herod. That too is fun and easy since the Herods (as does the Donald) simply can’t help but continue to provide such tempting material. The focus is on the miraculous works of Jesus and the interpretive frameworks within which it is received by the crowd and then specifically Herod.
The story is of course certainly illustrative of “the kingdom of this world”. It’s got sex, violence, revenge, bitterness, family systems, you name it. It grabs our attention and potentially illustrates the fate of the prophets and the contrast between John who didn’t rise and Jesus who did even though Herod fears he might have.
Josephus is fun in that the details of the wife dismissal are filled in. The first wife that Herod dumped was the sister of a neighboring king. When his sister returned to her brother’s home (via a ruse so as to escape the sort of death that Herod the Great’s wives often faced) the brother swept in with his army to seek revenge and the peoples saw that failure in the battle field as recompense for John’s bloodguilt which Herod obviously feared. Mark, again, doesn’t go there. If Josephus knew about it then Mark certainly did. So what is Mark up to?
The story seems to be a distracting embroidery that draws our attention away from the question “what is this text doing here and what does it wish to teach us about JESUS?” We learn about Jesus by changes in contexts and how he responds.
The reason I position Politics as Now and Religion as Always is because every Now is born of the Always and we can’t know the Always in any other place than the Now. Now and Always are in very interesting relation that defies simple explanation (flattening). Consciousness sort of has that same dynamic.
Matthew and Luke might add material that can certainly be seen as political, but we never find Jesus really railing against Tiberius or Pilate or Herod like we see Elijah take on Ahab and Jezebel. This is exactly what John does and we might note (along the lines of miraculous revelation/vindication motifs) John’s condemnation of Herod’s marriage does not receive the same resurrection vindication as Jesus’ life. John is not spared death as Elijah was and Jesus wasn’t. Herod fears John’s return, but in the form of Jesus, and interprets Jesus in the light of John. That seems significant.
Perhaps the only Jesus Herod can see is John. Perhaps Herod’s own life with all of its drama means that the authority of Jesus simply can’t be recognized.
Herod is not without conscience, his own attraction towards the numinous (he was fascinated by John) nor his own sense of the moral. He feared killing John. This hopeful conjunction (again read CS Lewis’ Chapter 1 of The Problem of Pain) was easily surmounted by a combination of lust towards his step-daughter/grand-niece, his ambitious pride towards his cronies, and his weakness to be continually seen as strong and reliable towards those cronies. These things don’t change in the most common kinds of rulers we find in men that wish to be king but aren’t really. Antipas was only Tetrarch leading many commentators to note a touch of mockery in the title “King” given by Mark.
Jesus before such leaders remains mostly silent as noted by none other than Napoleon. “Never interfere with an enemy while he’s in the process of destroying himself”. It could be that perhaps Herod can’t arrest his process of self-destruction (as seen in the whole wife affair again and the revenge of the neighboring king) because he simply can’t see beyond mere John to see the far greater Jesus.
His conversation with Pilate seems to have a similar dynamic. Jesus is mostly silent except when Jesus pulls back the curtain to clarify that in Jesus mind (not shared by Pilate) Jesus is holding all the cards and his situation is completely within his control. Pilate thinks Jesus is desperate and in a position to help himself by kneeling to Pilate (remember the temptations?) but Jesus reminds Pilate that he stands before a far greater ruler ( a frame Pilate could easily understand) and that Jesus would remain in THAT frame and not Pilate’s.
The following story will of course be the feeding of the 5000. Jesus shows a level of power and authority not simply over the minds and hearts of people (mind-space) but also over matter (loaves and fishes). Herod mostly governs over minds by way of threatening life (living by the sword) while Jesus shows his complete mastery over the entire domain, doing so with love, gentleness and generosity, while still challenging his disciples to believe more deeply.
The temptation of the Now is always to forget the reality of the Always and to (as the children do in Willy Wonka’s factory) to sell the Always on the cheap for the sake of the Now, usually because our appetites for fleshy desires and self-righteousness demand it.
Jesus will show himself not only in episodes of miraculous power but also of miraculous forbearance of power (the crucifixion) to master it all, and for that reason (Philippians 2) be given the highest place, the sort of place Herod always lusted after but would always fail to attain by ironically stumbling in lust.