Is there anyone out there who finds this week’s Gospel reading in any way life-giving?
Truth be told, this week I thought hard about honing in on the prophet’s words about plumb lines and Amos’s call in Amos (Amos 7:7-15) or about our inheritance as God’s adopted children in Ephesians (Ephesians 1:3-14) instead. And yet, I don’t know how to stand up and read these words from Mark’s Gospel to those who will gather and then simply not speak of it as though these gruesome images were, in fact, not floating about in the imaginations of God’s people.
And yet, there seems to be no good news in it.
- We have before us a corrupt and apparently further corruptible leader in Herod.
- We have John, the fore-runner of Jesus who was prone to speaking unpopular truths.
- We have the collision of the two when John points out Herod’s very public moral failing in marrying his brother’s wife.
- We have Herodias, who evidently feels threatened by John’s words. Indeed, this must have been more than simple annoyance. She must have thought her husband, who evidently liked listening to John, might just heed John’s warning. And then where would she be?
- And we have Herodias’s daughter. At first it appears she is but a pawn in this whole scenario — used for the pleasure of the men gathered for Herod’s birthday party — until she asks her mother what it is she should request and then escalates that request from a ‘simple beheading’ to asking for John’s head on a platter, no less. As though what was left of John should be received as but a final course in the meal shared at Herod’s party.
We are told that John’s followers did not abandon him in death. It is interesting to note that at this critical point, they behaved with more courage than did the close followers of Jesus. At least they came and collected his body to bury him.
We hear that John’s message lived after him. Herod never forgot him, for one. When he heard about all the good that Jesus was doing, he thought of John particularly in his wondering as to whether John was somehow alive again. Evidently, Herod somehow believed that such as this could not really be killed.
So as I look for good news to share this week, I find myself turning to other memorable meals:
Like the one we hear about just after this in Mark’s Gospel. (Mark 6:30-44) You remember — the one where a boy shares his lunch and suddenly the hunger of a multitude is satisfied. Where all are welcome and there are no hidden agendas: only generosity and kindness. And where in the sharing there is more left over than what they started with. Can it possibly be an accident that the story of this remarkable meal is told right after the recounting of the meal shared by Herod on the occasion of his birthday? Don’t you suppose Mark is wanting us to recognize the way the two so profoundly differ?
Or better yet, the one we share again this week-end as we do every time we gather. Where bread is broken and wine is poured. Where flesh and blood is mysteriously consumed once more because of Jesus’ willing sacrifice in our behalf. This meal first offered to Jesus’ close followers in the hours before they would abandon him and leave a near stranger to request his body and see to his burial — oh yes, this memorable meal where no one has to worry about saving face because it is the source and seal of our forgiveness. This meal where all are welcome and no one is exploited and we get up from the table renewed for life in the world.
Indeed, the sort of meal Herod hosted is still far too common in the world we share. In places of power, yes, and sometimes at our own dinner tables. Wherever and whenever the innocent are sacrificed in order to save ourselves. As Judas did. And Peter in his own way. And all the rest as they fled for cover. To be sure, perhaps most of the time for you and me the result is not as gruesome as what we hear about at Herod’s party, but in some ways it is no less deadly.
And yet, we have this meal. Offered, again, the first time right before the disciples and you and I would need it most of all. The promise holds. Forgiveness and life have been promised to us no matter what. In a meal to remember.
- So now. What would it take for more and more of our meals to look like the meal we share every time we gather and less like the one Herod hosted?
- What would it look like if our doors were opened and all were made to feel welcome and safe? At the lunch table at school or at work? At our dinner tables in our homes? At whatever place we pause to share a meal next?
- What would it mean for all of us if we never again had to wake up with the aftertaste of regret as Herod surely did and perhaps his guests did, too?
- Indeed, how can a bit of bread and a taste of wine enable us to create more tables of welcome? How might you and I be host and guest at the sorts of “meals to remember” which Jesus hosted?
When I read this text, somehow Proverbs 28:1 popped into my mind – evil ones flee when no one gives chase. Herod is trapped in his own patterns and knows it. He sees the rising movement of Jesus as a replay of what John was all about, and somehow senses that destroying the man didn't destroy the challenge to his universe. The crazy (hetero) family, the party of honor, shame and betrayal, the guilt and emptiness of a world predicated on win/lose – all of it unable to give security and strength. And vulnerability, trust, compassion, telling truths – doesn't go away.
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