Don't Expect an Easy Life

July 11, 2021 /7th Sunday after Pentecost / Richard Holmer

First Reading Amos 7:7-15 Second Reading Ephesians 1:3-14 / Gospel Mark 6:14-29

2021-07-11 Pentecost 7
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Don’t Expect an Easy Life

You can’t help wondering why the story I just read is included in Mark’s gospel. For starters, this is one of the very few passages in the gospel where Jesus is entirely absent – he never appears in the narrative. What’s more, this text relates a rather sordid and grisly tale of jealousy, resentment, and violence. The tale ends with John the Baptist’s head on a platter – certainly not a sweet story to share with the children. Where is there any good news in this account?

Many film makers, on the other hand, have seized upon this story as an opportunity to exploit the cinematic possibilities for opulence, eroticism and violence. The scene takes place at a party in a royal palace, with all the trappings of wealth and power. The nubile Salome performs a provocative dance to captivate her stepfather. Her mother, Herodias, sees the opportunity to be rid of her relentless critic, John. Herod is the conflicted and compromised monarch compelled to make a fateful choice. It’s all juicy, Hollywood melodrama, and you can find many movie versions of this story.

In terms of the flow of the gospel narrative, this story is a flashback. John the Baptist has already been executed. As words about Jesus’ teachings and miracles became more widespread, some speculated he was John the Baptist, come back to life. So between the time Jesus sends out the twelve disciples on a mission and their return, Mark inserts this story of how John’s execution came about. Still, why bother with the lurid details? Why not say Herod executed John and leave it at that? What is Mark’s purpose in sharing this extended narrative?

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Perhaps Mark intends this story to serve also as a “flash forward,” anticipating how what will happen to Jesus parallels what happened to John the Baptist. The two stories are thematically linked. So what we may have here is not “Christmas in July,” but the “Passion Story in July.” Consider the parallels in the stories of Jesus and John:

  • The religious authorities in Jerusalem were curious about the identities of both men. They wondered if these men were resurrected prophets, perhaps Elijah. Some speculated that Jesus was actually John the Baptist come back to life.

  • Both John and Jesus are arrested by the authorities, largely because they were seen as troublemakers and a threat to the status quo.

  • Both men end up in the hands of ambitious rulers who have conflicted feelings about these holy men. Mark relates that Herod realized that John was indeed a holy and righteous man and so he protected John after having him arrested. John’s preaching was perplexing to Herod – and yet he liked to listen to him. Pilate spends a fair amount of time interrogating Jesus – and concludes he can find no guilt in him. He even attempts to spare Jesus by offering up Barabbas instead.

  • Neither Herod nor Pilate wants to execute their prisoner. Ultimately, however, the pressure from those around them causes both men to go against their personal inclinations and yield to expediency. They order the executions of John and Jesus.

So, although Jesus himself does not appear in this story, we can see in John’s story what will eventually become of Jesus. Fear, greed and resentment drive both stories. Herod’s wife, Herodias, and others in the ruling elite are eager to be rid of the meddlesome preaching and accusations of John the Baptist. Likewise the religious authorities in Jerusalem are threatened by the growing number of followers drawn to Jesus – and they resent his criticism of their ways. Despite the harsh injustice imposed on them, both John and Jesus face death with calm and integrity. The feast when John is executed is emblematic of what’s wrong with Israel: political and moral corruption; collaboration with the Romans; relentless greed, leading to a vast gap between those who have and those who have not. These are the very things that have been wrong with Israel since the time of the prophet Amos – from whom we heard in our first reading.

Herod’s debauched birthday feast contrasts sharply with the feast that immediately follows in Mark’s gospel. Jesus returns to the narrative and proceeds to feed thousands to fullness from the meager offering of five loaves and two fish. At this feast there is no fear or greed or resentment – only joy and gratitude. The feeding of the 5,000 is a sign of the hope and promise of the coming Kingdom of God.

God’s kingdom is breaking into the hurting and sinful world – but it has not fully arrived, not yet. Today’s gospel is a cautionary tale to the faithful: When you preach repentance to those in positions of power, do not expect them to immediately change their ways. The way of this world is not the way of the Lord – and those who threaten the status quo are dealt with harshly.

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Last Sunday I reminded you that we all are called to speak for God, to be local prophetic voices, who speak the truth and share good news. Bear in mind that our message will not always be welcomed. People may not be inclined to thank you for telling them the truth. Any call for change – even change for the better – will be heard by some as a threat, and will be treated accordingly. We see what happened to John, to Jesus, to the first disciples – and more recently, to Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Today’s story points to how we inhabit two realities simultaneously. One is the reality of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Today’s reading from Ephesians describes the great blessings we enjoy (paraphrase by Eugene Peterson):

  • God aims to make us whole and holy by his love.

  • We’re a free people – free of penalties and punishments chalked up by all our misdeeds. And not just barely free, either, but ABUNDANTLY FREE!

  • It’s in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. (Consider that.)

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Yet at the same time, you and I inhabit a world where wicked can still prosper, and the faithful can still suffer. The rich get richer, and the poor still languish. A world suffering from injustice, inequality, exploitation and neglect. We are called to return good for evil, to love our enemies, to show mercy to all – but mercy and compassion are derided as weakness. “Might makes right,” says the world.

Nevertheless, we do not give up, we don’t lose hope. John lost his head and Jesus was cruelly executed – yet Christ is truly risen! And if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. We must not ignore the sin, injustice and inhumanity that are a present reality. We need to recognize it and confront it with the truth made known to us in Jesus. And we can and we must hold on to the hope that is also ours in Christ.

Christians are not naïve optimists. We are realistic about how things are in this world – because the Scriptures are realistic, telling it like it is. (John and Jesus did not live to a ripe old age and retire to a cottage by the Sea of Galilee.) We acknowledge the stark reality of sin: in society and in our own hearts.

But we are not pessimistic, earther. What we are is hopeful. As Czech author Václav Havel reminds us: “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well in the near term, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

Christians believe following Jesus makes sense, despite any and all hardships and disappointments we face along the way. Because we have a hope that will not disappoint us, we wait for it with patience.

So here’s the message today:

Don’t expect an easy or carefree life.

Aim instead to lead a faithful life, loving as Christ loves us, and always persevering in hope.