VI Pentecost, Year B
2 Sm 6:1-5,12b-19 or * Am 7:7-15
Ps 24 * Ps 85:8-13
(2 Samuel 6:1-5)
David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale- judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the LORD of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
(2 Samuel 6:12b-19)
So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; and when those who bore the ark of the LORD had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. David danced before the LORD with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart. They brought in the ark of the LORD,
and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the LORD. When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the LORD of hosts, and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
* (Amos 7:7-15)
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, "Amos, what do you see?" And I said, "A plumb line." Then the Lord said, "See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword." Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’" And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom." Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Our narrative today is, of course, the death of John the Baptist and like any good Girardian, we cannot fail to notice the consequences for the prophetic voice.
We observe several interrelated themes in our text that we have seen in earlier Markan narratives.
1. Complete incomprehension.
2. God’s prophetic voice challenging the power base of the victimage mechanism.
3. Failure to apply the ‘prophetic critique’ interpersonally.
4. The ‘ancient path trodden by the wicked (and the prophets).’
5. The reign of God and the realm of political mimesis.
We have observed the incomprehension of the disciples all throughout Mark’s gospel. Even though “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God” (4.11), the disciples remain almost clueless. According to Mark (4.35), all that they had seen and experienced and heard up to this point still had not impacted their mental and emotional worldviews. “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” (4.40) In 6.52 after the doublet sea story Mark says the disciples ‘hearts were hardened.’ In 7.17 Jesus queries the disciples, “Do you not yet perceive and understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” The disciples, halfway through Mark’s gospel, are just as uncomprehending as “those outside.”
Herod, too, is uncomprehending. But he is less uncomprehending than the disciples. When you remove Herod’s (Markan) self-understanding you get this: “King Herod heard of it (the mission of the Twelve and the ensuing ‘success’) for Jesus’ name has become known. Herod said, ‘John, whom I beheaded has been raised. Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man and kept him safe. When he listened to John he was very perplexed but he heard him gladly.”
Interwoven in these Herodian thoughts is the story of the execution of John the Baptist. And how Herod got sucker-punched. In a sense, Herod, with all of his (Markan) good intentions is mimetically led to the place of sacrifice. Mark records that Herod went through with the execution of the Baptist, even in spite of his great remorse, in order to preserve his honor and authority, his status and power. The mesmerizing effects of mimesis, the ‘hiddenness of mimesis’ and ultimately, Herod’s (self) destruction, are revealed in this text. Of course, Girard has treated this narrative in The Scapegoat.
Girard notes an essential aspect when interpreting this text. He points up the ‘foolishness’ of comparing this text to myth, but concludes that the exposure of the mimetic ritual validates this reading. “All the institutions that Herodias puts to use against John are ritual by nature.” She had used the institution (authority) of kingship and kingship arises from mimetic conflict (Jim Williams, The Bible, Violence & The Sacred). She used the mimesis of sexual seduction. She uses the mimesis of social relations (honor/shame etc.). Mimesis will finally pit us against even our better self and intoxicated by it we chose our sacrificially structured existence. Herod, like us, was not ‘true’ to himself. Mimesis had rendered him false and he knew it (at least according to Mark). Herodias had made her crisis Herod’s crisis as well. Not only does she revile the Baptist, but the King has just promised her daughter ‘half of his kingdom’ after she danced for him. We’re not being Freudian to think exotic and erotic here. Talk about making a mother jealous! But her anger is directed to her hated enemy, even though she has reason to be peeved at both Herod and her daughter. By involving the two of them in her crisis, she passive-aggressively involves them in the sphere of her anger. They become the instruments of her anger.
What had the Baptist done? He held Herod accountable to the same Law that applied to everyone else. God forbid that we should do the same today to presidents and prime ministers, bishops and CEO’s. Mimesis structures hierarchically. Those who ascend the mimetic ladder perceive themselves above the Law that applies to everyone else. Herodias sure did. She was not about to give up being wife of the king. And Herod did too. He was not going to give up his ‘kingship’ (his vested authority) for the sake of saving a thorn in the flesh. The powers that be, that rule the community by enforcement of law (codes of social order), are by virtue of this rule, above the law. (One immediately thinks here of Paul’s discussion of the law and the law of the spirit of life, the law of freedom where he argues that Christians have existence apart from law in the Spirit).
So many taboos are being violated in the text it is remarkable, but we should only be surprised because unlike myth, the blame is squarely shouldered on the guilty. All John the Baptist did was to say to Herod that God was Lord in the land. Herod is an anti-Davidic king more than just ethnically or tribally. At least when David the king was confronted he repented.
Had John the Baptist been blamed, had the story been ‘spun’ by Herod’s PR people, we would have had a myth. The story might have been that John the Baptist was a political activist with a popular following. He acted as though he had some kind of divine (ha!) authority and was rude to those in power. If he was not put in jail, justice would not be served. You simply cannot go around criticizing the king or the president or the boss. He deserved what he got.
The funny thing is that the story does not travel that way in Judaism as is evidenced by Josephus. The Markan ‘demything’ of John’s execution is not the author’s invention but comes as the tradition regarding the Baptist. In short, Girard is correct to read this text through the lens of the sacrificial crisis and we are enabled to see the internal workings of prohibition, ritual and sacrifice, but not the development of myth which can only mean that prohibition, ritual and sacrifice now become uncovered for what they really are: consequences of negative mimesis.
John the Baptist treads the ‘ancient path of the wicked.’ (Girard: Job: Victim of His People) It is the path of all the prophets who have come before. It is the path of victims innocent. It will be the path of Jesus.
Vincent Taylor (The Gospel according to St. Mark) also notes the historical conundrums created by the differences between Mark and Josephus but concludes ‘where Mark derived the story it is impossible to say.’ He then goes on to quote A. E. Rawlinson who we think put it rather beautifully: “Josephus’ version will give facts as they presented themselves to an historian who wrote sixty years later, and was concerned to trace the political causes of a war. The story of Mark will be an account, written with a certain amount of literary freedom, of what was being whispered in the bazaars or market-places of Palestine at the time.” The Clinton White House doesn’t even place a close second!
Rhoads and Michie say that in Mark, Jesus “initiates the circumstances of conflict with the disciples by calling them to follow him, and to have faith to move mountains. Later, he introduces even higher standards for discipleship: to renounce the self, lose one’s life, be the least, and be a servant or slave to others. At stake in this conflict is whether Jesus can make them good disciples.” (Mark As Story) If this is the case, then one must conclude that in a very real way, Jesus failed at this. At the end they engaged in betrayal, violence, denial and repudiation, in short, everything he was not about. Perhaps Mark, though, has not failed at this. In being written about from this perspective, the disciples have become the least, we see them in all of their broken humanness, just like ourselves. Rather than glorifying the originary followers of Jesus, their story is woven in humility and honesty. (Or it might be evidence of Paulinism.)
Robert Tannehill has argued from a literary critical angle that the former was true and that one should not read into Mark a debate with intra-ecclesial opponents. But more important are Tannehill’s insights in developing the theme of identification between us as readers and the disciples. It is a long paragraph but rich in observation.
“The implied author of Mark shapes a story which encourages the reader to associate himself with the disciples. The may begin with a simple identification, assumed by author and reader, of the disciples with Christians of the time of the writing. However, the relation between the disciples and the Christian reader does not remain simple. As the portrait of the disciples becomes clearly negative, the tendency to identify is countered by the necessity of negative evaluation. A tension develops between these two attitudes, with the reader caught in the middle. The degree to which the one attitude or the other is encouraged by the text varies in the different parts of the gospel and from scene to scene within its parts. Initial identification is encouraged by positive evaluation of the disciples in the early part of Mark. Identification is encouraged later in the Gospel by the similarity between the problems faced by the disciples and the problems faced by the Gospel’s first readers. But as the inadequacies of the disciples response to Jesus become increasingly clear, the reader must distance himself from the disciples and begin to seek another way. The identification of the reader with the disciples does not prevent this but contributes to the existential seriousness of the new search. The more clearly the reader sees that the disciples represent himself, the more clearly the necessary the necessary rejection of the disciples behavior becomes a negation of one’s past self. The recognition of the disciples’ failure and the search for an alternative way become a search for the new self who can follow Jesus faithfully as a disciple.” (“The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role")
Preachers just do not pick texts like this to preach on because they are so….unspiritual. Or so it seemed. With the help of mimetic theory texts like this become illuminating lenses of the gospel as a whole, namely that what Jesus will undergo is not unique. What he did and how he responded to his execution is unique but not what happened. If we fail to see this we only continue to turn the Passion into some kind of sick transaction between Jesus and God.
A Christian bumper sticker (reflecting on Rhoads and Michie)?: “Be the least that you can be.” Not a very pretty slogan but perhaps one apt for the spirituality of the church militant.
I love authors with great structure to their work. This is probably why I am such a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and Karl Barth. Both brought to their work a sense of the big picture and the way it all hangs together with coherence and consistency. I was so taken by the consistent worldview of the Lord of the Rings, complete with calendar, descriptions of seasons, backgroud sroty and mythology that I compare every other fantasy to it. When I have read other fantasy I am struck by the almost willy-nilly use of ‘the fantastic.’ It feels other worldly or supernatural whereas the ‘magic’ in the Lord of the Rings was consistent with it’s worldview. Same thing with Barth’s Church Dogmatics. They are thought out from beginning to end and self-consistent throughout even though they were written over a thirty year period. I have this habit of comparing the structure of any theology with that of Karl Barth. I still haven’t found a more beautiful theology.
In the same way our text today is a thing of architechtonic beauty. It is three verses with a chorus, ‘to the praise of his glorius grace,’ as it were. Each verse tells the same story from a different aspect, first the Father, then the Son, then the Holy Spirit. For those who think that the Trinity as a way of speaking of God is not in the New Testament, here is proof that it is.
Over eleven times in these verses one can find the words “In Christ”, “in Him”, “through Jesus Christ,” and so forth. This christological emphasis on the work of God is not without significance for far too many Christians today have a view of God that doesn’t look like Jesus very much. The God of Christendom is frequently Janus-faced and all too often distant, aloof, almighty and out of reach. The God and Father of Jesus chose to share our existence, not remain in distant transcendance. The Father chose us in Jesus before the world began, just as to chose to be for us in Jesus, forgiving us our sins and redeeming our relationship with Godself. And so in being for us from time immemorial, God also chooses to be with us in our present, as the one who comes to us from the good future, God with us and in us and for us, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Risen Jesus.
All that can be comprehended of our salvation can be found in these verses. They are actually one verse, 202 words, the longest sentence in the New Testament! One could preach on this text for months.
Nothing of significance today
Calling the church back to Jesus seems to me to be the most important task preachers have in our time. Jesus has been shuffled out the back door of many a church; his place is taken by a christology. In fact to achieve the peace and love and tolerance of some congregations you don’t need Jesus at all. Others have replaced Jesus with a GOD concept. There is an awful lot of talk about God but very little about Jesus unless it is to ask him for something.
The same is true of a lot of our theology. Someone recently said to me “Your theology is just too Jesus oriented.” I replied “So was the apostolic church’s!”