There’s nothing quite like coming to church on a summer Sunday, gathering in a sacred space in the early morning, and hearing a story about a beheading.
Today’s Gospel reading seems to come out of nowhere with its grotesque and tragic tale of the murder of Jesus’ family member, friend, confidante, and baptizer, John. This is the same John we heard so much about in Advent. The one that leapt in the womb when his mother Elizabeth saw Mary, who’d just conceived Jesus in her own womb. This is the same John who we hear vivid stories of wandering in the wilderness, eating wild honey, locusts, and wearing shirts made of hair. This is the same John who dunked Jesus under the water in the River Jordan, baptizing him as the heavens tore open and Jesus was named as beloved.
That John. That’s who we meet today in the Gospel of Mark, as he comes to the end of his earthly journey, beheaded to fulfill the seemingly senseless wishes of a young girl, her conflicted father, and her mysterious mother.
This story feels out of place and shocking in the context of our worship. But I don’t think that’s unique to this moment or our church. I don’t know that this story has ever fit.
As the preacher David Lose wrote:
It’s one of the longest sustained narrative scenes in the Gospel, Jesus doesn’t appear in it at all, it seems to interrupt the flow of the rest of the story, and it’s told in flashback, the only time that Mark employs such a device. Because of these features, the scene isn’t only as suspenseful and ultimately grisly as anything on television, but it’s unlike anything else in Mark’s account and seems almost out of place, even misplaced as a story looking for another narrative home.David Lose
The Gospel of Matthew includes the story in an abbreviated form, And Luke and John’s Gospels omit the details of the story entirely.
Which leads us naturally to the question of why is this story even included in Mark? And why is it included in our lectionary cycle, set to be heard every few years?
As the writer David Lose explored in a 2015 article, this story serves as a study in contrasts “between the two kinds of kingdoms available to Jesus’ disciples, both then and ever since.”
The story then prompts us to explore that contrast and what it means for our lives.
This story is told as a flashback, which means it could’ve been placed anywhere. But Mark chose to put it right here, just after Jesus has commissioned his disciples to take up the work of the kingdom of God.
Then we get this story of another kind of kingdom entirely. A kingdom that sounds like it comes more from the Game of Thrones than from the Bible. This is the kingdom of this world, in its most extreme form. In Herod’s kingdom, competition, fear, envy make-up the social currency. Tragedy is seen as expected. Winners and losers are clear and kept separate. Life is treated as a commodity that can be expended.
This kingdom stands in sharp contrast to the stories of Jesus we hear on either side of this out-of-place narrative. Last week we heard about Jesus sending “his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return.” The next story in Mark is the feeding of the 5000, A banquet of mercy that stands in such sharp contrast to this banquet of death we hear about today. “Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it’s blessing and surprising abundance that characterize the meal.”
So perhaps this is why we linger with this gruesome story this morning? Perhaps this is why Mark included it in such detail? To lay out for us, for our imaginations and our hearts, the choice that lies ultimately in front of all of us: Which kingdom do we want to live in? Which kingdom’s qualities do we want to cultivate in our lives? The kingdom of this world or the kingdom of heaven?
Of course, we’re all tempted to give the easy answer – the answer we’ve been trained to give — which is to say we want the kingdom of heaven. We want those leaders, those values, those principles. But before we settle into our justified answers, perhaps we need to stay with the villain of the Gospel for today, Herod. He too, ostensibly, liked the kingdom of heaven. Mark offers us the detail that Herod knew John was a “righteous and holy man.” When he listened to John, Herod was “greatly perplexed,” but Mark also tells us that Herod “liked to listen to him.” Yes, he liked the kingdom of heaven as it was described to him, He liked the stories of Jesus and the messages they taught. But he got stuck there. Once the “opportunity” arose to show his own strength and power to his rich guests, He chose that path instead. He failed to move from a spectator of Jesus’ kingdom to a disciple. The kingdom of heaven, with its vulnerability, mercy, and frustrating equality, was too hard a choice for Herod to make in the face of losing his own reputation.
It’s easy to judge Herod for his lack of courage here. But how often do we make the same move ourselves, Choosing the kingdom of this world over the kingdom of heaven? As the writer Debie Thomas reflected this week, “No, [we] don’t go around killing people. But do [we] care too much about what other people think of us? Do [we] value [our] status, reputation, and popularity more than…the truth? [Are we] so bent on conflict-avoidance that [we] harm others with [our] passivity? Do [we] prefer stability and safety more than transformation?” (Read Debie’s blog here.)
These are the subtle, often almost imperceptible ways, we choose the comforts of the kingdom of this world over the invitation to follow Jesus. Perhaps this is the uncomfortable destination to which the Gospel writer Mark was leading us today? To see ourselves in the story, to sympathize even with Herod, who was given the choice between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. And then to ask ourselves again and again, in each day of our lives, who will we be? Which kingdom will we choose?