Beheadings at a Birthday (And Other Dark Tales from Ordinary Time)

Beheadings at a Birthday (And Other Dark Tales from Ordinary Time) July 13, 2018
Image via Pixabay/CC0 Creative Commons

Edgar Allen Poe meets John Bunyan in this terrible little fable that’s snuck into our lectionary this week.

In Mark 6:14-29, a local politician’s birthday party ends with the decapitation of an itinerant preacher. This dark story feels out of place in a gospel that is notorious for not wasting words or time (Mark uses the word “immediately” so often that this gospel could be called “The Gospel of Jesus Who Is In A Tremendous Rush”). Why does Mark include this, and why does the lectionary put it smack dab in the middle of ordinary time?

The Story on a Platter

When the local ruler, Herod, full of holiday spirit at his birthday party, benevolently promises his wife’s daughter anything she asks for, he doesn’t expect that his wife (with an axe to grind against John’s repentance preaching) would ask for John’s head on a plate (quite literally. This is a gruesome story, even by Bible standards). Herod doesn’t want to make the party awkward, so to avoid embarrassment, he executes John. Herod is a little disappointed by this turn of events – John “greatly perplexed” him, but gee, he kinda “liked to listen to him” (Mk 6:20). Herodias reacts to her fear of public shaming, and Herod reacts to his fear of public embarrassment, and John is killed.

What is striking about this story is that it’s so small.

The “voice calling out in the wilderness,” the larger-than-life prophet who ran out of the desert covered in animal skins, dies because a wife doesn’t want the public talking about her sex life, and a local politician doesn’t want to look silly at his birthday party. The epic of John the Baptizer doesn’t end with a bang, but with a whimper.

Power in Small Things

Last week we talked the importance of our daily faithfulness to the small moments of Ordinary Time. Smallness is a theme in the Gospels. Faith as small as a mustard seed can make a mountain jump, the kingdom of God is seeds growing into trees, and a little yeast makes the whole loaf rise (Mt 17:20; Mk 4:30; Mt 13:33).

But smallness isn’t necessarily good.

When Paul uses the metaphor of yeast in Galatians, he flips it around. For Paul, yeast doesn’t represent the kingdom of heaven. Yeast represents wickedness – it’s so small and unassuming, but spreads into every area of our lives (Ga 5:9).

Smallness is not inherently good.

Smallness is inherently powerful. 

This week’s story in Mark is about the banality of evil, Hannah Ardendt’s famous phrase from the trial of that paper-pushing Nazi, Eichmann.

“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted or sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal.” 
― Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
“Monsters” look different up close than from far away. From a distance, evil is tremendous and sweeping, wicked people cackling over nefarious plans. Up close, evil is just people who have made a series of choices to be comfortable, risk-free, and safe at any cost.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Evil doesn’t need monsters to flourish.

Great acts of evil are committed by people just doing their job, just following orders, people who go home to a loving family to work in their garden and enjoy good poetry and root for the home team.

“Nice” people do terrible things when we let fear run our lives.

We live in fear of what people will say, fear of looking foolish, fear of losing security, fear of being wrong, fear of sticking our neck out and being punished for it.

I wish that I could tell you that fear is silly and that there is nothing to lose by seeking justice and loving mercy. I wish that I could tell you that bad people don’t make it and good people get the book deal. But Mark tells us otherwise. John dies at the end, and Herod survives to go to many more birthday parties with many more dancing girls.

The question of good versus evil isn’t rhetorical. It’s a hard question to answer.

If we don’t consciously choose to take the risk of goodness, we will accidentally build our life around safety at the expense of justice and comfort at the expense of what is right. 

The lectionary text this week is a warning and an invitation. Do we want to risk everything by making a thousand small brave choices to do “what is right, instead of what is easy?” (JK Rowling, The Goblet of Fire). Or will we cultivate our fear, and shrink away?

So What Now?

What a downer this week has been.

We’re already tired, and it seems like the last thing we need is the dire warning that anyone can do terrible things, through small acts of disengagement and moral compromise that feel less like compromise and more like survival.

This warning in Mark feels like condemnation, and condemnation can make us curl up, shut down, and ask Jesus “who then can be saved?” (Lk 18:26).

Friends – everyone. Everyone can be saved.

Herodias’ wife heard condemnation from John the Baptist, but John didn’t come preaching condemnation. He came preaching repentance. We mix them up, but repentance is always hopeful.

Repentance is a promise. Repentance is Good News.

The message of repentance is that you can always, in every moment, at every second, turn around. And the second that you turn, whether you are knocking at Jesus’ door in the middle of the night for a secret philosophical discussion or shamelessly clambering up a tree just to get a glimpse of him – Jesus will be there.

We discover intimacy with Jesus in that second that we brave embarrassment, shame, and fear to do what’s right. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, says Jesus – blessed are the ones who risk it all (Mt 5:10). Blessed are you, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Every moment that we make the choice for love, and against fear, Jesus is next to us. Every moment that we practice daily repentance, we strengthen our muscles and make it easier to go on tomorrow. We may lose more than we imagine. But every moment on the road with Jesus is worth it.

You are braver than you think. Practice that daily bravery in this season of Ordinary Time.

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