Wednesday Sermon: Backstory to a Beheading – Mimetic Theory and the Gospel

Wednesday Sermon: Backstory to a Beheading – Mimetic Theory and the Gospel July 15, 2015

"Michelangelo Caravaggio 021" by Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Michelangelo Caravaggio 021” by Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Pastors have a frequent question when they begin to discover mimetic theory. “That’s great. But how does it preach?”

Reverends Tom and Laura Truby shows that mimetic theory is a powerful tool that enables pastors to preach the Gospel in a way that is meaningful and refreshing to the modern world. Each Wednesday, Teaching Nonviolent Atonement will highlight Tom and Laura’s sermons as an example of preaching the Gospel through mimetic theory.

In this sermon, Tom and Laura explore the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s a powerful meditation on mimetic desire and the rivalry that can consume our lives and lead to sacrifice. How can we imagine a better world where beheadings still occur? Tom and Laura point us toward the way in this beautiful sermon. 

Year B, Pentecost 7,   Proper 10 (Between July 10th and July 16th, inclusive)

By Thomas L. and Laura C. Truby

Mark 6:14-29   (the Common English Bible, copyright 2011)


Backstory to a Beheading

Can we get good news out of a story that culminates in a beheading?  I guess all we can do is jump in and see what happens.

As the story begins word about Jesus has gotten back to Herod who anxiously monitors anyone exhibiting leadership. People had been talking about Jesus who has become a source of fascination and speculation.

Their speculations range from the paranormal (John the Baptist is raised from the dead) through traditional apocalyptic religious expectation (Elijah is back and there is hell to pay), to a contemporary prophet capable of political/cultural analysis (The Economist dissects the weaknesses of Herod’s rule). Jesus fascinates everyone including Herod.

The text says, “But when Herod heard these rumors, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life.’”  The ghost of John the Baptist haunts King Herod who, living in fear, reverts to The National Inquirer level of thinking.

The text moves now to the backstory of John’s beheading.  We will start with Herod’s marriage problems.  “Herod himself had arranged to have John arrested and put in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip.”  Herod and Philip are brothers in rivalry with each other.  When Philip had Herodias as his wife, Herod wanted her.  She looked attractive (pretty hot) to Herod because Philip found her attractive (hot) and so he took her from Philip and made her his wife.  “But John told Herod, ‘It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!’”  With that John placed himself in the middle of the feud between the two brothers.  He said Herod’s desire for his brother’s wife was wrong.  For John the Baptist prohibition is the only answer to keeping peace.   “Though shalt not!” Herodias, the one both brothers desire, is so angry that she wants to kill John.  John wants to take her out of being the center of these two men’s universe and that makes her mad.  Could it be she doesn’t want to know that Herod’s desire for her has more to do with his rivalry with his brother than his attraction for her?  John has put his finger on some of the problems of desire gone awry and Herodias is furious because she believes their desire is for her and she is the center of it all and she wants it to stay that way!

Because Herod respected John and didn’t want Herodias to have him killed he jailed him for his own protection.  Herodias’ desire to kill John was being frustrated by her own husband.   They are at war with each other.  Their marriage, built on the faulty foundation of rivalry, finds Herodias waiting for an opportunity to get back at her husband by killing the man he respects and wants to protect.  It’s a power struggle. The plot can only thicken.

I wonder why Herod regarded John as righteous and holy. While Herod may be king he is a beleaguered man.  He’s in a nasty feud with his brother that he has managed to win but his life doesn’t seem any simpler. His wife wants him to prove his love to her by killing the man he finds compelling and authentic.  He has powerful people everywhere that he must please so that word of discord does not get back to Rome.  Life is very confusing and it’s hard to know what to do among the contending forces.

John the Baptist seems to know what to do.  He seems to have a foundation that gives him a place from which to start. He doesn’t seem to be fearful and run by other people. Herod wonders how he can live that way too.  And so the text says, “John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.” Herod can neither take him in nor let him go.  John exercises a peculiar power in Herod’s life and Herod finds him fascinating.

“Finally, the time was right. It was on one of Herod’s birthdays, when he had prepared a feast for his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents.”  Almost all the important people in Herod’s world were there.  “Herod’s daughter Herodias (she has the same name as her mother) came in and danced, thrilling Herod and his dinner guests.”  Now contrary to all previous images, this is not a sultry, sexy, erotic dance. No, it’s the dance of a charming and talented little girl.  We think this because the term in the original Greek suggests it.  (Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, is the one who said her name was Salome and Christian artists have painted scenes since that may say more about them/us then the original scene.)

The little girl’s dance melts her dotting father’s heart and everyone else’s and her father impulsively offers to give her anything she wants up to half his kingdom.  He tells her she can have her heart’s desire; a safe offer for he knows a child’s desires will be simple and transparent.

The little girl has no idea what to ask for and so leaves the chamber to ask her mother what she should desire. “‘John the Baptist’s head’, Herodias replies!’”  Herodias gives her twisted desire to her daughter who takes it without question.   Suddenly we see that Herodias will sacrifice the innocence of her own daughter to get what she wants.  What a way of winning in her battle with both her husband and John the Baptist! The girl, her innocence now destroyed, immediately returns to her father and says, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.”  The little girl, who a moment ago could not think of a thing to ask for, now mouths her mother’s desire and adds to it an embellishment of her own.  She wants it on a plate and she wants it right now.  Complicity in her mother’s dark desire has changed her forever.

“Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her.”  The king finds himself again run by other people.  He dare not disappoint his daughter, his wife, or this crowd of important people who have come to celebrate his birthday.

“So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head.  The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, (little girl, another mistranslation) and she gave it to her mother.”  Herodias’ desire was satisfied but we see it all and know that she has sacrificed her daughter, her marriage and John the Baptist.  Human sacrifice has been revealed. We will see it all again in the crucifixion of Jesus.  The story’s power resides in what we now can see.

We also see that Jesus isn’t unique. No! Many have been sacrificed to human desire gone awry including John the Baptist, the little girl and this marriage between Herod and Herodias.  Mark inserts this now to begin preparing us for what’s coming. Soon the disciples will understand that the crucifixion and resurrection is the story they will spend their lives explaining to the world.  This will be the content of their teaching.  St. Mark uses a story within a story to communicate things hard to get at.  The disciples are out two by two and haven’t reported back yet.  Mark puts this story here because the story contains the content of their future message.  It contains everything we need to know about ourselves and God.

“When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came and took his dead body and laid it in a tomb.”  It is the quietness with which they come that impresses me.  They don’t make coming for his body into a big deal; they just come and take his body.  They don’t threaten revenge or pronounce God’s judgment on Herod or his executioner.  Is St. Mark giving us a model for living non-violently in a world where beheadings happen?

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