Proper 10 (B)
This is what repentance is about. It is a call to renewal—turning from the fallen, petty kingdoms East of Eden to the love, peace, and abundance of the Kingdom of God. This is a reality that we can begin to live into now, but to do so we must switch our allegiances and become members of another kingdom—the Kingdom of Life against the Empire of Death.
Just before our gospel reading this Sunday (RCL) we witness Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim this Kingdom of Life, completely without any supplies or tools of coercion. The only thing they have is Good News. “So they went out,” we are told, “and proclaimed that all should repent.”
Repentance is always a turning from and a turning to, and so to give us some understanding of the context of this repentance Mark gives us an example in what might seem a strange interlude, if read out of this context, about the execution of John the Baptist.
We begin this passage with fear—the fear of Herod that John, whom he had executed, has returned and is working again to undermine his authority and rule. There were lots of stories about what was going on, but all were in agreement that something was happening. Some thought that the power for the strange events were orchestrated by a risen John the Baptist, others thought it was Elijah returned, a clear harbinger of a reordering, while still others thought that Jesus was just “any old prophet.” Herod, we are told, believes that John has returned from the dead.
We are then told the story of how John came to be executed by Herod. It is a curious story on several levels. First, it is placed oddly right in the midst of the story of the first sending out of the apostles which begins in 6:6 and ends in 6:30 with their return. Second, this story is different from the account of John’s execution by the historian Josephus. Josephus claims that John was clearly executed by Herod because the crowds were “aroused to the highest degree by his words, Herod became alarmed…Herod decided, therefore, that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.” This account is not necessarily in conflict with Mark’s account, but it is curious that Josephus did not mention the conflict around Herodias, Herod’s wife that is the center of Mark’s rendering of John’s execution.
It is clear that Herod saw John as a threat of some sort or he would not have had him arrested, but it seems that Mark may be making a clear point about Herod’s weakness as a leader, compared to the righteousness of Jesus and John. Herod couldn’t even oppose a righteous man directly, but was coerced into it by a belly dancing girl to whom he promised half his Kingdom (what value is such a kingdom if it can be promised away in a drunken toast? Mark would have us ask). Mark would have us see that Herod did not act through some calculating move to sure up his power, as is indicated in Josephus’ account, but rather executed a righteous man to save face at a banquet filled with Roman collaborators. Is this a picture of the Jewish King who occupies the throne of David? “Hardly!” Mark would have us respond.
Just after this week’s Gospel we return to the apostles coming back to Jesus after their first mission for the Kingdom. The scenes that follow should be read in clear contrast to the banquet of Herod. Jesus takes his disciples into a deserted place and it is filled with over five thousand people, there is apparently no food and yet everyone gets fed. This is what the Kingdom of Life looks like rather than the Kingdom of Death—Jesus feeding over five thousand, with leftovers to spare, as opposed to a banquet of elites where a righteous man’s head is displayed after a drunken promise.
We must ask, what is the banquet we will sit down to? The banquet of saving face, of holding on to our small kingdoms that all along are simply the puppet palaces of Empire? Or will we sit down, on a grassy hill and fill a wilderness with life, accepting the abundance of the Kingdom of God? Love, faithfulness, and righteousness will show us to the right seat.