[July 12, 2015] Today’s text is curious. It sets us up with the questioning going on in the halls of power and then tells a story about John the Baptist. This story is the only passage in Mark’s gospel that does not focus directly on Jesus. In the lectionary it is accompanied by a passage from the prophet Amos, the third prophet in the Scroll of the Twelve: 7:7-15. Amos tells of a plumb-line in the midst of God’s people Israel that he saw in a vision: “Never again will I [the Lord] overlook their offences.” So he proclaimed. For that, he is told, “Go away, seer, take yourself off to Judah, earn your living there, and there you can prophesy! But never again will you prophesy at Bethel, for this is a royal sanctuary, a national temple.” Likewise, John the Baptist criticized the royal family and was silenced.
The question about which I always wonder is this: What is it that the writer (Mark, or Peter whom Mark was redacting) intended that his auditors would get out of this passage? What are the clues? Once we discern that, and we do our best to hear it, the next question imposes itself: How does this speak to us, where we are today (personally and as a congregation)?
- After Mark lays the foundation of his gospel in 1:1-15,
- he shows Jesus presenting himself to Israel as the Isaianic Servant of YHWH, in 1:16—3:12.
- Then in 3:13—6:6a, against a backdrop of hostility Jesus shows where it is that he finds his home among people, the “hearth” that he was—and still is—creating for himself.
Now in 6:6b—8:30 we have a new section. The Twelve are sent out to announce the Gospel (the good news of the arrival of the Coming One) in 6:6b-13, relying on the goodness of people’s hospitality and apparently doing better than Jesus did in his home town, casting out many demons and curing many sick people when they anointed them with oil. By now Jesus’ Name was well known, and the question arises, articulated by Jesus in 8:27 when he asked his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” In 6:14-15 we are told, “Some were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.’ Others say, ‘He is Elijah,’ others again, ‘He is a prophet, like the prophets we used to have.’” This is echoed by the disciples in 8:28, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, others again, one of the prophets.”
We saw this framing technique used by Mark before. The first section is framed by 1:14-15 and 3:7-12. The second section is framed by 3:20-21 (with 3:31-35) and 6:1-6a, surrounded by a larger frame made up of the transitional passages 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13. Each of these transitional passages (I mean 3:13-19 and 6:6b-13), however, actually sets the stage for the section that follows it: The first has Jesus gathering his own, witnesses to be “with him,” to be those among whom he finds his “brother and sister and mother,” his hearth and home. The second has Jesus sending them out to be his witnesses among others. We return to these disciples again in 8:27-30. After hearing about what the people think of him, Jesus asks them, “But you, who do you say I am?” Peter, their spokesperson, answered, “You are the Anointed One!”
This frame can guide us through this section. It would seem that the underlying question that is being answered is simply this: Who do you say that I am? Who, in other words, do the disciples say that he is? What do they perceive? If this is so, it is very interesting then that the last story we are told before the final frame is a story of a blind man whom Jesus heals, but whose sight does not come to him at once. Jesus, “putting spittle on his eyes and laying his hands on him,” asks him, “Can you see anything?” The man, only “beginning to see,” replied, “I can see people, they look like trees as they walk around.” The full restoration of his sight required that Jesus lay his hands on his eyes again. And only then did the man see clearly: “he was cured, and he could see everything plainly and distinctly.” Never before or after this did one of Jesus’ miracles require such a second touch, and in no other gospel do we find such a story. As the concluding story of this section, framed by the question, “Who do you see me to be?” it has obvious symbolic import. The disciples are still blind and only partially “beginning to see.”
Within this section there is another story about the healing of a deaf man “who had an impediment in his speech.” Jesus took him aside to be by themselves (this reminds me of the disciples again, as I recall 3:14 and 6:31), put his fingers into the man’s ears and touched his tongue with spittle. What is it with the spittle? For that is twice now—here it heals the man’s speech and later a man’s eyes. The spittle probably is meant to evoke to the reader the word which Jesus speaks.
(Spittle might also allude to taste. Jesus “tastes” our condition of severe alienation from the divine, indicating his deep identification with us in our sin.)
There is another feature of this section that we should notice. It is a motif that addresses the question of who Jesus is: he is the one who sets the table of the Promised Land; he is the Lord of the Feast, the Lord of the Deuteronomic Blessing. 6:30-44 is the story of the feeding of the five thousand. 8:1-9 is the story of the feeding of the four thousand. Then in 8:14-21, just before the final story of the healing of the blind man, Jesus refers to both of these miracles, and it is interesting how he does so. “Why are you talking about having no bread?” he asks them. “Do you still not understand, still not realize? Are you minds closed? Have you eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear? Or do you not remember?” The same question is repeated here in six different ways. This entire section is about this. Do the disciples get it? In the verses that precede this, the Pharisees want to “see” a sign but Jesus, with a “profound sigh,” says, “In truth I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation.” And he left them to the “other side.” But the disciples, do they see? “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?” They answered, “Twelve.” “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of scraps did you collect?” They answered, “Seven.” Correct. Jesus’ last words to them before the story of the healing of the blind man are: “Do you still not realize?”
The section ends, then, with the disciples not really “getting” it yet still being able to confess, “You are the Anointed One.” The issue still has to be resolved—what will it take for the disciples to “understand,” “realize,” open their minds, see with their eyes, hear with their ears, and to remember? (We “remember” Jesus when we celebrate communion; but do we?) This is not answered in this section but in the section that follows: in 8:31—10:52.
We should probably read the whole section, then, in the light of these feeding miracles, for they apparently hold some sort of key. Obviously they show us the absolute abundance of Jesus to feed us, to deliver the “blessing” that God promised the people if they would be faithful. He is the Faithful One and they are faithful by coming to him. It seems that the faithfulness which God requires is that we be faithful to the One whom God has sent. And it is as if he himself is also the Promised Land! This is not the whole story, but at least this abundance that is in him is hard to miss. We are still, however, just gathering hints.
The gospel therefore is using the motif of feasting to tell us something. It is interesting then that the section begins, after its initial frame, with an entirely different kind of feast, the feast of King Herod on his birthday. This feast obviously stands in stark contrast to the feast that Jesus lays out in the verses that immediately follow. Jesus feeds the people with the staff of life (bread) and fish: “they all ate as much as they wanted” and there were twelve basketfuls of leftovers, symbolically (at least) a basket for each disciple (and one for each of the sons of Israel). In John’s gospel Jesus feeds us with himself. He is our satisfaction, as much as we want. (Perhaps we all want far too little!) In contrast, in the feast of King Herod the head of John the Baptist is served on a dinner dish. It is a cannibalistic feast (not literally, of course) in which the participants are “drunk, drunk with the blood of the saints, and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Revelation 17:6).
The disciples go out in 6:6b-13 and return in 6:30. That coming and going is another frame. It frames precisely this passage. Hearing now of Jesus, Herod is troubled saying, “It is John whose head I cut off; he is risen from the dead.” Mark then tells us the story of the beheading of John the Baptist, all within the frame of the disciples going out and returning. The two events might not have been simultaneous: John may have died before Jesus sent out the Twelve. However, in the narrative as it is told, they are. The story is told of this feast going on in which a prophet’s head is served on a dinner platter while the disciples are out sharing the good news of the Coming One’s arrival. The feast is the backdrop, implying that soon it will be their turn. Before the gospel ends Jesus is similarly killed. Pilate had him killed to make a demonstration of him, not because he perceived any real threat (the threat Pilate was dealing with was the unrest of the Passover crowds gathered in Jerusalem). It is anticlimactic; to Pilate (Rome) Jesus’ death was almost trivial, as the death of John the Baptist had been to Herod. But in both cases their deeds came around to bite them from behind. When Peter delivered this very gospel (conflating the gospels of Matthew and Luke together for the sake of those listening to him), it was at a time when Nero was hideously torturing and killing the believers as his scapegoat. Their refusal to participate in rites that honored the gods of family, city and empire made them a convenient target.
So the birthday feast is a backdrop. It coincides with the disciples’ evangelization of the countryside. It also corresponds as the antithesis to the feast of Jesus.
What does Herod’s feast then represent? Merely the unbeliever? No, for the disciples were dependent on the goodness of the not-yet-evangelized for their hospitality. Those who do not yet believe in Jesus are not the Herods of the world. Herod represents the rich and powerful, not the ordinary folk. But is Herod merely meant to evoke Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor? Rome after all was pagan; Herod was not. Indeed, if Jesus was the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne and therefore the “King of Israel,” Herod, like his father in Matthew 2, was the King of the Jews guarding jealously the throne of David for himself (though literally, it was the Roman governor who ruled; the arrangement at this time was no longer what it was when Herod the Great ruled Jerusalem). Herod Antipas did not rule in Jerusalem, I recognize that. But the Herodian Dynasty nevertheless represented kingship over the people of Israel, even if it was carefully monitored by the Empire.
It would be wrong, however, to equate this oppressive tyrant with “the Jews.” He was a usurper as his father was before him. Herod corresponds, perhaps, more closely with the powerful Jews in Jerusalem, the family of the high priest, the “Sanhedrin” (his cadre) and the aristocratic “chief priests,” who were ambitious people who used religion as a means of gaining security and improving their wealth. They were complicit with pagan Rome for they handed Jesus over to Pilate (probably at his request, for he supplied them with the police they used to arrest Jesus) to be executed.
Ambition has no place among those who serve God, for ambition blinds the soul to the inner movement of the Holy Spirit. Those whom God calls to be in the forefront of leadership do not want that role. Being an elder (1 Timothy 3:1) is different for they exercise their office by setting an example and by serving. Elders do not rule, and to call them “ruling elders” is misleading (as in the Presbyterian church; the excuse is that “ruling” does not mean what obviously comes to mind, and in practice is reinforced by the word, but only means “measuring” as when we call a measuring stick a “ruler”), for the unsuspecting assumes that it means that they do rule. In fact, however, the flock of God belongs strictly to God and elders merely shepherd it. It is “ruled” by the discernment of the Holy Spirit’s governance of the Body.
Ambition disqualifies one from apostolic work. Period.
The apostolic calling is a special calling, and God only calls those whom God has broken and crushed. Otherwise they are not qualified. Those whom God calls can only respond with fear and trembling, under protest (should this not be the real reason we are “Protest”-ants?). Indeed, the church often has to compel those whom God has called to accept God’s call, though sometimes the compulsion of the Spirit alone is enough. Even Paul, who was under such compulsion, waited until the church also heard the Spirit’s call for him.
All this may be beside the point. But is it? What if the church, or the “conference” or the denominational heads are overly concerned with their own perpetuation and cater to ambitious people who can help them achieve their ends through worldly means—not the power of the Spirit but rather by marketing research, “Robert’s Rules of Order” (meant to regulate conflict among the ambitious, but clearly a means for those skilled in its use to manipulate and control an argument), the modeling of their organizations on corporate structures in the world, and by misleading (telling half-truths or outright lies with the intent of bolstering oneself or one’s party, often at the expense of others). What if such a body begins to see finances as a means of control, and become servants of money, making decisions for the sake of financial gain rather than watching money as a dangerous servant who can easily seduce our hearts? When the survival of an organization is at risk, the powers of the world take over and the organization begins to conform itself more and more to the world. Organizations perpetuate themselves whether their original purpose is being served or not, and in doing so they often end up serving ends that are the opposite of their original purpose, using rationalizations to (attempt to) veil hypocrisy. Here is where we might find King Herod.
“Herod,” then, is particularly found among the ambitious in the church. They are blind to spiritual values and will sacrifice them without thought if their ambitions can be achieved. That which is spiritual is trivial, of no meaning or weight to them, and so can easily be discarded—beheaded if you will. As long as they move forward. What is the church any more, if that which is spiritual has no meaning or significance? Is not this the threat that this section of Mark really addresses?
For while Herod introduces this section, it is really about the blindness of the disciples. Jesus is who he is, but he is opposed in this section, implicitly by Herod who “eats” the prophets while entertaining himself in order to make an impression on others, but also by the Pharisees who “honor me only with lip-service while their hearts are far from me. Their reverence of me is worthless, the lessons they teach are nothing but human commandments,” who put aside the commandment of God to observe their own ideas. “How ingeniously you get round the commandment of God in order to preserve your own [ideas]”: “in this way you make God’s word ineffective for the sake of your own [ideas].” You have your own agenda, which is no longer the agenda of God. And in the meantime you declare inconvenient human beings “unclean”—sacrificing them on the altar of your ambitions in order to placate your own troubled consciences.
An ambitious person in the church, in their ascendancy, might tell one of the Lord’s workers that the people whom she serves are not important enough, not worth her time and effort. She might be told that she teaches them too much (even though their appetite for learning might grow in proportion to how much they learn). She might be told that she reads to them too much Scripture. She might be told that the hymns she selects are too old. (What could modern Christians possibly learn anything from their ancestors?) She might even be told that teaching doctrine (“the faith”) is irrelevant—why would she always be talking about the Trinity and the Incarnation and the Cross, for that matter? She might be told instead to just tell people what to do. (Meanwhile, true ethics—never having been given any grounding—can be ignored; “rules” are a far superior means of control.) The basis on which such a worker might hypothetically be criticized, the vision of ministry, for example, that might be held by the more ambitious, would hardly measure up to the sacrifices of our ancestors. It would, in fact, if it ever exists, be shameful in Christ’s church.
The disciples are still half-blind. What is their problem? It is clear: “You are thinking not as God thinks, but as human beings do” (8:33). What will open their eyes? Until they embrace the cross, applying the cross to themselves by renouncing themselves and their claims (their ambitions), and truly follow Jesus on the way to the cross, thus losing their own soul, they will remain blind. “What gain, then, is it for anyone to win the whole world and forfeit his soul?”
The opposite of the cross is King Herod, and in between are the Pharisees in their self-righteousness, always quick to claim credit for themselves, always letting you know how much they have done. They have their reward, Jesus says, because they desire only to impress their earthy observers.
If a person cannot distinguish between their own soul and their spirit, they are still far from the kingdom of God. As long as a person imagines that the ambitions of their soul, their ego, is the leading of the Spirit, they have not yet begun the journey of discipleship. Jesus took his disciples to the cross. Their leadership only began on the other side of it.