Sixth Sunday after Pentecost -- Proper 10B (7/12/2009)

Truth, Justice and Repentance

Lessons:     Amos 7:7-15     Psalm 85:8-13     Ephesians 1:3-14     St. Mark 6:14-29     Semicontinuous Series:         2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19         Psalm 24

Prayer of the Day:     O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

6:14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." 17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

St. Mark 6:14-29 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

We often speak of Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection -- in John 20:18, on that first Easter morning, she is reported to have met Jesus at the empty tomb, and then returned to the disciples, declaring to them: "I have seen the Lord!" Oddly enough, it is here in Mark 6 that Jesus and resurrection are first mentioned in the same breath.

Herod, of course, misunderstands it altogether. He has had a difficult relationship with John, the Baptizer. Through a serious of incestuous relationships, Herodias was the wife of Philip, and the daughter of Aristobulus (both half-brothers of Herod Antipas, and sons of Herod the Great). Philip was not a ruler like his father, but was living as a wealthy private citizen in Rome. When Herod Antipas (the ruler of Galilee) visited his brother Philip in Rome, he seduced his brother's wife, and persuaded her to marry him. John the Baptizer spoke out publicly against the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias, and although Herod seems mildly amused by John (see verse 20), Herodias developed a great hate for him. At a state banquet in honor of Herod, Herodias manipulates the king and causes John to be put to death.

The curious aspect of this story is that after Jesus sends his followers out, two-by-two, to minister in the villages and towns that surround Nazareth, Herod becomes aware of what is happening. His first instinct is to think of resurrection. He fears that John, whom Herod beheaded at his wife's request, has returned in the person of Jesus, and is powerfully moving about his kingdom. It makes no sense, of course, since John and Jesus are the same age, but Herod's thinking isn't always bound by the need to make sense.

Herod is wrong, of course, about the bodily resurrection of John, the Baptizer. But in another sense, Herod is right. As Jesus' disciples experience remarkable success in ministry, casting out many demons, and anointing with oil many who were sick and curing them (Mark 6:13), the mantle has been passed. In Jesus and his disciples, the ministry and spirit of John has found its resurrection, and his commitment to truth and justice and repentance continues on.

We think of Jesus as the incarnate expression of God's love, and the instrument of our salvation. In him, we experience the fullness of God's grace, and for that we are eternally grateful. But a careful reading of the Scriptures reveals that Jesus is also, like John, a tireless worker for truth and justice and repentance. Also like John, Jesus realizes (and comes to experience) that a commitment to truth and justice and repentance can raise an angry and sometimes violent response from those whose actions are being called into question.

We live in a world that is permeated by injustice. We live in a world where some of us have more than we could ever hope to eat, while others of us cannot find enough food to keep our children healthy. We live in a world where some of us are free to do just about anything we want, while others of us live under the thumbs of brutal and unscrupulous dictators. We live in a world where some of us receive the best medical attention that has ever been available in history, while others of us want for the most basic medical care. We live in a world where some of us have unlimited opportunities for success and prosperity, while others of us are bound by the chains of poverty and oppression.

In this week's Gospel lesson, we are reminded of how central the concern for truth and justice and repentance is to the ministries of John and Jesus. When we ourselves are agents of injustice, Jesus and John speak the truth and call us to repentance. At times, we may be tempted to be as resistant (if not as violent) to that call as Herod, yet faithfulness demands that we open our hearts, examine our lives, and join our Lord in working to see that all of God's children are well. When we become aware of the unjust behaviors of others, Jesus and John call us to join them in speaking the truth, and calling for justice, no matter what price we might have to pay.

This sobering reminder of John the Baptizer's fate enters into Mark's Gospel just as the ministry of Jesus is beginning to thrive, through the efforts of his disciples. It is a reminder to us all that faithfulness often comes with a price. A Jesuit activist in the 60s and 70s once wisely said, "If you want to be a follower of Jesus, you better first decide whether or not you look good on wood."

May we be open to the challenging words of Jesus that address our own need for repentance. And may we be bold and courageous in "speaking words of truth in love" to others.

Exploring This Week's Gospel:

  1. What truth did John the Baptizer speak to King Herod?
  2. How did Herod (or more pointedly, Herod's wife) respond to John?
  3. What must the early church have learned from John's faithfulness and courage?

Connecting with This Week's Gospel:

  1. When have I been resistant to a word of criticism that came my way?
  2. What injustice am I aware of in this world, that God is calling me to address?
  3. What concrete steps am I willing to take, in the effort to oppose injustice?