The Rev’d Matthew David Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Proper 10, Year B
July 12th, 2015
“And the king was deeply grieved because of his oaths and because of those at table.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.
Always, always, always think twice before accepting an invitation to one of Herod’s birthday parties. Incest, unjust imprisonment, murder, seductive dancing, potential pedophilia, deception, backstabbing, conniving, severed heads, rivalry, hatred, peer-pressure, crooked politics—our Gospel story has it all. Noticeably missing from the Gospel, however, is Jesus. In the Gospel of Mark, from the moment Jesus steps on the stage to the moment of his death and burial (there is no resurrection account in Mark), today’s story is the only one in which Jesus doesn’t play a role. But is Jesus really absent?
The answer (surprise, surprise from a priest) is no. The placement in the Gospel of Herod beheading John the Baptist invites comparison to two other events in the Gospel, both of which show how Jesus, like God in the whole book of Esther, is both never mentioned and everywhere present.
To illustrate the first comparison, let me ask: By show of hands, who here has ever had a sandwich? Two of you? Well for the rest of you, allow me to explain. You take a piece of bread and slice it in the middle and stuff something else in between, so that you have bread on top, something else in the middle and then bread again on the bottom. Mark is known for sandwiching stories together: taking one story, slicing it in the middle, and inserting something else, so that you have the start of one story, then a whole other story inserted, and then the end of the first story. John’s beheading is, in this analogy, the meat placed in the bread of the sandwich, and the story it is placed in between is Jesus commissioning and sending the disciples to heal and preach. Right before the story of John’s beheading, the disciples are sent, right after they come back to tell Jesus everything they had said and done.
Why sandwich these two stories together? The death of John the Baptist foreshadows the death of Jesus and by sandwiching this story with a story of Jesus sending disciples to heal and teach yokes together discipleship and death, mission and martyrdom. The call to follow Jesus is a call to walk the way of the cross and find that the way of the cross is in fact none other than the way of life. It is in dying that we live, in giving that we receive, and in forgiving that we are forgiven.
Second, verse 26 says the king was deeply grieved. Now Herod was not a king. He would have loved to have been king. He rode all the way to Rome to ask to be king. But, much to his chagrin, he was a mere tetrarch. So why does Mark call him the king? Not sure but it does invite comparison to another king in Mark. King Herod was grieved. Jesus was also grieved. In Mark 14:34, Jesus tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, “I am deeply grieved, even unto death.” Perhaps both grieved kings should be set in the background of another grieved king: the Psalmist. “Why are you so heavy, so deeply grieved, o my soul? And why are thou so disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God, for I will yet give him thanks, who is the help of my countenance and my God.”
The difference between the causes of grief of King Herod and Jesus gets us to the very heart of the gospel. King Herod is grieved because he doesn’t want to kill John the Baptist. He derives both confusion and joy from hearing him speak. He knows he is a righteous and holy man. But, because his daughter, probably between nine and nineteen years old, danced a dance that turned him on and turned on his buddies, he had made a promise to pay her whatever she asked (and she asked for John’s head on a platter!). He was grieved because in order not to break his promise and in order to save face, he had to take the life of a good and holy man.
Jesus was also a king deeply grieved because of his oaths and because of those who had reclined at table with him. He had shared a holy meal with his disciples and made promises. Yet the cause of Jesus’ grief is the exact inverse of Herod’s. Oaths, friends, social pressure, unjust death, and shame are all in play, but the configuration is totally different. While Herod’s grief came from a desire to save face and led him to kill someone he respected, Jesus’ grief comes from a desire to save others and led him to lay down his own life. Herod’s led him to take life. Jesus’ led him to give life. Herod’s from self-love. Jesus’s from love of God and others. Herod’s from cowardice. Jesus’ from courage. Faced with a world of violence, Herod, haunted by his own cowardice, passed violence along to other. Faced with a world of violence, Jesus allowed violence to do its worst to him and thereby extinguished it of its power. In Jesus, courage and love meet with a kiss. Jesus fulfills the words of our Psalm today, “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.”
The Christian life demands courage and love. The king was deeply grieved because of his oaths and because of those reclining at table with him. Jesus made oaths at the last supper. At the Eucharist, we find God and find strength, courage, and love.
So is Jesus really absent? Is he ever really absent? Well, I suppose, if he is absent, it is the kind of absence that haunts those who work evil and comforts those who weep on account of his name.