PROPER 10 – 7TH PENTECOST — 15 July 2012
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00
Trinity, Iowa City – 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00
[Track One] 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19 | Psalm 24 | Ephesians 1:3-14 | Mark 6:14-29
One of the nice things about being retired is that when I want to I can just sit and watch stuff on television. (I do have to find a way to tune out the little voice in the back of my head that is saying “Vacuum cleaner?” “Supper?”) One of the things that I have been watching lately is a mini-series that was originally on Showtime (we don’t subscribe to Showtime, I got this through another online source). The series is called “The Tudors,” which is a dramatization of the life and reign of King Henry VIII of England. It is sometimes historically accurate. And sometimes not. But it’s all good fun – lots of sex and violence and corruption (that much is accurate!), and as Anglicans it is good for our humility to be reminded of our tawdry origins. So far I’m up to the episodes in which Henry renounces papal authority, sends Katherine of Aragon off to the countryside, and marries Anne Boleyn. Thomas Cranmer has now shown up. He’s depicted as kind of a wimp. (That part’s not historically accurate, I suspect!) Thomas Tallis has also shown up in Henry’s court, probably a year or two early. A musical genius, but we already knew that. It’s not entirely clear in the series how any of these people had time to run a kingdom; but never mind.
So, speaking of sex and violence and corruption in the courts of power, in the Gospel today we hear the story of the execution of John the Baptist.
It’s not entirely clear why St. Mark tells this story (which Matthew copies and abridges). The beginning of Mark’s Gospel itself, with the appearance of John the Baptist in the wilderness, is really a lead up to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of whom Mark sees John as the forerunner. Today’s story, after the opening transition, is apparently simply about John, not directly about Jesus, the only story in Mark that isn’t.
We start with Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (you recall he was a son of King Herod the Great of Judaea), hearing about what Jesus and his followers were doing, and wondering if John the Baptist had come back to life. It’s not clear how we should take that. Herod Antipas wasn’t very religious except when it was politically expedient, and it’s questionable that he would have seriously believed that anyone could come back from the dead. (Of course, Pharisaic Judaism believed in the resurrection, but only at the end of the age, not before then – that’s why the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus upset the Pharisees so badly.) But on the other hand, Herod Antipas may well have been very superstitious, as not-very-religious folks often are, and therefore might believe almost anything. But perhaps Antipas just meant, “Rats! Is this Jesus fellow going to turn out to be yet another John the Baptist? Am I going to have to kill him too?” So that may be the subtext here.
Anyway, Mark then tells the story of John’s execution at Antipas’ orders. We also have a version of this story from an outside source: the first-century Jewish historian Josephus tells us that Antipas was afraid that John’s vigorous preaching and strong following among the people might lead to a popular uprising, and so he arrested John and put him to death, for political reasons. [Antiquities 18.5.2] Josephus doesn’t mention the daughter of Herodias dancing for her stepfather/slash/uncle at his birthday party. The girl’s name, of course, was Salome, but we know that from Josephus, not from the gospels. And I don’t think anyone says anything about the seven veils until the play Salome by Oscar Wilde (who else?!), which then was the basis for the opera by Richard Strauss, which is not an opera to which you would want to take the kids, and not just because of the seven veils part.
But this story is not just about people being naughty, and persecuting God’s prophet. It’s a political story, and I think that’s why Mark tells it as part of his very political Gospel (in case you hadn’t noticed). Here’s the back-story, which Mark and his community knew very well; after all, they had lived through it: Herod Antipas had married the princess Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabataea. Nabataea was a very powerful kingdom to the east and southeast of Judaea. (Its capital city was Petra, which is now a major archaeological tourist site in Jordan.) So the marriage of Antipas and Phasaelis was a political alliance, and there was probably nothing romantic about it! Well, Antipas got tired of his Nabataean princess and dumped her so he could marry Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Herod Philip. Upper-class Romans did this kind of wife swapping thing all the time, but the Jews didn’t, and so they, evidently including John the Baptist, added this to their long list of grievances against Antipas. And when the rejected princess Phasaelis came running home, her father King Aretas got very very mad and declared war against Antipas. (Which Aretas won, inflicting major casualties on Antipas’ army.) Josephus tells us that many Jews thought that the military defeat of Antipas’ army by Aretas was God’s punishment for the execution of John the Baptist.
Hmm. Divorcing your first princess bride in order to marry your girlfriend. Where have we heard that before? No wonder I started out by talking about the TV series “The Tudors”! Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except in Henry’s case, it was the first bride who had been his brother’s wife.
Did you note that at Herod Antipas’ birthday party, the guests were “his courtiers and officers and … the leaders of Galilee”? That is, the political establishment. Ched Myers notes, “Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.” [Binding the Strong Man, page 216]
Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme chose. Oops.
I said this was a political story, told in the context of a political Gospel. That idea may ruffle our feathers, accustomed as we are to the notion of never mixing politics and religion. Which just demonstrates that we don’t really understand either politics or religion. We usually think of “politics” in a very narrow, partisan sense. We’re spoiled because in our democratic republic, our political life is actually fairly civilized. Even this year, believe it or not! At least compared to politics elsewhere in the world and in world history. But “politics” is about the ordering of the common life of the polis, the city, the state, the community. It’s about how we live together as human beings in justice and peace. But the more “politics” becomes about power and domination, the more it has become corrupt.
And so, yes, the Gospel, the Good News, of the Kingdom of God is about politics. It’s about how we love the Lord our God, and our neighbor as ourselves. The Kingdom of God is not about life in the sweet by and by, at least not initially, and Jesus practically never talks about that kind of stuff. Jesus talks about how we are to live with each other now, in this world, in justice and peace and love. This entails confronting the kingdoms of this world, for which the bottom line is power. But the Kingdom of God does not come through forcibly overthrowing the kingdoms of this world, but by subverting them with love and justice. But this is a hard road. It led John the Baptist to Herod’s dungeon. It led Jesus to a Roman cross. Where should it be leading us?