Game of Thrones has nothing on Mark's gospel. Devious plots, fire breathing dragons, patricide, overthrowing kingdoms, unhealthy parent child relationships. I know you all have thought lo these many years that your priest has an odd taste in literature, fantasy and science fiction being her favorite. But today I am vindicated, I get it all from reading scripture.
My goodness, just imagine this scene before us that is recorded in Mark. This information is from my friend Lindsay Hardin Freeman, who wrote a book called Bible Women: All their words and why they matter. Herodias is married to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. Herodias has been cradled in malevolence since her early days, as it was her grandfather, Herod Agrippa the 1st, who ordered the slaughter of the Holy Innocents after Jesus was born.
Herodias' daughter is Salome, thus Herod Antipas is Salome's stepfather. Her biological father is Herod Philip, Herodias' uncle and first husband. Enter John the Baptist, criticizing Herod loudly and publicly for his adulterous and incestuous ways. So incensed is Herodias by John's shaming of Herod, and of her, that she wants John dead, as soon as possible. When a birthday party is thrown by Herod to celebrate his birthday, the perfect opportunity arises.
There was probably much wine available. And a love a dance, it seems. Salome so mesmerizes Herod as she dances for his guests that he promises to give the girl anything she desires. Salome runs to Mama, asking her opinion. Get the head of John the Baptist, hisses Herodias. So Salome runs back to her stepfather, demanding the head of John the Baptist on a platter. And off came John's head.
What I value so much about really good storytelling is that the story is compelling, that the characters are developed and move the story through the plot. A good story has to have rich texture, conflict that is rudimental to the characters themselves, a quest to overcome and integrate that conflict, and for me, the story has to have redemption.
So how do we understand this part of Mark's story? Violence for violence sake? They didn't have TV when Mark's story was first told, so probably not. Remember, Mark's story gets down to business from the get go. Mark wastes no time in telling us that an event has taken place that radically changes the way we look at and experience the world. The good news in Mark is that God is here right now, and on our side, actively seeking to help us in the way we most need help. Mark is in a hurry to tell us that the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus reveals the truth of God to us, so we can live in reality and not illusion. Mark doesn't want us to waste a minute of these precious lives of ours ignorant of this most practical of all matters, that God is passionate to save us.
In that light, what is Mark trying to do with this nasty story? It's not just gratuitous violence. This story is in the midst of a series of portrayals of Jesus, Mark is about the business of telling us who Jesus is. Jesus is God's son people, and this is what it looks like. God's kingdom is dawning and this is what it looks like. It looks like a leper who is healed. It looks like a man who couldn't walk, getting up and going home. It looks like hungry people getting fed. It looks like a Jesus movement in which Jesus' followers are sent out into the world to reflect the light that is so lovely that people want with all their hearts to know the source of it.
And this particular piece of the story shows us what God's kingdom does not look like. Herod’s Kingdom – the kingdom of the world and, for that matter, Game of Thrones and all the other dramas we watch because they mirror and amplify the values of our world – is dominated by the will to power, the will to gain influence over others. This is the world where competition, fear and envy are the coins of the realm, the world of not just late night dramas and reality television but also the evening news, where we have paraded before us the triumphs and tragedies of the day as if they are simply givens, as if there is no other way of being in the world and relating to each other.
This is not God's kingdom. God's kingdom is all the other story that Mark tells. Jesus sends his disciples out in utter vulnerability, dependent on the hospitality and grace of others, to bring healing and mercy with no expectation of reward or return. God's kingdom is a banquet of mercy, so markedly in contrast to the birthday bash Herod throws himself that it's almost stunning. Rather than the rich and shameless, it’s the poor and outcast that flock to Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Rather than political intrigue and power plays dominating the day, it’s blessing and surprising abundance that characterize this meal.
Two kingdoms. The kingdom of illusion, fantasy, power, and the kingdom of reality, in which the last will be first and the first will be last. Easy choice isn't it? The only thing that is clear, is that this is a muddy, messy life. When we are faced with the nuanced choices that our lives demand, what to do is rarely clear. You may laugh at that, we laugh when we hear, "off with his head", and yet, we have seen that very atrocity displayed in our living rooms. Nothing is easy or clear when it comes to the sacredness of human life, nothing is easy or clear when it come to treating each creation of God as a blessing, nothing is easy or clear when it comes to equal access to health care, or education. Nothing is easy or clear when systemic racism is laughed off with "get over it".
But, we are followers of Jesus, we are the Jesus movement today. Every decision we make, every crossroad we come to, needs to approached with mercy, compassion, and love. Every person we encounter is God's beloved, you are God's beloved. What looks like loss in the kingdom of illusion is just that, an illusion. Jesus revealed power as illusion on the cross and embraced us with the reality that you, and me, and even Herod, are worth God's love and grace.
Reality is messy. Love wins.