Off With His Head

Painting of Salome by Titian

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 6:14-29

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Off With His Head

I’ve never seen a single verse from this passage on a T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet.

It is such a strange story. For one thing, it’s a sandwich. That’s what brilliant theologians and expositors call a passage where Mark sticks one thing in the middle of something else.

Painting of Salome by Titian
“Salome” by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), c. 1515. Held at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.

In the middle of this story about some disciples going out and preaching on their own, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is ironic, since preaching is precisely what got John the Baptist in trouble—he had been opening his mouth and telling the people who would listen everything that he thought they ought to hear. Unfortunately for John, one of the things he preached was that people in positions of power ought not to behave like King Herod.

Speaking the truth to power is generally not welcomed by the ones with the power. It’s like that all the way up: parents, teachers, bosses, politicians and kings. Just because what you have to say may be true is no reason to expect that they will want to hear it.

It’s the job of faithful people to tell it anyway, even if the hearers want to chop off some heads, even if it lands us in a Birmingham jail.

Stories like this one stick with you. We’ve been telling them to each other ever since Og and his clan started watching firelight on cave walls. We still do it. That’s the real reason flat screen TVs are more popular than the old versions–a flat screen hanging on the living room wall matches our deep ancestral memories of listening to stories in the cave, painting the walls by firelight. Technology has just brought us back to where we started. And stories carry more truth than rules ever could.

The story of John the Baptist sounds like Southern gothic writing, like something from The Sound and the Fury or Deliverance. A lecherous half-drunk king, a beautiful half witted girl, a witch of a mother—how’d you like to have a mother like this one?—and a bearded wild man prophet with his head on a dinner plate. We’re inclined to believe every word of it, not because it is in the Bible but because who would make up all that?

There’s much we can learn.

We need to be careful of our promises, for one thing. Jesus warned people not to swear to things without thinking. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

Herod made an oath, in front of everyone, promising his daughter—her name may have been Herodias or it may have been Salome—anything she wanted. He did not foresee the consequences. Not that killing one more person gave Herod any qualms, but he liked listening to John, which is dead odd, since it was Herod listening to John that had gotten John imprisoned in the first place.

Painting of Salome by Caravaggio
“Salome” by Caravaggio, c. 1607, National Gallery in London

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The slightly smaller fish in the pond were all gathered around watching, and Herod did not want to look like the sort of man who would go back on his word.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Everybody in the room had seen Herod do worse than refuse to kill an innocent man. Nevertheless, he kills John—though he had someone else swing the sword—to maintain appearances and for the sake of pride.

And it didn’t work, did it? Once they brought John’s head up from the prison, like a gruesome entree on a serving platter, nobody thought better of Herod for it.

Even that bunch of court sycophants knew Herod better than that. They weren’t blind.

Maybe I should make a little confession here. You see, I often do things (no head chopping) just for the sake of pride or to keep up what I think is an appearance. Monty Python said it right. I’m not fooling anybody.

Let’s think about the girl’s mother, Herod’s wife. Herodias. Now there’s a piece of work. She really does sound like the evil witch in a fairy tale, doesn’t she? The girl comes, breathless, to her mother, who is not at the party—perhaps it was a men only affair—saying, “What shall I ask for?”

The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. Hold the body.

She reaches down and asks for the worst thing that her self-absorbed, arrogant, revenge seeking mind can think of. We despise her.

Worse, we understand her.

Don’t we?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we have to pick the character in this little play that is most like ourselves, who is it? The pretty dancing girl? Maybe. We’ve all done stupid things and been proud of them at the time.

How about the king? Herod himself? Not many of us really want to identify with him. We know too much about him to be sympathetic.

John the Baptist? That is a possibility. We’ve all lost our heads at one time or another, with the difference being that most of us put our own heads on plates and walked off without them. Some of us have been imprisoned, either physically or more likely in other more subtle ways. Some of us know what it is like to have other people begrudge our existence, sometimes for very wrong reasons. Some of us might identify with the prophet.

Most of us are not so honest as John the Baptist, not so brave. We’re not sure that we are speaking for God—that thought gives us pause. It should give any decent person pause.

How about the wicked, evil, horrible, no-good, witch of a queen? Well, if this were an actual play, that would be the fun part, wouldn’t it? To really let loose and be the dark hearted self-serving vengeful creature that this woman became? Now that would be entertainment.

We love the stories with evil witch queens, and we love them for a lot of reasons. One that we need to think about is this—we know that she is just doing what we’d love to do, what we might do, if we weren’t afraid or if we had the power. Oh, we might not go killing folk, not at first, but imagine getting anything you want.

The reason we hold onto stories like this one, with John the Baptist losing his head, dying in a cause he could not have fully understood but for which he was willing to give his life, and other stories like it, real and imagined, is for the truth that is in them.

G K Chesterton said this about fairy tales:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

Neil Gaiman summarized the idea this way:
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” He went on to describe the power of great stories to “…furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” (Here’s a link to a wonderful article on a website called BrainPickings.org — Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last.)

We hold onto the fairy tales with the wicked witches and evil kings and trolls and dragons not because they are factual, but because they are true. In much the same way, we do not tell the stories of the Garden of Eden and of the prophet Elijah and of John the Baptist because of factual content. Such facts are only for people who want to distract themselves from the truth. There is a difference.

John the Baptist was executed by Herod. That is the simple fact of the matter. We are still telling this story because John the Baptist dead had more to offer than Herod alive. That is the truth.

Now imagine that you are sitting wherever the evil queen was sitting, and the girl comes to you.

“I can get anything, anything at all,” she says, only now she sounds just the tiniest bit like a beautiful snake in a story about a garden.

“Anything,” she whispers. “And I won’t tell anyone that it was your idea. What shall I ask for?”

What do we tell her? More to the point, what do we want to tell her? It is the sort of test that helps us figure out who we are, uncovers what we hide from ourselves. What would we ask for? What do we want?

What would we see on our platter?

Know thyself, the Greeks said. The unexamined life is not worth living. More than 400 years after Socrates, Jesus gave us something of the same idea. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

By our answers, we shall know ourselves.

This is the real hero’s quest, to find the secrets we keep from ourselves. In stories, the girl or boy, our hero, goes off to find a treasure or to slay a dragon, but that is usually only in stories. The true heroes are you and I, which is why we love these tales. The real quest takes us inside our own hearts, to see whether there is any treasure after all, or to slay the dragon we find hiding there.

We get one life, one wish, one story. What happens next?

No Explanations

Third Sunday in Lent  |  John 2:13-22

Lectionary Project

We explain too much. That’s one of the best ways to ruin a good story.

Maybe that is why so many people turn away from faith. They are sick of the explanations and admonitions, the rules of religion. Who can blame them?

They want a story that helps them imagine their world. They are looking for something true and meaningful as only a story can be.

The four Gospels do not offer much explanation. Instead, they tell the story of this man Jesus. Even the teaching passages are held as a narrative, and much of what Jesus says is itself in story form, parables throwing the truth alongside the audience.

Baby GoatWe are hardwired for story. So long as there have been humans, we have told stories. There have also always been folk who tried to turn the stories into rules, but it was the stories that lasted.

Storytellers are always more powerful than rule makers.

With that in mind, I don’t wish to try to explain the story of Jesus clearing the animal merchants and the coin exchangers from the temple. That the story is important is clear from the fact that the Gospels place the event at such differing points—Mark, Matthew and Luke place it at the end of Jesus’ career, contributing to his arrest and crucifixion, while John places the event close to the beginning of Jesus’ public life, a pivotal point of departure. Despite such clear ambivalence among the four as to the significance of what Jesus does, all four Gospels tell the story at length. All four Gospels point out Jesus’ passion, intensity and anger. None of them offer much explanation.

Taking their lead, let’s trust in the power of story. Sometimes, simply hearing a story told in a different way is enough to help us find something new. That being said, here is a retelling of this story from the Gospel—an excerpt from my novel I,John, narrated by John himself. I hope you enjoy it.


 

The Temple was magnificent. It was huge to my eyes, with enormous walls and smooth paved courtyards. So many stones, so much space. Then there were the uniforms of the guards, the robes of the priests, the movement of people and of animals. Our synagogue was one thing, but this was a dwelling place of the almighty God, and I had carried a sense of awe about the Temple ever since I was a small child.

I was a fisherman’s son, and entering the Temple made me feel a little light headed, with that odd sensation of watching one’s self from above one’s own body. It was unsettling, but we were with Jesus after all. What better way to visit the Temple?

Jesus was too quiet this time. After we walked inside the walls to the first great court, Jesus stopped and stood still for what seemed to be hours. He was looking at the tables for the doves, the stands with the livestock for sacrifices, tables where people exchanged foreign coins for proper ones. I remember as a child hearing my father and others say to one another that there was more money made in the court of the Temple than a fisherman would see in a lifetime. Peter was standing beside Jesus, that great hairy head turning from side to side as though he, too, were taking stock. The difference was that Peter was smiling. He still believed that we were simply here as part of our observance of Passover. I, on the other hand, had already seen enough of Jesus’ face to know that we were in for something different.

Jesus walked nearer the animals and picked up a length of rope that was left near a stall. He began looping it back and forth, making a whip. Peter was walking with him, nodding his enormous head at people and holding up a hand in greeting, as though these people had some interest in talking to any of us. Then Jesus just walked over to the first stall of livestock and threw down the wooden bar closing in the sheep. Seeing it, I couldn’t move. Peter looked around at the sound of the wood on the stone floor and took a step toward Jesus.

“Here, master, let me get that,” he said. He didn’t know Jesus had thrown it down purposefully.

Jesus didn’t say a word, just headed to the next stall full of oxen. When the stallGoats 2 017 keeper tried to stop him, Jesus began beating the man with the cords, driving him out of the way. The man fell back to the stones, astonished, but no more so than we. Jesus again threw the wooden beam aside that held back the animals and began driving them toward the gate.

The next few minutes were filled with shouting, animals bleating and lowing, dust rising up from the paving stones, pandemonium. Then Jesus walked straight to a table where moneychangers sat with their piles and bags of coins. I still had not moved from where I stood, horrified at the disturbance Jesus was causing, unable to believe what he was doing. The disturbing light-headedness was growing stronger, so that I stood still in the middle of the swirl of animals and men, the sounds of language that should not be heard in the temple, Jesus flailing with the rope and beating anyone who approached him. I was sure I would faint, and I may have blacked out for a moment, for suddenly there was the sound of coins striking the stones, a great cacophony of coins, curses shouted by the merchants, priests yelling for calm. I looked across the open way to see the Roman soldiers in a watchtower from which they could look down over the temple walls at the commotion.

Angry priests, angry merchants, Jesus beating people with the rope, and the Romans were watching. It was a scene difficult to improve upon, though the terrified animals dashing through the crowds managed as they found open gateways and made their escape into the streets around the Temple grounds. I could hear people shouting from beyond the Temple walls now. Looking behind us at the gate, I considered leaving quietly, unnoticed, but I could not leave Jesus, my brother, the others. James was standing with his mouth open, as unmoving as I except for the twitching of his hands and his eyes following Jesus’ movements.

That’s when I heard Jesus yelling about his father’s house and thieves. I had never seen him angry before this, and it was impressive. The priests were yielding, some even looked embarrassed, though most of them were angry, outraged. Meanwhile, the merchants were either chasing the livestock down the adjoining streets or on their knees gathering coins, all too busy to enter a dialogue with Jesus about his motives.

I thought they would kill us all. They would arrest us, beat us, and maybe even crucify us for all I knew. What was the punishment for disrupting the temple? I did not know. The last man who had done it had used an army, had destroyed the city before hauling slaves away into Babylon. We had no army. The Temple had guards, though, and there were the Romans who did not enjoy disturbances. At the least they would throw us into prison. I thought of my father, of word reaching him that his sons were in a Roman prison.

No one tried to arrest us. I kept watching the faces around us, waiting to see who would think of it. Surely the idea would occur to someone very soon.

Finally, Jesus threw the rope back into the empty oxen stall and walked out of the temple grounds. I was glad to follow. As we walked, Jesus a few steps ahead of the rest of us, we kept looking back to see whether we were being chased by the merchants and ahead to see if the Romans were coming to arrest us. Neither happened.

It was a miracle.

Goats wide 018

God Doesn’t Talk to Me

God doesn’t talk to me. At least, not in ways that are distinguishable from the voices of conscience, or reason, or empathy, or indignation, or anger, or love.

So do I believe in God?

I think sometimes that I have lost my faith and that I would be happier, that my inner dialogue would be simpler, if I eschewed the supernatural in favor of the natural, if I dropped faith in God and embraced a life approach centered in reason and the scientific method.

SurfAnd then I find myself talking to God. Praying. Having one sided conversations. Short whispered statements. Expletives. The sorts of things that one is presumably not supposed to say to God. If there is a God. Still, so long as I keep talking, praying, whispering, muttering to God, I must suppose that I have faith, that I am conversing with someone other than me. Suddenly, faith appears much more like mental illness than I am comfortable contemplating, but there it is.

Faith. Science. Mental illness.

When I hear about evolution and biology and the meditations of astrophysicists (and listening to Stephen Hawking describe black holes is pretty close to a spiritual exercise,) I embrace all of it. It is wonderful. It is inspiring. It makes perfect sense. And it still falls short somehow.Running on Beach

Let me explain. Take the story of Noah and the ark, or the two creation stories that open the book of Genesis. Do I believe these stories literally? Of course not. These stories are myths, in the very best sense of the word: stories that are imbued with truth about our lives. A story need not be true to convey truth. The creation cycle of Genesis? Everything came to be, all at once and then over time, evolving more or less in the same order that scientific theories have conjectured, an interesting thing in itself. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden? That story captures the moment when humanity became human: self aware, understanding the consequence of choice, realizing the mantle of moral responsibility for the world around us, a responsibility we carry simply by weight of being in the world. We learned that we would work and we would have children, and sometimes both would be hard and painful, but we would do these things anyway because our work and our children are what we leave behind us when we are gone. Our work and our children mark our passage, our having been here. They make our lives worthwhile.

MalachiSo do I believe the Bible? Yes. Clearly not in the same way that many people choose to understand it, but yes.

When I look at the world and listen to the science that explains it, I still feel that there is something overlooked, something unexplained, something missing. Science can explain to me how my dog came to exist, with his size and features and inclination to co-exist with me. Science does not explain why I love him, or why he loves me. Yes, I say that I love him, and it remains a matter of observation and of faith or self-delusion that he loves me. Still, at the end of our science, there is something else that makes us what we are. Each of us. All of us. Everything that is.

There is a gap between our knowledge and our universe. Right now, I fill that gap with faith. It is the God-gap, the missing spark that changes biology into living, chemistry into love. One day, our science may grow to the point that there is no gap, no way to distinguish what once were matters of faith and matters of empirical truth. On that day, I suspect that we will find that faith and science will have come full circle so that there is no difference between the purview of the one and the findings of the other.

Meanwhile, I am still talking to God. And no, God still does not talk back. That may make me a fool, or delusional, or it may make me a person of faith. It may simply make me human. Whatever it makes me, I will take it, and I will still look for that spark that separates being alive from merely living.

Sparks

Keep Calm and Carry On, said Jeremiah

Jeremiah 29:1-7

In 1939, the British Ministry of Information produced a series of motivational posters to raise the moral of the British citizens in the face of war. By most accounts, the posters were not widely seen or well received at the time.

In 2000, the owners of Barter Books in Northumberland (you can find them here: http://www.barterbooks.co.uk ) were sorting through a box of books they had bought at auction when they found one of the original posters. The poster simply read, “Keep Calm and Carry On”. They liked it so much they framed it and displayed it in the shop.

Keep Calm and Carry On
Keep Calm and Carry On

(If the image doesn’t render correctly here, you can find it on the shop’s website at http://www.keepcalmhome.com)

In the sixth century BC, the prophet Jeremiah sent a copy of this poster to the Judeans who were taken away in exile to Babylon. No, really. It says so, right there in Jeremiah 29, verses 1 – 7.

Ok, the Hebrew version is a little bit longer. “Build houses and live in them; plant gardens….” Still. You can almost picture a Hebrew version of the Keep Calm poster on a wall in ancient Babylon, can’t you?

The Lord is sending word to these people and saying, in effect, this is as good as it is going to get for the duration. Make the best of it. Live your lives where you are, because you certainly can’t live them where you aren’t, and you aren’t going anywhere.

Oh, and take a peek ahead at verses 8 – 9. Those people who are telling you it is going to get better soon? Yeah, they just made that up.

Sometimes we are where we are. These are the words of wisdom from the Exile experience.

Yes, I have babbled about this subject any number of times – the meaning of the Exile experience. Nevertheless, we are inundated with the other Old Testament theme of Exodus: Moses leading the people out of a foreign land and into the promised land. The Exodus theme has been embraced so thoroughly that it infuses our modern western experience and viewpoints.

The second coming of Christ is an expression of the Exodus hope. The story of America is written in the language of the promised land. And it is even more pervasive than that. Take our nursery rhymes and children’s stories. Cinderella goes to the castle. Snow White wakes up. Hansel and Gretel get away. In Finding Nemo, they do find Nemo. (People seldom read The Little Match Girl, and those who do read it often regret it, but even she ends up in heaven.) Humpty Dumpty may be the only one who is pretty much left in a heap.

Given how pervasive, how American, the Exodus story of deliverance has become, it serves a good purpose to harp on the opposite theme a bit. The Exile experience is more depressing, less American. We want to believe that everything can be fixed, that problems exist to be solved.

Jeremiah is telling us that it ain’t so. Sometimes we have problems we can’t fix. Moses isn’t coming to show us the way out. Sometimes we are simply there for the duration, and we have to make our peace with it.

Yes, it may be un-American, but it is biblical. And it is true. And sometimes hearing the truth, even when we don’t like it, is more helpful than a cheerful lie.

Don’t get me wrong – an occasional cheerful lie may be a very good thing. No, you certainly do not look fat comes to mind, or no, I did not vote for that person or that rule or support that idea, why would I do a thing like that? There are times we might do well to ponder that Abraham, that father of nations, was a consummate liar. If you don’t believe me, read Genesis. No, I’m not going to tell you which part, just start at the beginning, do you good. And one caveat here on the idea of making our peace with where we are – if you are being held hostage by a lunatic, do not make your peace with it. Instead make your way to the exit or to the nearest blunt object.

Nevertheless, sometimes we need to make our peace where we are. You are the only person who really knows whether that has any application in your life. If it does, you get to choose. I think that is what God is telling us. Choose to wring your hands, or plant a garden. Build resentment, or build houses. Lament the past, or build a future.

Let me offer one last un-American thing, if it is un-American. Jeremiah talks about children, and family, and future generations. Being translated, we might say that this life of faith is not about us, or not just about us, anyway. A life of faith does not happen alone. A life of faith happens in community – even a monk praying in a cell is only there because of the faithful community before him and around him, and his prayers, if they are true and good ones, are as much about the people who will follow after as about his own solitary pilgrimage.

So look to the future with hope and faith and expectation. Meanwhile, look around where you are with the same view. Build houses. Plant gardens and eat well, as well as you can. Raise children to have hope and plans, but don’t forget to teach them to enjoy where they are. Seek the welfare of the community around you, and the community to come after you.

Keep calm and carry on.