Scripture: Mark 6:13-29
Key verse: (20) “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.”
Reflection: Today’s reading is a flashback in Mark’s gospel. Word about Jesus has reached King Herod’s throne room, and he is convinced that John the Baptist is back from the dead to haunt him. Then Mark tells us about the circumstances that led to John’s execution at the hands of Herod. It’s a strange, sad, and horrifying story, yet it has something to teach us about the ways of the world and the way of the kingdom, and what happens when these two worlds collide.
Mark provides fascinating insight into Herod’s thoughts about John. Herod sees him as “a righteous and holy man,” yet he fears him. Why? Because Herod is not a righteous and holy man, and John the Baptist was not afraid to confront him about that, calling him on the carpet about his immorality. Yet Herod protects him, and “likes to listen to him,” even though John’s words leave him, “greatly perplexed.” Herod’s not the only one perplexed by all this!
Herod is perplexed because he’s caught in the intersection of two very different worlds — the kingdom of Judea, and the kingdom of God. In Judea, he’s the boss. He rules with power and might and violence, doing whatever he wants to whomever he wants. He parades his daughter around to dance before his courtiers, and then makes a lavish promise to give her whatever she wants. The story drips with greed, capriciousness, and blatant abuse of power — so did Herod’s kingdom. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, Herod is sad. But he can’t lose face, so he calls for the execution of a “righteous and holy man.” That’s the way the world works.
John the Baptist embodied a different world. He called for equity and justice, for those with two coats to give to those who have none. He called for an end to extortion and for righteousness in their leaders. He called for repentance, for a reorientation away from the ways of the world and toward the kingdom of God. And he was not afraid to speak truth to power. Maybe that’s why Herod liked to listen to him; because he spoke the truth, even if it didn’t make sense to Herod.
As Christians, we find ourselves in that same intersection of two very different worlds; the kingdoms of this world, and the kingdom of God. Scripture is clear that we are to be “In the world, but not of it.” (John 17) We are “resident aliens,” as the apostle Peter describes us. This world is not our home, God’s kingdom is. Yet our lives are lived in this world, and this world operates by a different set of values, values that are not always consistent with the kingdom of God. In the world, might makes right. In God’s kingdom, blessed are the meek. In the world, self-interests rule and “God helps those who help themselves.” In God’s kingdom, whomever loses their life for Christ’s sake will find it. In the world, we’ve got to protect ourselves from threat all around. In God’s kingdom, we love our neighbors as ourselves, and welcome Christ when we welcome the least of these in our midst. This tension creates discomfort for us.
At a seminar I recently attended on the impact of Jim Crow laws on our contemporary society, a challenge was issued to us. “You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” the speaker told us. Perhaps that’s true for all of us striving to live toward God’s tomorrow, yet struggling with the worldly ways of today. It’s hard to speak truth to power. It’s hard to challenge inequity, injustice, and immorality when you see it. It’s not popular. It makes people uncomfortable. If history is a guide, it could get you killed. Yet where would you rather live? In this world as it is, or in the hope of God’s tomorrow that is the kingdom of God breaking into our world today?
Prayer: For all those times when we follow in the way of Herod, choosing the way of the world over the way that is the truth about life we know in Christ, forgive us, O God. Help us to stand with our brother, John. Help us to be faithful to our true citizenship in your Kingdom. Help us get comfortable being uncomfortable. Amen.
Author: Joe Clifford
[Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved].