“Seeing With the Eyes of Christ”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
The disturbing story of John the Baptist’s death makes one reference to Jesus, and no reference at all to God or the Holy Spirit. It’s all about John and his ultimately-fatal relationship with power. So, it’s helpful to understand some context before we read the story itself.
Mark 6 opens with the account of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth. Certain that they know him, Jesus’ family and friends dismiss his teachings as the puffed-up sermonizing of someone who has gotten above his raising. Stung by the contempt of familiarity, Jesus not only laments his neighbors’ disregard, “he [can] do no deed of power,” says Mark. All he can do is lay hands on a few people and heal them.
How telling is that, though? To Mark, a significant “deed of power” transcends physical healing. Jesus’ truly prophetic gift is in revealing the presence of the kingdom of God, and inviting people into new relationship with everything around them.
In the next story, Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs to minister in his name. He tells them to travel light. Wear clothes, but just go. Then he tells them that if a community rejects them, move on.
Both of these stories reveal that prophetic living often puts us at odds with family and friends, with our communities, and, most significantly, with those who control wealth and power. The Herods of this world—including the Caesars, Pharaohs, and führers—never hesitate to use, or to encourage others to use, violence as the only reliable means to their ends. Presenting themselves as protectors of religious life, they’ll even usurp religious symbols and language to do so. Simply put, Herod and his kindred do not tolerate prophets who are faithful to God before they are loyal to power.
So, when Herod hears of a rabbi named Jesus gaining popularity and influence by teaching love of God and neighbor rather than loyalty to his throne, he gets a lump in his throat.
14King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” 15But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20for 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.
21But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
24She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”
She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.”
25Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
29When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (NRSV)
The story of John’s death seems as straightforward as it is disturbing. When Herod and Herodias, in a selfish and lust-driven act of entitlement, dissolve their marriages to marry each other, John calls them out. The fact that Herodias was married to Herod’s half-brother, Philip, was only part of the problem. Herodias was also Herod’s niece. So, John would have taken issue with an incestuous marriage.1
As a faithful Jew, John would also have been disturbed by the couple’s cavalier attitude toward marriage itself. For people of faith, both ancient and modern, marriage is a covenant bond to be honored because the commitment between two human beings mirrors God’s covenant with the Creation. While Herod’s marriages were, arguably, none of John’s business, as a prophet he felt compelled to speak to this high-profile, political leader and challenge his decision to slough off one wife in order to marry the other woman…who just happened to be married to his brother at the time…and who also just happened to be his own niece.
According to Wikipedia, you can read all this in one of the early issues of Soap Opera Digest as well as the Gospel of Mark.
To be honest, I’m a little suspect of Mark’s portrayal of Herod. Like most autocrats, Herod Antipas was notoriously impatient and violent with anyone who didn’t toe his line. So, for the historical Herod to temper his indignation for someone like John the Baptist feels a little out of character.
The iconic southern writer Flannery O’Connor coined a useful phrase when talking about southerners and their connection with Christianity, a connection which is often as ambivalent as it is deep. She said that the south isn’t really as Christ-centered as it often makes out to be, but it is certainly “Christ-haunted.” She said that many southerners, religious and otherwise, harbor silent anxiety that Jesus is lurking about, hiding behind trees and billboards, watching their every move. Maybe that’s the kind of fascination Mark wants us to imagine Herod having for John. Still, given Herod’s well-documented penchant for tyranny, Mark’s depiction of Herod sounds almost sympathetic—until he becomes smitten with his great-niece/step-daughter, promises her the moon, and faces peer pressure to deliver.
This story is not only disturbing, it’s a terribly difficult text on which to preach. There’s some predictable but rather shallow moralizing a preacher can do, but trying to tease out the gospel here is a little like trying to turn water into wine. We need Jesus’ help to render Good News from this vessel.
Let’s recall, then, why Herod feels anxiety when he hears about Jesus. According to Mark, when Herod learns of another Jewish holy man living with prophetic boldness, he thinks John “has been raised.” And the idea of John’s return seems to do more than prick Herod with guilt. It seems to strike some measure of fear into him.
This begs the question: When is the Good News not so good?
Through the centuries, much Christian preaching and teaching has used fear as a motivator. Accept Jesus, or go to hell. Jesus is coming soon, and you don’t want him to find THAT in your refrigerator, do you? He’s making a list; he’s checking it twice. He’s gonna find out who’s naughty and nice!
Such fear-driven nagging doesn’t create joyful disciples and prophetic churches. It creates cowering and selfish lab rats who have been convinced that God’s grace is a scarce commodity that must be bought by Jesus or earned through good behavior. So, to hear that God’s love excludes only exclusion2 doesn’t sound all that good to Herods and preachers who depend on the dependence of compliant minions.
As the Christ, Jesus reveals the fathomless heart of God—who is the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and, most of all, the Lover of all things. In his book The Universal Christ, Richard Rohr defines a mature Christian as one who looks for and “sees Christ in everything and everyone else.”3
When Herod hears of Jesus, and when he immediately sees John in Jesus, he’s seeing the threat of more judgment. Apparently seeing everything from a self-referential and, thus, a fearful point of view, Herod sees others only as he sees himself. Blind to any offering of grace, he cannot see what John sees in him—a leader, an example, a child of God. And during his earthly existence, Herod will never see what Jesus sees in him. He will never see the Christ in himself.
This uncomfortable story invites us to imagine how we, too, fail to see the Christ in the people and the world around us, and how that blindness can lead us to deeply destructive fear and selfishness. It also reveals to us the source of prophetic courage: The redeeming love of God at work in the world through the eternal Christ.
That love has the capacity to open our eyes to the holiness in ourselves and in others.
That love has the will to make us both humble and bold in the face of the world’s ferocious appetite for self-consumption.
That love has the power to reveal the ever-present and ever-gracious Creator in whose image we are made.
In all things and at all times, may you see the Christ in yourselves and in others. And may that new sight give you strength to be prophetic signs and reminders of God’s grace.
3The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Convergent Press, New York, 2019. p. 33.