Saturday, June 27, 2015

The wages of sin

The account of the beheading of John the Baptist in Mark 6:14-29 has been captured many times in art, the one pictured here by Caravaggio (1573-1610) as an altar piece for St. John's Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.  This story is strikingly detailed for the book of Mark, which usually moves along very quickly, leaving out many details which other Gospel writers have found important.  Mark is clearly very intentional here, most likely identifying John with Elijah, the OT prophet who also endured the wrath of a queen, and the cowardice of her mate. (I Kings 19, 21).

(The following questions are found in the appendix to my newly-published guide to Law and Gospel preaching, Afflicting the Comfortable, Comforting the Afflicted.  It may be purchased by clicking the image on this page and ordering either a paper or electronic copy.)

1. How does the Word function in the text?  The Word in this case is simply the storyteller, Mark. This pericope is unusual in that Jesus is not present, nor is Jesus speaking.  Mark is painting a picture of King Herod as a man in bondage.  We are told of Herod's regrets, fears, good intentions, and finally his failures.  Also, we gain an understanding of the extent to which wickedness can go in its attempt to snuff out truth.  This account is certainly a foreshadowing of the death of another innocent man in the custody of a cowardly Roman official. (see Mark 15:15)  The whole story shows the world's need for Christ, and hints at God's plan for salvation in the death of Christ.

2.  How is the Word not functioning in the text?  This text is not proclaiming Gospel.  There is no word here of what God has done in Christ, nor is there a word which invites us to live in response to God's mercy. This text only shows us the world's need for Christ.

3.  With whom are you identifying in the text?  There are three main characters here:  Herod, John, and Herodias.  It is tempting to identify with John, the innocent victim in this story, but that would not be helpful.  Identifying with Herodias might be difficult since she is so thoroughly wicked, so Herod, a troubled and foolish man, would be our best choice.  His bondage to sin is evident.

4.  What, if any, call to obedience is there in this text?  Since the Gospel is not present, the call to obedience is absent as well.  The call to obedience is something that invites us to live in response to God's mercy.

5.  What Law/Gospel couplet is suggested by this text?  If one is relating to Herod, any number of couplets might be imagined:  Arrogant/Humbled, Fearful/Freed, Deeply Grieved/Totally Forgiven.

6.  Exegetical Work:  There are a number of fine commentaries on Mark, and several I have found helpful are The Gospel of Mark (Sacra Pagina series) by Donahue and Harrington, and Mark (The NT Library series ) by Eugene Boring.  Donahue and Harrington open up the idea that Mark's intent in this detailed story was to do two things: link John with the prophet Elijah, and link John's death with Jesus' death.  We know the Jews believed that prior to the coming of the Messiah, Elijah would return, so what Mark is telling his listeners is that Elijah is here, therefore the Messiah is near.  This goes along very well with other hints in Mark's gospel where John is revealed as Elijah, (1:6) Boring also takes up this argument, saying that "in general, the Markan version [of John's death] belongs to the tradition of the rejection and persecution of true prophets who speak against the king."

7.  How does the Crossings Community model work with this text?  This text would be a great opportunity to do as Steven Albertin does in the archived 2012 Gospel B, Pentecost 7 analysis and identify with Herod as a bound sinner for whom Christ died.  Check it out at study.

8.  Consider the insights of the pioneers of the New Homiletic?  Charles Rice and his colleagues were certain that helping listeners recognize themselves in a text was key.  Here, the challenge of the preacher will be to get listeners to recognize Herod's bondage as their own.

Blessings on your proclamation!

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