Yesterday’s lectionary gospel reading, Mark 6.14–29, felt distinctly odd by any measure. If you are a good Anglican, and ensure you read not only from the NT and the Psalms but also from the Old Testament every week, it will have been less of a surprise. By contrast, if you are into popular culture and have become a fan of the TV series Game of Thrones, or perhaps play the latest generation of video games, then it will not have seemed so strange. But what is the passage doing here, as part of the ‘good news’ that Mark offers us of Jesus, and why does he give so much time to it in his shortest of gospels—much more time than he gives to his description of the resurrection, the efforts of later editors of the end of the gospel notwithstanding?
You might well have heard a well-structured, engaging exposition of the human actors here, as I did yesterday in the church we were visiting. It is not so much Game of Thrones as a game of consequences, which each stage of the drama unfolding tragically but with some inevitability into the next. What happens if you are born into a family whose patriarch is a ruthless but insecure tyrant (Herod the Great) who forged a regime from nothing and was a monumental builder, but achieved this by having his own wife and two sons executed? What happens when you live with bitter rivalry, having inherited both your father’s ambitious and his insecurity, which leads you into war and ultimate defeat? What happens when your sexual interests lead you to fall in love with your own relation (Herodias was Herod the Great’s grand-daughter by Mariamne)? What happens when you are at the same time disturbed and fascinated by a prophetic voice of criticism and cannot resolve this conflict in yourself? What happens when you blurt out impulsive promises which make you vulnerable to the scheming of others close to you? None of this ended well for Herod Antipas, who finally lost his power and his throne—but it ended worse for those around, including John the Baptist, who lost his head.
We are left with a poignant moral tale, full of dynamic and pathos, told in a such a way as to inspire many a Hollywood film script. The moment of hubris comes as Herod declares, repeatedly and with growing emphasis, his delight in his daughter:
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” (Mark 6.22–23)
And this is almost immediately followed by his nemesis, his downfall, made the more stinging by his daughter asking not just for the head of John the Baptist, as her mother had directed her, but asking for it ‘right now’ and ‘on a platter’. The dishes on which Herod had served his guests the choicest foods as a demonstration of his lavish generosity and wealth would now serve up to him his folly and his pride in front of those very same guests—in the most gruesome way possible.
No wonder, then, that Caravaggio, the impulsive and conflicted genius of Renaissance art, chose to indulge his obsession with gruesome beheadings by painting this scene (now hanging in the St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta). His picture is startling in all sorts of ways, and not just because of his characteristic use of tenebrism by which the light and dark elements of the painting are in such striking contrast, with the human figures often illuminated from the side so that their features stand out in sharp relief. Caravaggio has chosen to depict the very moment of execution, with the jailer holding the knife behind his back having drawn it across John’s throat, and the blood is pouring from his neck as the jailor grasps his hair. Perhaps we are unsettled by the contrasting reactions of the other figures—the horror of the old woman contrasting with the bored disinterest of the male figure next to her, the other prisoners straining to see the gore from their cell window on the right, and the girl with the platter eager to just get the job done. We might be disturbed by the off-centre composition of the picture, which breaks the rules of painting organisation even as the whole incident breaks the rules of moral respectability. But the most shocking element of the painting is one we might not have noticed: that Caravaggio uses the blood flowing from John the Baptist’s neck to form his own signature. He might not see himself as a wicked tyrant like Herod, but does he in his moral dilemmas at least see himself as also playing deadly game of consequences, just as those by-standers and minor characters do?
Where does that leave us as we read the passage? Are we being offered a stern warning of the consequences of unchecked impulses? Not many of us will have the chance to be tyrants, but the same impulses of insecurity, pride, shame and failure are present in us all. Or are we being offered a sober warning, in the example of John the Baptist, of the cost of integrity and faithfulness? Where does that all leave us, and does it offer us any ‘good news’?
We can now see that there is a basic problem with this kind of approach to the passage. All these readings are focussed on the human characters—they are taking an anthropocentric view—when the question I have asked in the title of this piece suggests something else. All these observations about what the human agents are doing are interesting, insightful, perhaps even entertaining in a strange way—but surely Mark is more concerned about what God is doing—and inviting us to take a theocentric view. This is the most important thing to do in our reading and especially in our preaching. What is God doing in this story?
If you have only read the passage in isolation, either by its projection on a screen, or by reading it on your phone, instead of having an actual print Bible open, then you will have missed the most important thing Mark tells us about this passage—what comes before and what comes after it. We should be alert to this, as we have seen it before. Mark carefully interweaves (in chapter 5) the story of a named and important man, Jairus, whose 12-year-old daughter is at death’s door, with the story of an unnamed and almost unnoticed woman, a figure fading into the crowd, who for 12 years has suffered from bleeding which has moved her to the margins of society. And we will see Mark’s technique again, in chapter 8, where he has to remind the disciples again of his provision in a feeding miracle done again just as he must touch the eyes of a blind man again before he can see more than people ‘as trees walking’.
So what do we learn when we look at the outer layers of Mark’s narrative sandwich? Immediately before the Herod narrative, we read a slightly abbreviated version (compared with Luke 9.1–6) of Jesus’ commissioning the Twelve to go, in pairs, and take the good news to the villages.
Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over evild spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.” They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them. (Mark 6.7–13)
And immediately following the Herod narrative, we read of the return of the Twelve.
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” (Mark 6.30–31)
So how does Mark answer the question: ‘What was God doing?’ The answer is: God was continuing to be at work, by his Spirit, through his people called by Jesus to proclaim and enact the kingdom of God, so that others might be drawn to know him.
Decapitation is a dreadful thing, and has a powerful propaganda effect—as was apparent in the kidnapping and filmed beheading of the 20 Christian Copts by ISIL in 2015. But decapitation (in a literal or figurative sense) of organisations and even whole countries is also terrifying. The Western powers strategy in combating terror organisations is primarily one of ‘decapitation’, of targeting and removing (by seizure or more commonly killing) the leaders of such movements. In the Second World War, three million Jews in Poland were executed in the German death camps—but a further two million non-Jewish Poles were also killed in an attempt at national decapitation. The occupying Germans arrested and executed anyone on positions of leadership—in government, business and education—with the aim of eliminating any resistance to the occupation and turning the nation into one that would not have the initiative to resist. The most poignant verse in the whole narrative in Mark 6 isn’t to do with Herod at all, but comes at the end of the story:
On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6.29)
Here were disciples without a rabbi, followers without a leader. It was not just John, but his whole movement which had been decapitated.
And Mark is most likely writing his gospel to followers of Jesus in just such a situation. The Christians in Rome have already witnessed the expulsion of all Jews under Claudius, and this would have included important Jewish leaders in the fledgling Christian communities (as we see in Acts 18.2). They were soon to face a greater challenge—the blaming by Nero of the fire in Rome on Christians, and the torture and death of many of them, including leaders like Peter and (most likely) Paul. What should they do and think? Amidst this calamity for such a small movement still in its early days, what was God doing? The answer, Mark tells us through this narrative, is that God is still at work, bringing healing, deliverance and spreading the good news of the kingdom.
Those related to the Copts beheaded by ISIL discovered this for themselves. It is reported that their mothers thanked ISIL for releasing the video of their execution, because it meant they could hear their sons’ last words: ‘Jesus is Lord’. And one who was present with them was also convicted by the manner of their death:
After the beheadings, the Coptic Orthodox church released their names, but there were only 20 names. In the video, the leader’s victim was of black African descent, in contrast to the others, who were ethnic Copts. It was later learned that this 21st martyr was named Matthew Ayariga and that he was from Ghana. (A few sources say he was from Chad, but most say he was from Ghana.)
According to some sources, he was not originally a Christian, but he saw the immense faith of the others, and when the terrorists asked him if he rejected Jesus, he reportedly said, “Their God is my God”, knowing that he would be martyred.
Can we imagine a time when the church in the UK might be ‘decapitated’, with our leaders removed and our institutional influence gone? That is the reality for many Christians around the world. If it does happen, we might find ourselves reading this passage again with renewed interest.
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