FINDINGS III By Harry T. Cook
Proper 10 - B - July 15, 2012
Mark 6: 14-29
(Amos 7: 7-15; Ephesians 1: 3-14)
|Harry T. Cook|
By Harry T. Cook
"Speaking truth to power," the well-worn nature of the saying notwithstanding, gets no easier as time goes on. He or she who thus speaks often enough pays a huge price for doing so. If not a target of a crazed assassin, he or she can be taken out by an enraged monarch or even some version of the CIA.
In the Amos reading, we see that 8th Century BCE public nuisance balancing himself on the razor's edge as he taunts Jeroboam II and his priest Amaziah. Amos has already delivered his "let justice roll down like waters" line in reaction to the regime's criminal neglect of the poor. Now Amos is predicting disaster for the high and mighty. Amos is only banished.
His latter-day successor, John the Baptist, ends up in two pieces for his trouble. That, at least, is what we hear in the Markan passage for this coming weekend.
Unlike so many of the characters we encounter in the gospels, the existence of John the Baptist is attested outside the bible. His death at the hands of Herod the Tetrarch is accounted for in Flavius Josephus' The Antiquities of the Jews, Book 18, Chapter 5, 2. Josephus understood Herod's execution of John to have been decreed out of jealousy: "Herod . . . feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he advised), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause."
By the time we get to the synoptic gospels on this subject, John is already dead, but Herod, it seems, has heard of certain "deeds of power" done by Jesus. Herod begins to think that John has been raised from the dead and has, in fact, taken over the persona of the troubler from Galilee.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew tell a different story as to why John was killed. Mark spares few details about the head of the Baptist being separated from his body -- Herod's reward for the pleasing dance of his daughter who was prompted in her request for the John's head by her mother blah blah blah. First century soap opera drama.
The first question to ask about this passage is why is it plunked down in a lengthy account of Jesus' teaching ministry? And why is it essentially a flash-back. What role does it play in the ongoing story of Jesus and his inexorable journey to Jerusalem and to his own execution.
The second question is why did the editors of the Revised Common Lectionary see fit to include it in the progression of gospels readings during the Ordinary Time of Year-B?
A possible answer to the first question is that John the Baptist is more than a sideshow attraction in this larger story. He seems to have been snatched from history (see the quotation from Flavius Josephus and commentary on it above) and given a different role in the gospels. He is by turns depicted as a herald or forerunner of Jesus (see Mark 1: 6-8), perhaps even as a shirttail relative of Jesus (see Luke 1: 36ff) and occasionally a challenger of sorts (see Matthew 11:3-6).
One can construe the gospel narrative to suggest that Jesus -- or a Jesus -- was a follower of the Baptist (see Matthew 3: 13-7, Mark 1: 9-11, Luke 3: 21-22) until the latter's message seemed too world-renouncing to the former, and that Jesus eventually went his own way. If there be any truth to that, then it would make sense to regard them as having been in some way competitors in the same market for the attention of the same people.
So it is not a stretch to consider that there may have been parallel followings for some term of months or years and that, just as after Jesus' death there grew up a cult-like devotion to his memory, so after John's death a similar phenomenon developed. For whatever set of reasons, it was the "Jesus following" that survived, even as that of John apparently died out over time.
The inclusion in the gospels' written versions of the various oral traditions concerning John the Baptist connect the rest of the narrative at least obliquely with history (see again quotation from Flavius Josephus above) and does honor to the Baptist and his ministry. -- That answers the second question.
The homilist would do well to observe the connection the lectionary editors make between the Amos and Mark readings, as the 8th Century shepherd/vinedresser from Tekoa and John the Baptist from the wilds of Palestine are both of them depicted as disturbers of the peace. Each is said to have unnerved centers of power with complaints about their anti-social behavior: Amos by denouncing the purchase of the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes; and John by appearing too attractive to the masses (Josephus) or by calling out Herod on his immoral behavior (Mark, et.al.)
Think here of the abolitionist preachers in their day, holding Lincoln's feet to the fire until he repented him of the cavalier attitude he had taken about black people. The abolitionist witness must have had some bearing on what Lincoln finally was able to say just a month before his assassination:
"It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces ... If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wishes to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came ... Yet if God wills [this war] to continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago,, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether ..."
That was Lincoln answering the call to repentance.
There is much about the life of these United States that needs to be repented of -- starting with the obvious vestiges of the same kind of racism that gave us slavery in the first place, continuing with its pre-Obama blunderbuss approach to the rest of the world and its criminal neglect of its own poor and disadvantaged while practicing the old wink-wink, nudge-nudge treatment of the larcenous rich.
I dare preachers to apply the Amos and Mark readings to such outrages. I did it repeatedly in my active years in parish ministry and managed to survive, though I was walked out on more than once and at least twice was passed over by search committees because it was feared I would be "too radical." I may have been disappointed by the decisions of those search committees, but I had to acknowledge that they certainly had my number.
On balance, I'm glad that speaking truth to power is part of my record. I would be ashamed if it weren't, and further ashamed that my children and grandchildren would know it if it weren't.