+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the things I do each week to help prepare for Sunday (and to introduce the theme of the next reading in our Narrative Lectionary cycle to people who visit our website and Facebook page) is to create images that capture the main idea of the upcoming text. Most weeks, that isn’t a problem at all; this week, however, I found myself at a loss. You see, the story before us this morning isn’t exactly ready-made for appealing visual summary. Go to Google (or your favorite online search engine) and type in “Death of John the Baptist”, and you can probably guess what types of images you’ll see. The variety and sheer number of depictions of John the Baptist’s death that seek to highlight the brutality of this narrative were pretty astonishing to me, and I spent quite some time pondering ways to present this story honestly while avoiding gratuitous gore. After a while, I found myself wishing that those who put this Narrative Lectionary together had skipped this particular story.
In the end, I found an icon that achieved my goal. Later in the week, however, I started second-guessing my initial inclination. Why was it so important to me to “clean up” this story, to make it seem less shocking than it actually was and is? What possible reason is there to mask the reality that this entire episode in Mark’s Gospel is intended to convey besides denial? And how would we be served as disciples of Jesus by hiding from this brutal tale?
Upon reflection, it became clear to me that ignoring John’s death and the circumstances surrounding it would be a terrible mistake, because this narrative – and everything that makes it difficult to read – is really a crucial part of the story that Mark tells about the life of Jesus and the road of discipleship. You see, Mark could have revealed how John died pretty much any time. If you’ll recall, John is arrested way back at the end of chapter 1 of the Gospel. With typical Markan brevity, John is removed from the scene to make way for Jesus, and his name isn’t spoken again until this point in the Gospel. Why? Because something about what Jesus and his disciples were up to struck a chord with Herod, the local puppet ruler who had seized John and imprisoned him for speaking the truth about the questionable decision to marry his late brother’s wife. The power and profound impact that the ministry of Jesus’ disciples had on Galilee had stirred up Herod’s anxiety and fear, and led him to believe that John had returned in the person of Jesus to continue his mission of calling people to turn their lives around. That might seem like a laughable conclusion to reach in our own day, and yet the belief that those who were righteous would enjoy resurrection was a relatively common one in Jesus’ day, and Herod’s own opinion of John revealed that for all of his annoyance with John in the matter of his recent marriage, he still regarded John as a righteous and holy man who deserved his protection – until it was no longer politically expedient to keep him safe, that is.
It’s this point, this realization about the powers-that-be, that is the most important for us as we reflect on John’s horrific death. Jesus and his disciples were noticed by Herod because they were doing something that reminded him of the man he had killed for no other reason than to save face before his peers and rivals: they were proclaiming the truth, preaching repentance, and demonstrating God’s power and presence through their ministry of casting out the demonic and bringing wholeness to the afflicted. The same sort of mission that led to John’s arrest and death was now being carried out anew by a charismatic rabbi and his group of uncultured followers, and it shook Herod to his core.
Why is that so significant? Because in linking Jesus and John in Herod’s imagination, Mark is revealing that those who wield authority in this world will always be unsettled when confronted with the truth about how their priorities so often clash with God’s. For Herod, it was a personal matter, a dispute about the impropriety of marrying his sister-in-law. For other rulers, the proclamation of the truth has often represented a fundamental challenge to their authority, their security, and their peace of mind. History is full of stories about those who stood up to declare that God’s ways are higher than our ways and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and whose lives were cut short because they dared to oppose the systems that fueled oppression, violence, injustice, and blatant disregard for human dignity and life. That’s true in our nation – think of martyrs for the causes of justice and equality like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. – and across time and space – think also of martyrs for the causes of peace and truth like Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Germany, Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador, Mohandas Gandhi in India, or Brother Roger of the Taize Community in France.
That the story of John’s death is told in the midst of the disciples’ ministry is no accident. Mark’s story makes clear that opposition is part of the territory for those who seek to follow Jesus. Wherever God calls people to speak truth to power, and to declare God’s will for justice and peace and righteousness, there is sure to be opposition and struggle. Even as the disciples experience some measure of success in carrying out the mission that Jesus gives them, Mark shows us that the forces that oppose that mission won’t give up without a fight.
I’ll admit, that’s a difficult word for us to hear. Even if we never face the prospect of literal death for speaking the truth about God’s will for our world, we can experience opposition in all kinds of other ways: ridicule or dismissal, charges of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, strained or broken relationships, a loss of status or esteem in our community. Despite what we often say, the truth isn’t always popular. It is tough to stand up and defend those who are vulnerable and marginalized. It is hard to speak out against hatred and prejudice. It is painful to come to terms with the evils of sexism and racism and xenophobia. It is difficult to own our complicity in the culture of distrust and division that permeates our society. Yet, as disciples of Jesus Christ, this is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. This work of reconciliation, of healing, of repenting and calling others to repentance, is our calling. It may not cost us our lives – as it did for John and Jesus and the countless martyrs who followed them – but it will surely be costly in other ways.
That, of course, is why it is also important to remember that the story of John doesn’t end with his burial in verse 29. It finds a new beginning ten chapters later in the resurrection of Jesus. In Christ, we know that what seems to be defeat will ultimately give way to victory, and that what appears to be failure will ultimately lead to redemption and renewal. Because of that truth, we can find the strength to stand firm, and to trust that God is working to bring the truth to light even when the powers of sin and death threaten to overshadow us. And so, brothers and sisters, as we read the terrible story of John the Baptist, don’t be afraid, for as we seek to be faithful to God’s will for us, for our lives, and for our world, God’s Holy Spirit will be with us, guiding us along the dusty roads of this world and giving us peace to share wherever we go. Thanks be to God. Amen.
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
After three weeks of reading Mark’s breathless account of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, today’s text brings the action to a halt. On the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus spends a full day speaking to the growing crowd that has begun to follow him, using what is undoubtedly his signature teaching tool: the parable. Parables sometimes defy description, but generally speaking they are short stories or sayings that draw on familiar images or common patterns of thinking and behavior and use them to convey deeper truths about life, the world, or the divine. The parables of Jesus are no exception: his stories make reference to everyday tasks like sowing seed and lighting lamps, but they speak about far more profound realities – the kingdom or reign of God, the spread of God’s word, and the nature of truth and revelation.
It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t the only person in history to teach in parables. He is, however, perhaps the most well-known, and his parables are among the most well-known in human history. As a result, those of us who have heard these parables many times are prone to thinking that we have them figured out. That thinking has become even more acute in recent times, as modern people have come to have what my wife would refer to as “an intense need to know.” What are these parables all about? What do the figures in these stories and sayings represent? How are we to understand what Jesus is trying to say to his disciples and to us through the use of parables?
One possible way of answering those questions is to read what Jesus himself says about them, since in addition to the parables themselves, Mark also records Jesus’ teaching about the purpose of these stories:
“To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven…’ Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. 25For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:11-12, 24-25)
That’s not much better, is it? If you’re looking for clear and unambiguous information about these parables, Jesus isn’t offering it. Like the practice of secrecy regarding his ministry that we talked about two weeks ago, Jesus’ use of parables seems to consistently defy our expectations and run contrary to our ways of thinking and doing. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the first parable that appears here in chapter four: the so-called “parable of the sower.” In this parable, Jesus tells the story of a farmer going out to sow seed in his field. Most often when we read about the sower, we operate under the assumption that God is the farmer, that the seed is the word of God, and that the various types of soil represent different people who have differing responses to receiving that seed (or hearing that word). But here, as in very few other places, Jesus presents us with an explanation for his parable, and – at least to me – it doesn’t make figuring out what God is up to any easier. Suddenly, in Jesus’ explanation, people are seeds, our life-circumstances are different types of soil that change our ability to be responsive to the word of God – which, in this explanation at least, isn’t represented by anything concrete – and there’s no key to finding out who or what the farmer is at all.
Then, as if the internal inconsistency of this parable isn’t enough, Jesus tells another agricultural parable that completely flips the script. In this one, a man sows some seed in his field, lets that seed grow (seemingly without supervision), and then reaps the harvest. There’s nothing about different types of soil, different yields, or different seeds. There are no barriers to growth. The seed is planted and it yields a harvest. And so it goes. The kingdom of heaven is compared to a person going out to sow; or to what happens when a different man plants seed in his field; or to a particular kind of seed; or (if we were to look at other gospels) to a woman kneading yeast into dough, a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, or another woman looking for a lost coin, or a man with two sons.
There are no easy answers here. Perhaps that’s the point: that parables are designed to keep us from thinking that we have a corner on the truth. In a way, then, they accord exactly with our lives, which are inherently messy and don’t often lend themselves to the kind of simple cause-and-effect explanations that we seem to crave. They teach us that God’s work can be made known in the invisible and the hidden, as well as in the bright and beautiful signs that reveal the kingdom’s presence among us. They teach us that God’s word inevitably brings a harvest of righteousness and knowledge to the world, even as they teach that we have a role to play in either resisting or welcoming that word into our lives. They teach us that God sometimes uses ambiguity to reveal the truth, that people and things are complicated and compromised and yet capable of being used as instruments of God’s will and signs of God’s kingdom. But even more, the broader setting of Mark’s Gospel reveals that even those who have been given the secret of the kingdom can still find understanding elusive.*
I admit that it sounds like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth. But I think it’s important that in a world in which easy answers and simple solutions are demanded and offered left and right, we recognize that the world is complex, and that God by nature must be infinitely more complex. That doesn’t mean we can’t know anything about the world or about God. It just means that we have to recognize both our limitations and God’s unlimited possibility. It means that when parables in particular (and the Scriptures more broadly) become comfortable for us, there’s a good chance that we’re not reckoning sufficiently with mystery. In fact, I’m convinced that some of the most faithful and faith-filled responses to life’s most difficult questions begin with the phrase, “I don’t know…”
We can’t stop there, of course. Jesus tells us as much in the middle of this reading – not in the most transparent way, of course, but he says it nonetheless: Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you. (Mark 4:24) Jesus indeed calls us to seek deeply and pursue knowledge and understanding and truth, and promises that they will be given to us, but he also makes it clear that those things will come to us in God’s time and in accordance with God’s agenda, not our own.
Brothers and sisters, today’s reading may strike you as unsatisfying, but it also communicates an important lesson for us as people of faith (and, to be honest, simply as people). The statement “God works in mysterious ways” is more than a throw-away phrase to be used when something we don’t expect happens to us or someone we know. It is a profound truth about our world which brings both consternation and comfort to us as we try each day to follow Jesus and to serve God and our neighbors. To us has been given the secret of the kingdom: may God grant us the patience to dwell with ambiguity and uncertainty, the strength to persist in pursuing the truth, and the grace to recognize that truth when it comes to us. Amen.
* I am indebted in this analysis of parables to many commentators, but particularly to Amy-Jill Levine and her book Short Stories by Jesus.