Antagonists

(Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2012 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:14-29)

Today’s Gospel reading gives us an entire story about one of the antagonists of the Gospel. Antagonist. This is a tricky word because often in current culture “antagonist” is simply synonymous with villain, enemy, or bad guy. Famous antagonists – a Jeopardy category, perhaps? Darth Vader. Javert. Lex Luthor. Vader wears black, breathes heavily, and uses the “Dark Side” of the Force – definitely a villain. Javert hunts for a man whose crime doesn’t warrant such obsessive and destructive investigation – a perfect enemy for Jean Valjean. And in the first Superman movie, Lex Luthor attempts to destroy California in order to raise his land’s property value – total bad guy.

Gene Hackman as Lex Luthor.

But dismissing these fellows as mere villains ignores their roles as the antagonists of their respective stories. A good antagonist doesn’t simply serve as the proverbial immovable object against which the hero’s unstoppable force must contend. A well-drawn antagonist helps reveal the good things about the protagonist. Often, facets of the main character remain in shadow until a skeptical or adversarial or malevolent character brings them to the light. Lex Luthor’s greed stands in contrast with Superman’s selflessness and so on and so forth.

The antagonist in our story today falls into the same Jeopardy category as Vader, Javert, and Lex Luthor. He is none other than King Herod, to whom Mark dedicates a precious fifteen verses of his short account of the Gospel. If you thought today’s reading felt a bit weird and out of place, then you’re not alone. The Gospel writer Matthew greatly abridges the tale, and Luke and John give the story a miss entirely. But Mark, who usually barrels his narrative ahead at a breakneck speed, oddly stops for a massive chunk of Chapter 6 and treats us to a banquet with one of the bad guys. So, my question is, “Why?”

Well, I think that Mark is a good storyteller, and good storytellers understand what antagonists are for. If antagonists exist to shed light on the good things about the protagonist, then we can ask ourselves, “What does Herod teach us about Jesus?” The easy answer is without Jesus, innocent people get beheaded at dinner. But I think we can go a little deeper than that. Jesus’ absence in this passage is truly conspicuous. Indeed, if the Gospel of Mark were cut up into a season-long television series, the actor playing Jesus would get this episode off. But still, I’m pretty excited because for one week, we get to look at the story from the other side. We get to see the actions of the bad guy and contrast them with the actions of the good guy. And boy, do we have some contrasts to make.

What Mark gives us is really a flashback to an earlier event. Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead, which is bad news for our bad guy because Herod wound up signing John’s death sentence in the first place. Mark tells the tale of why Herod found himself in such a predicament.

The story begins at dinner. And at dinner is where we make our first contrast between the good guy and the bad. This isn’t just any dinner, either. This is Herod’s birthday dinner, and when you’re a puppet king of the Roman Empire – a lackey, really – you don’t have much power beyond spending your citizens hard-earned tax dollars on extravagant banquets for you and your friends. Mark describes these friends in detail: Herod’s guests are “his courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” Not a bad turnout for the red carpet. You can see them in your mind’s eye, right? There they are reclining at table and congratulating each other for being part of such an impressive coterie.

Of course, if Jesus had been hosting such a banquet, whom would he have invited? That’s right: the outcasts, the sinners, the tax collectors – those people who wouldn’t have a chance in a million years to be on Herod’s guest list. The very people at Herod’s banquet are more than likely the ones who excoriate Jesus for eating with the unwashed poor, the street urchins usually labeled as “bad.” And yet, we know who the good guy in this story is.

So the who’s who of society arrives for Herod’s birthday, and his little daughter dances for the assembly. Her acclaim is so great that Herod swears to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” With the girl’s conniving mother in the background, we know this cannot go well. Swearing an oath was a big deal back then, akin to a legal contract today, but with more honor at stake. And swearing a blind oath was like writing a blank check.

Of course, if Jesus had watched the little girl’s ballet, what would he have done? Joyfully praised her for her creative expression, no doubt, but he sure wouldn’t have sworn an oath. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Do not swear at all… Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” In other words, there’s no need to swear an oath; just be trustworthy all the time and you won’t need to make guarantees.

And still, we have one more contrast to make – the biggest one yet between the good guy and the bad. On her mother’s prompting, the girl asks for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod is deeply grieved, Mark tells us, but apparently not too deeply grieved because he goes through with his oath anyway. In order to save his honor, his pride, his standing in society, Herod has an innocent man killed.

Of course, when Jesus was in a similar situation, what did he do? When he could have saved himself from public humiliation, scorn, pain, and death, what did he do? He gave himself up willingly. He gave no regard to his own honor and pride, but emptied himself and humbly chose the road that led to the cross. Society mocked him, the empire killed him, and yet he won in the end, and yet he won in the end when God raised him from the dead on the third day.

Our antagonist today, foolhardy and power-drunk King Herod, shows us the other side of the story, the shadow side, the side that exists in the darkness when the light of the world is offstage. He prizes his standing, his honor, and his pride above all else, even to the point of committing homicide.

I don’t know about you, but I suspect that all too often I place myself on the wrong side of the story. I look at myself in the mirror, and I wonder when the good guy decided to take the episode off and let the bad guy take center stage. I ignore Jesus’ dinner guests because they are so much easier to ignore than to include. I swear oaths to myself about how I will live my life, and then I fail to live up to them. I let my pride stand in the way of doing the right thing. If you’re anything like me, then we all occupy the antagonist’s role in our own lives far too much of the time.

But the good news is this: even when we occupy the bad guy’s role in our own stories, there is always and forever someone occupying the role of the good guy. Our protagonist is Jesus Christ, and as any good guy would, he calls us to come to him, to shed ourselves of our antagonism, and to live our lives as his followers. When we confess our sins in a few minutes, when we once again give up to God our villainy, we will be ready to recognize Jesus as the protagonist of our stories. And as he nourishes us with his Body and Blood at his dinner banquet, we will be strengthened to go out as the good guys and serve the world in his name.

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