Good Guys and Bad Guys

Sermon for Sunday, July 15, 2018 || Proper 10B || Mark 6:24-39

The lesson Stacey just read from the Gospel is unique. It’s the only time in his fast-paced account that Mark ever diverges from Jesus’ storyline. This strange flashback to John the Baptist’s beheading is greatly abridged in the Gospel according to Matthew, and Luke and John give the story a pass entirely. Mark is the only Gospel writer who takes the time to detail for his audience what happened to Jesus’ predecessor and herald, John the Baptist.

The flashback centers around the character of King Herod, one of the true antagonists of the Gospel. Herod is the bad guy in this story. And Mark knows his craft as a writer. He knows 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. Javert’s dogged pursuit of Jean Valjean over a crime of compassion stands in contrast with Valjean’s dogged pursuit of charity and redemption. Emperor Palpatine’s desire to consume Luke Skywalker’s power in the Force stands in contrast with Luke’s desire to set his father, Darth Vader, free from that same consumption.

And in today’s story, the actions of King Herod stand in contrast with the actions of Jesus. 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?”

Mark readies us for the flashback by having Herod decide Jesus is John come back from the dead. This 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 guy. 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 crony, 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: people mired in poverty, people viewed as sinners, people who wouldn’t have a chance in a million years to be on Herod’s guest list. The courtiers at Herod’s banquet are more than likely some of the folks who lambasted Jesus for breaking bread with “those people.” 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 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 girl’s dance, what would he have done? 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. The words on an oath may sound impressive, but remember, we know who the good guy in this story is.

And still, we have one more contrast to make – the biggest one yet between the antagonist and the protagonist. 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 or pride or standing in society, but emptied himself and humbly chose the road that led to the cross. Society mocked him, the empire killed him, and yet we know the good guy in this story is.

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 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. Jesus 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 own stories. True antagonists don’t believe they have any reason to confess, but we know we do. We know we are complicit in the great sins of the world: sins like poverty and racism and environmental degradation; sins so big that we rarely contemplate our small parts in them. When we confess these sins together, we tell Jesus we no longer want to be part of the problem; we want to be part of the solution. And we hear him say, “Then roll up your sleeves.”

And then he invites us to his dinner banquet, a meal so unlike that of King Herod. Jesus nourishes us with his own Body and Blood in order to strengthen us to go out as his followers and to love and serve the world in his name.

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