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. Continue reading “Good Guys and Bad Guys”


(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.

Unmuddying the waters (Bible study #9)

I know I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: the hardest thing to do when studying the Bible is to read the words on the page without the baggage of tradition lending a hand. For the purposes of this Bible study, “tradition” has a lowercase “t.” (While it rhymes wimusicmanth “p,” it does not stand for “pool.”) This tradition is everything from the writings of the church fathers to the texts of songs in our hymnals. Now, I’m not saying that reading with a knowledge of tradition is a bad thing — far from it. Sometimes, however, tradition serves to muddy the scriptural waters to the point that we can no longer see our soggy selves floating around.

The opening of the second chapter of Matthew, one of the choices for this Sunday’s Gospel text, illustrates just how murky the waters can get. This is the bit where the wise men from the East come to see King Herod, and he sends them on a reconnaissance mission to find the newborn “king of the Jews.” Until a dream notifies them, the wise men are unaware of Herod’s malicious plans. They bring the infant Jesus some gifts he has no practical use for (does myrrh clear up diaper rash?) and then go home by another road.

Okay, now let’s bring in tradition. For years and years we have smooshed the beginnings of Matthew and Luke together so much that we have trouble separating them, even when reading them independently of each other. But this independent reading is so important for seeing how each evangelist is setting up his account of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you let the “no place in the inn” bit of the story (from Luke) fall away, you’ll notice that it certainly looks like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus live in Bethlehem — they relocate to Nazareth after their jaunt in Egypt. Indeed, the wise men come to Mary’s house, not a stable. So, while Luke uses the census to get the holy family to Bethlehem and back, Matthew uses Herod’s slaughter of the infants to get the holy family out of Bethlehem and eventually to Nazareth. But that’s not how we usually tell the story.

Now, bring in that hymn about the kings and everything gets even murkier. First, the wise men are “magi,” not “kings” — yes, these are entirely different words in Greek. Second, we have no way of knowing how many there were: we surmise three, but that’s because of the gifts. Maybe a couple went halfsies on the frankincense.

I acknowledge that using “We three kings of Orient are…” is a bit of a cheap shot, but it sure gets my point across. While these are small things that end up being mere distractions from what the text says, there are pieces of our tradition that amount to much more. Here’s one: Martin Luther’s “law/grace” dichotomy has colored readings of Paul’s letters for five hundred years. Luther’s viewpoint is so thoroughly embedded in biblical scholarship that it has taken on its own scriptural aura. But his is not the only reading.

Here’s another: one segment of Christian tradition — let’s call it the “rapture dispensationalist” segment (please read the footnote if those words are unfamiliar)* — sees the book of Revelation** as a script for what is going to happen during the “end times” (cue ominous music). This has led people (who would most likely — and ironically — call themselves “biblical literalists”) to speculate that the dragons and locusts symbolize things like atomic weapons and AK-47s. This reading of Revelation as a blueprint for the future has leaked into Christian tradition over the last two hundred years — so much so that the waters of Revelation (already murky by the difficult imagery of the text) are muddied even more by futile searches for modern analogs to biblical images. A more productive reading sees Revelation as an early Christian warning against complacency and the errors of  “the world,” a warning that transcends the time in which it was written.

Tradition helps us float in our biblical waters. But when we study the Bible, we should always take one swim unsupported by inner tubes or those floaties you wear on your upper arms. Perhaps, when we peer into that clear water, we will encounter God in new and fresh ways. Then we can add our encounters to that long story that is our Christian tradition.


* These are people who believe that the world will end in seven years of really gruesome carnage and destruction. Depending on which flavor of rapture dispensationalism you subscribe to, you will be brought bodily to heaven either before, in the middle of, or after these seven years.*** Again, depending on your flavor, Jesus comes back at some point in this time frame as well. As you can probably tell from this explanation, I am not a rapture dispensationalist.

** Please, please, please don’t say “Revelations” when you talk about this biblical text. There is just no “s” anywhere in that word.

*** A footnote inside a footnote! One term for the “middle of” way of thinking is this: “Mid-tribulation rapture dispensationalism.” See how smart you can sound with silly church words!