Kings behaving badly

15 July 2018
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 10B (RCL)

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19
Psalm 24
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

The story of the beheading of John the Baptist, in this form, is unique to Mark. Each of Matthew and Luke soften the story and move it to a different place in their narrative. It doesn’t ‘feel’ like a Marcan composition, but instead like a tradition he dropped into his own narrative. The first few verses very awkwardly introduce the flashback, which then reads like an integral narrative. That raises the question why Mark chooses to include it precisely here.

Mark fits it in as an intercalation in the story of the sending of the twelve. Usually when Mark does this, the internal story (the meat of the sandwich) interprets the outside story (think of the story of the woman with the flow of blood interrupting the story of Jairus’ daughter). In that case, the story of Herod beheading John the Baptist is supposed to tell us something about the mission of the twelve. What, exactly?

When Jesus sends out the twelve, he sends them out without a wallet and without a second tunic. The Cynics were allowed a wallet to keep the food they had begged for the next day, and a second tunic for a covering at night in case they had to sleep in the open. The twelve were absolutely dependent on the hospitality of strangers. Herod, on the other hand, was trapped into doing something he didn’t want (if we are to believe the narrator) because of his own extravagance. To be the person in the position of distributing honor may seem like a good thing. Herod after all can host his courtiers, commanders, and the first me of Galilee, and so they all owe him honor. But he missteps when he grants his daughter up to half his kingdom. His own honor requires that he grant her request. He would be shamed otherwise.

The twelve are never in that position. As guests, they can only honor their hosts by their presence, and by casting out demons (welcoming the outcasts to a table not their own). Their utter dependence on others is the antithesis to Herod’s glory. The feeding of the 5000 in the wilderness will reinforce the point. Jesus feeds the multitude with a few loaves and fish (not bread falling from the sky, but with what the disciples have on hand), and there are twelve baskets left over (in contrast to the manna in the wilderness, where any left-overs rot immediately). This way of living in interdependence is in fact the only way to live with abundance. In Herod’s story, there is only so much honor to go around, and Herod is trapped in the system.

David is also trapped in extravagance. It would seem like David has more than enough. Every six paces, he sacrifices an ox and a fatling. That’s a lot of meat. We think that Michal is disgusted with him for dancing around in his underwear; in the next verses she complains of him ‘exposing his nakedness’ to all the women of Israel, even slave girls. ‘Exposing one’s nakedness’ however, is a euphemism for having sex. What David does that upsets Michal is he distributes meat to everyone in Israel. The narrator is very careful to add, “women as well as men.” Women only ever got meat through their men, either their father when unmarried, or their husbands when married, or their sons when widowed.

The monarchy was in theory grounded on the idea that the king was the protector of those without protection (the orphan and the widow – we know this because whenever someone wanted to start a rebellion, he sat in the gate and heard cases that were being brought to the king, and decided in favor of those without standing). David could here be seen as providing for the women without access to meat at sacrifice. But he could also be seen as claiming every woman in Israel as his wife. Hence Michal’s accusation of ‘exposing his nakedness’ even to the slave girls. We know as things turn out that David, whether he intended it here or not, easily slipped over into the second understanding of what he was doing.

When the honor is ours to distribute, we can easily fall into the trap of being bound by that honor, and to thinking we deserve it. The twelve are protected from this trap by their utter dependence on the hospitality of strangers. I wonder how the Church might proclaim its message if it were rendered thus dependent.

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