Weekly Bible Reflection
Mark's Alternative Economy
Fifth Sunday after Trinity
Text: Mark 6. 14-29 "Costly Mission "
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Recall examples of occasions when a message about a new way of life has not been well received by those in authority. Have you faced opposition to your faith because you have stood up for a principle?
A Window on the Text
This is the only story in Mark’s Gospel not directly about Jesus. How do we view it: as a pious legend, or a relevant commentary on the abuse of political power? It occurs between the sending out of the Twelve on their first mission of repentance (6.7-13), and their report back to Jesus on what they have experienced (6.30). It is a salutary reminder that those who call for a change of heart, mind and system must be prepared for the consequences.
In the Mediterranean culture of the time status and honour are of paramount importance. Herod fears Jesus – he is becoming a challenge to both. People are seeing him as John the Baptist raised from the dead, as Elijah, as a new prophet in the mould of those who spoke against injustice in the past. Herod himself thinks he is a reincarnation of John. Intermarriage was fundamental to the consolidation of royal dynasties – John’s objection to Herod marrying his brother’s wife was not merely moral, but very political.
Mark makes the point to his readers that what happened to John the Baptist underlines the seriousness of the mission Jesus’ disciples were being asked to take on. We have a story of court intrigue, where powerful local officials – political, military, and commercial – come together to reinforce their status. Here is a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus – arrest, condemnation, insult and execution; even the recognition by their captors that the death is undeserved. Will the disciples understand that John’s fate would become Jesus’ fate and possibly their own? As with the death of John, the message persists beyond the messenger, and so it must with the Christian community for whom Mark is writing, after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Responding as a community
- Think of examples of moral arguments being used to justify despicable acts, such as Herod’s beheading of John to keep a foolish promise and not lose face. What about the so-called ‘honour killings’ in retaliation for acts that are seen to bring shame to families in some cultures, even today?
- People sometimes say religion and politics shouldn’t mix – share your thoughts and experiences of this.
- Mark describes how ‘some were saying’ things about Jesus and John the Baptist. How does the media today deal with people who challenge the prevailing system, either in our culture or in other parts of the world?
- Where do the values of God’s Kingdom conflict with the values of today?
Say the Lord’s Prayer together using the version that includes ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’.
Light a candle and pray for prisoners of conscience everywhere, and for the work of organisations such as Amnesty International in bringing such situations to our attention.
Pray for the wisdom to discern that motives and actions can have unintended consequences – and to resist the temptation to get into situations where over-reacting makes problems even worse.
In the culture of the time honour and shame were of great importance. If one person gained honour, it was generally at the expense of another who lost it. Acts such as gift reciprocation and insults to ‘family honour’ were carefully noted and remembered, often with violent consequences. The historian Josephus describes the conflict that arose from Herod’s dynastic alliances. Some said his ultimate defeat in a war caused by the repudiation of his first wife was seen as revenge for John’s death – although the dates at which this historical episode takes place are a few years removed from the presumed dates of this incident described in Mark’s Gospel
Some commentators have said that the beheading of John the Baptist is a ‘fairytale’, just used as filler in between the actions of Jesus and the twelve. Understanding how this story has been received in different times helps our own perceptions of the significance of the episode. Various accounts have been given of the relationship between Herod, his wives, and the daughter of Herodias herself. Herod conformed to Jewish Law only when it was expedient – promoting the power of Rome to keep his own position. By insisting that Herod be accountable to Torah and not marry his brother’s wife John was raising a volatile issue in colonial Palestine.
Is the food imagery in the story – the grand banquet, the head presented on a food platter – significant? It is placed just before the story of Jesus feeding 5000 with the loaves and fishes. This is itself seen as a forerunner of the ‘Messianic banquet’ that is so closely bound up with the sacrificial self-giving of Jesus death.
Dancing usually took place only on occasions such as weddings. Honourable males would not normally have allowed a female family member to perform such a solo dance – it would have been regarded as literally ‘shameless’. Herod’s oath was a way of ‘buying back’ honour in front of his contemporaries – he was now ‘honour bound’ to keep his word, even though a human life has to be bartered in order for him to save face. The political parody is in the fact that among all these powerful men it is the whim of a dancing girl that determines the fate of John the Baptist. Herod didn’t have a Kingdom to offer to Herodias’ daughter – everything he had control over belonged to Rome.
Mark's Alternative Economy - Discussion