Cautionary Tales – Psalm 85:1-13, Mark 6:14-29
I have been thinking about cautionary tales this week and wondering if a cautionary tale for our family is to think twice before planning a holiday with Miriam. For instance, I went to Sydney with Miriam in December, and ended up in quarantine for 14 days. We booked a trip to the Northern Territory, and she went into quarantine, and when that quarantine was declared unnecessary, she came to join us – on the very day Darwin went into lockdown! (In actual fact, we had a wonderful time away as a family, and it got even better when Miriam joined us, so there’s not really a cautionary tale here!)
A cautionary tale is a tale in folklore or in modern folklore (i.e. don’t go to the gym and then get your nails done during Covid!) to warn of potential danger. Traditionally it states the danger, then describes a person flagrantly ignoring the danger and finally their unpleasant end, according to Wikipedia, in “expansive and grisly detail”.
For example, we have, “The Dreadful Story of Pauline and the Matches”, written in a collection of stories, Strewwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffman in 1858… And the satirical takes on the genre by authors like Hilaire Belloc whose Cautionary Tales for Children includes, “Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion”, and “Matilda, Who told lies, and was Burned to Death”.
And our passage story today could also be seen as part of this genre, “John the Baptist, who served up the truth to a king and was added to the dinner menu.”
What adds to this story being a cautionary tale is where the writer of Mark inserts it; between the sending out of Jesus’ disciples on mission and their return. The implication being that the way of Jesus, the way of abandoning power and success and even our self-sufficiency is a scandal – as Alison Sampson said last week – and is threatening to those whose whole modus operandi is power and control and the utilisation of other human beings, and they will do all in their power to silence, to discredit, to wipe out this way.
And while the story of what happened to John is told as a flashback, it is also, as one commentator says, a flashforward! Because it tells us what will happen – what is going to happen – to Jesus. Herod here foreshadows Pilate who will later preside over Jesus’ execution. Both rulers are nominally in charge. Both rulers are intrigued by their prisoners who they know are innocent. (Herod, verse 20, “feared John, knowing…he was a righteous and holy man.” Pilate, in chapter 15, is amazed Jesus will not respond to his accusers.) Both rulers are swept up in events that spin out of their control (6:21-25; 15:6-13) and both are unable to back down after being publicly outmanoeuvred (6:26-27; 15:15). And, like John, Jesus is passive in his final hours…and is executed by hideous capital punishment (6:27-28; 15:24-27).
Throughout the gospels, disciples of Jesus and the early Christian community are urged to count the cost of discipleship. And we too need to count the cost of discipleship.
What does following Jesus’ way look like in our lives? What will abandoning power over others in how we operate mean for us? Will we be prepared to risk our status and reputation and popularity to speak truth to power? Can we recognise the limits of self-sufficiency and our need for others? Are we prepared to share what we have, to open our eyes to the needs of others?
But while this is a cautionary tale, one that reminds us of the cost of being a disciple, it is also the opposite of a cautionary tale. It is a tale of encouragement, a spurring on tale, an enkindling tale – one that ignites and inspires faith.
Firstly, it encourages us as followers of Jesus by contrasting Herod’s greed with Jesus’ generosity.
In this chapter, we have not one, but two parties described.
The first is Herod’s birthday party. This is a party for the elite, his courtiers, the military and public leaders. (You can see the wealth displayed in Giovanni di Paolo’s painting.) A party, in Mark’s retelling, of greed and exploitation and ultimately brutal violence. John is remembered here for condemning Herod for taking his brother’s wife, an attitude that says I can have what I want. And we see this attitude again in the exploitation of this young girl, perhaps his own daughter, or the daughter of Herodias and Phillip, but the word used for her is ‘korasion’, ‘little girl’, a word used only here and for the 12-year-old girl in chapter five. A little girl brought in to entertain men – usually the role of prostitutes. In this world of greed, you learn brutality at a young age, starkly revealed when this girl asks for the head of John the Baptist on a plate.
In contrast, just a few verses later, Jesus throws a party. This is a party where everyone – not just the elite – is welcome. This is a party where everyone – despite the initial scarcity and simplicity – is fed. This is a party that does not end in violence, but in abundance.
And two chapters later, Jesus throws this kind of party again, following it – immediately – with a warning against the yeast of Herod, the yeast of greed and fear that destroys the lives of others, rather than the bread that Jesus offers, the bread of life.
Secondly, this story spurs followers of Jesus on by contrasting success with significance.
Commentator Lamar Williamson writes, “Success, as the world measures it, is seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life, appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of his time. Our minds are perpetually and perversely fascinated by the wealth, power, and intrigue of Herod’s court; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod’s prison. The Gospel here invites us to look closely at success … and then choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.”
“The significance of this text lies in the death of this starkly simple prophet…” For, finally, what this story does is ignite faith by contrasting the way of Herod that ends in death with the way of Jesus that leads to life.
This passage begins with the popular rumours about Jesus’ identity and his inspiration – where his capacity to do what he was doing came from. Was he Elijah? Was he one of the prophets of old? Was he John raised from the dead?
But Jesus and John were clearly contemporaries! It seems that what is meant here is that Jesus was speaking and acting in the power of the same Spirit that was evident in John. In this way he was John the Baptist raised to life. Interestingly it is Herod who comes most strongly to this conclusion, acknowledging that his power as ruler – the power to end life – has been overthrown.
This idea that our lives, our spirits, our faithfulness to the gospel can live on in others, after our deaths, is a conviction also expressed by others – by Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador who said that if he were to die his spirit would rise up among the poor, or in Tertullian’s famous phrase that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the hymn we are about to sing, whose last words before he was executed, remembered and retold by a fellow prisoner, were, “This is the end–for me the beginning of life.”
This is how John’s death also operated for Jesus’ community and for the early church. It inspired their continuing action and outspokenness, their ongoing mission, and in a moment – after we sing – we are going to take time to think of those whose lives have inspired us, whose life lives on in our lives.
What this story does – what the story of the death of John the Baptist does – placed here deliberately amid the mission of Jesus’ disciples – is caution us about the cost of faithfully following Jesus, but also encourages us, spurs us on and inspires us to follow the way of Jesus, the way of generosity rather than greed, significance rather than success, life that never dies, life that brings life to others.