“Speaking Truth to Power” (July 12, 2015: The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost-Proper 10B; The Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana)

“…Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man…”—Mark 6.20[1]

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

In the movie The Dark Knight[2], there is a scene in which Batman interrogates the Joker regarding the whereabouts of Gotham City District Attorney Harvey Dent and his assistant Rachel Dawes, who, at one time, was the childhood sweetheart of Batman’s alternate identity, Bruce Wayne, but is now dating Dent. Instead of answering Batman’s question about where Dent and Dawes are, the Joker says that the reason why the mob wants Batman gone is so that things could go back to being what they were before, but that he knows that there is no going back and that he (Batman) has forever changed things.

“Why do want to kill me?” Batman asks. The Joker laughs out loud hysterically:

“I don’t want to kill you. What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, no, no. You…you complete me.”

Batman tells the Joker that he is trash, to which the Joker replies,

“Don’t talk like one of them. You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak like me. They need you right now. But when they don’t, they’ll cast you out like a leper.”

Though dark, disturbed, and sinister in its tone, what the Joker says brings to light a crucial factor that both he and Batman share—that they are both extremely unique individuals within their local societal context. Because of their own respective uniqueness—that there are not many others like them—both Batman and the Joker are able to understand each other better than most people ever could. This particular understanding allows one the ability to really “keep it real” with the other, reminding the other of those very truths about themselves that they seek to dissemble and cloak from existence. For us, the viewers of scenes such as this, it brings to the eye the dichotomy of good and evil and the eternal struggle that exists between the two.

Today’s Gospel is quite similar. What we see is not so much the dichotomy of good and evil—although it does form the foundation for what we do see—but, rather, that of truth and power. John the Baptist and Herod[3], the two principal characters, are, like Batman and the Joker, in their own respective ways, extremely unique individuals within their local societal context. Their interaction with each other brings to the fore the battle that is oftentimes waged between truth and power—of how truth points to the reality of what and how things actually are and power seeking to keep the truth hidden, all out of inflamed ego and an insatiable desire for prestige, position, and place. In the end, John, representing truth, pointing to the Truth, winds up paying the ultimate price for “keeping it real” with Herod, who is so overcome with power and enslaved by his own insecurity. Although he thinks that after offing John his problems would have ended, Herod soon sees that the truth is still following him, yet manifested in a much bigger way.

While I think it a far stretch to call John a freak—though there are some who may think of him as being one—I do think it fair that he could be classified as being “a little strange.” “Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather belt around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey.”[4] For the people of that time, seeing a scruffy-haired wilderness preacher in camel’s hair clothing eating locusts and shouting at the top of his lungs “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”[5] would, no doubt, have been a strange sight. If John were around today, hanging around the banks of the Vermilion River, he would most definitely be looked at as strange, perhaps even mentally special. But what was it about this strange wilderness preacher that attracted people to him, not feeling a sense of “stranger danger”? The answer is in his preaching: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[6] Like Batman, John the Baptist is an unusual character who seeks (and has been foreordained) to represent the Ultimate Good, operating outside of society’s norms to point to the world’s greatest Truth. The people may see John as being strange, but in his message they see hope, which attracts them to him, and, through his message, to God, fearing no evil from him.

Herod, on the other hand, can definitely be called a freak. We earlier heard John say to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias, one of the Gospel’s two secondary characters, was, at one point, married to Herod Philip[7], the Herod of this Gospel’s half-brother. But the relationship goes deeper and gets more freakish than that. Not only was Herodias originally Herod’s sister-in-law, having first been married to his half-brother, but she was also the daughter of Aristobulus IV, a son of Herod the Great, who also was Herod’s father, which also made her his niece. Her mother, Bernice, was Herod’s father’s niece, which also made her his first cousin.[8] So when you break it all down, the Herod that we meet in today’s Gospel was married to his sister-in-law-niece-first cousin (talk about “all in the family”). He tossed aside his first wife, wooed Herodias away from his half-brother, taking her to himself as his own. It is for this that John calls out Herod, speaking the truth to power, being the beginning of his end.

But just as the Joker did not want to kill Batman, Herod does not want to kill John. Today’s Gospel says, “Herod…sent and seized John, and bound him in prison…Herodias…wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. When he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.”[9] Perhaps the reason for Herod’s perplexity and gladness in hearing John is that, from meeting with John, Herod feels that John gets him, something that he might not have originally expected. And perhaps why Herod feels that John gets him is because the two men are just as similar as they are different. Deep down, Herod knows that John is right. Herod knows enough about truth to recognize his own falseness; John, himself, is sufficiently acquainted with temptation to desire his monarch’s liberation from it.[10] What we see in Herod is a battle between truth and power being waged within him. Using the words of Saint Paul, it is as if Herod is saying to John, “So I find…that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am!”[11] If it just were not for Herod’s insatiable thirst for power, the ending of today’s Gospel would have been completely different. For Herod, redemption would have happened and truth would have won within him, while, for John, his life more-than-likely spared.

John’s tragic end comes all for the sake of Herod maintaining his power, with sexual lust as its conduit. From the Gospel: “Herodias had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him…An opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee. For when Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod…and he vowed to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom.’ And she went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And she came in immediately with haste to [Herod], and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And [Herod] was exceedingly sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” Herod made his choice—power and prestige over truth and redemption. As former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac,” and Herod, beholden to her charms, became “powerless” before her (pun somewhat intended).

So where in all of this is the Good News? We find the answer back at the beginning: “King Herod heard of it; for Jesus’ name had become known.” What Herod was hearing of was the mission of the Twelve, who were sent out two by two by Jesus, commissioned by Him to preach repentance to the people, cast out demons, and anoint the sick with oil and heal them.[12] What is the connection? Again, from John’s preaching: “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The “He” of whom John speaks is Jesus. Jesus, the only begotten Son of God, has now come; Jesus, the Mighty One, full of grace and truth, is taking over. For John, who prepared the way for Jesus, who boldly told the truth in the face of power, he has become the first example of Jesus’ words to Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”[13] For Herod, Jesus’ growing realm means the fading away of his—fueled by earthly power and governed by pride. With Jesus on the scene, the forces of truth have not been defeated; the forces of earthly power will not win the day.

The Good News that we are being given today is this: John the Baptist and all others who believe in goodness and truth, have stood up for goodness and truth, and stood up for the Truth, have received their vindication—everlasting life through Jesus Christ, God with us, and of His Kingdom there will be no end.

In the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations contained herein are from the Revised Standard Version Bible, Ignatius Edition, Copyright © 2006 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

[2] The second movie of The Dark Knight Trilogy, based on the DC Comics character Batman, distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures between 2005-2012 and directed by Christopher Nolan.

[3] Herod Antipas (c. 20 BC-c. 39 AD), ruler of the Roman client state of Galilee and Perea from AD 6-39; member of the Herodian Dynasty that ruled over Judea from 37 BC-AD 92.

[4] Mark 1.6 (cf. Matthew 3.4)

[5] Matthew 3.2

[6] Mark 1.7-8

[7] From The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (E-J) (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 595: “Herodias was originally married to the half brother of her father. She bore this husband a daughter named Salome. The husband-uncle is known in Mark 6.17 as Philip, and so too in some of the texts of Matthew 14:3. It is more likely, however, that his true name was Herod, and not Philip, for there was still another brother who carried the name Philip.”

[8] “Herodias,” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (E-J) (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1982), p. 595

[9] Mark 6.17, 20

[10] Hall, Douglas John. “Theological Perspective on Mark 6:14-29,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary (Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16)) (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 240.

[11] Romans 7.21-24

[12] Mark 6.7-13

[13] John 11.25-26

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