The Powers That Be: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Eighth Week after Pentecost
Eighth Week after Pentecost (Year B): Mark 6:14-29
1) Jesus’ notoriety is growing, and he has just sent his disciples out among the villages, two by two, to proclaim and heal far and wide. Sandwiched between this commissioning and the disciples’ subsequent return, Mark inserts a flashback scene recalling the execution of John the Baptizer. This “sandwich” style of storytelling (sometimes called “intercalation”) is one of Mark’s signature moves, and typically, the narrative sandwich’s central layer points toward something important about the outer layers. This is no digression or extraneous aside. The mission on which Jesus sends his disciples, Mark contends, has an integral, unavoidable public dimension: wrestling with the powers that be.
2) Mark composes the story by way of allusion and contrast – and in particular, he uses the story of Esther as a dramatic foil. More than once in this passage, Mark evokes that ancient account of power being used to liberate and save – precisely in order to underline the idea that Herod and Herodias embody the opposite: power being used to demean and destroy.
3) Likewise, here and there Mark foreshadows Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection (Mark 6:16; 6:29). As so often in the Gospels and throughout scripture as a whole, the underlying idea here is that salvation history unfolds through recognizable poetic forms. It’s as if Mark is saying, "As it was with John, so it will be with Jesus..."
1) The countryside is alive with speculation about who this wonderworker Jesus really is: is he John come back from the dead? Is he the long-awaited second coming of Elijah, the harbinger of the ultimate “day of the LORD” (Mal 3:1-2)? Like a Rorschach test, Jesus appears to his interpreters according to their hopes – and their fears. In Herod’s case, his guilt-ridden anguish about having ordered the execution of a person he considered “righteous and holy” leads him to a paranoid conclusion: “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised” (Mark 6:20; 6:16). In this sense, the flashback scene helps explain Herod’s opposition to Jesus, and at the same time, illustrates how corruption breeds its own anxious spiral into the abyss.
2) That corruption is the central motif of the story. The prophet John has called out the marriage between Herod and Herodias as unlawful (Lev 18:16; 20:21), and so Herodias wants him dead. Herod is decadent and boastful, foolishly promising “even half my kingdom” to the girl who has pleased him and his guests with her dancing. And both parents are willing to manipulate their young daughter (we know she is young because Mark uses the same word for her, korasion, as he uses for the twelve-year-old “little girl” in 5:41-42) to serve their sad and grotesque purposes. Mark calls the girl, too, Herodias; the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, calls her Salome. Either way, she’s a pawn of her parents, made complicit by their appalling machinations. And please note, in this consummate dysfunctional family, each ensnares the other two in a chaotic mess: Herod is racked with paranoid grief and guilt; Salome is traumatized; and Herodias is left with a bloody head on a platter.
3) Mark elevates this tawdry tale by embedding within it references to the story of Esther, in effect contrasting one story of power and corruption with another. Perhaps the clearest echo is Herod’s foolish oath offering “even half my kingdom,” his ancient forerunner’s precise formulation (Mark 6:23; Esther 5:3). Esther, Herod, and Herodias are all Jews within a broader, corrupt system, but only Esther seizes the opportunity to wisely, elegantly use her power to liberate and save her people. Herod and Herodias do the opposite, heaping corruption on corruption.
1) Contemporary examples of decadent, corrupt use of power are not difficult to find, and drawing connections between this passage and public life today is very much in keeping with the spirit of Mark’s message. Jesus sends his disciples on a mission of proclamation and healing – and as Mark’s narrative “sandwich” makes clear, that kind of mission will involve tangling with corrupt power in its many forms. The #MeToo movement has shed new light on sexual harassment and assault; children are used as pawns in family separations along U.S. borders; government officials seek to serve corporate interests instead of the wellbeing of breastfeeding children. To speak out with wisdom, love, and courage in the face of corruption and decay isn’t an optional sideshow in Christian life – it’s at the heart of it.
2) And not just speaking out: Esther is the hidden hero of this story, the resourceful advocate who not only speaks but also acts in subversive, creative ways for the sake of others. Power itself can and does corrupt – but it can also be embraced and brought into the service of loving our neighbors. What should we do in the face of corruption? Wisely speak - and creatively act!
3) At the end of the day, then, we’re invited to join the crowds at the outset of this passage asking, “Who is Jesus?” Is he a private personal savior? Or is he rather, as Mark suggests, a very public prophet easily mistaken for John the baptizer, sending his disciples out into the field willing to wrestle – for the sake of a liberating, healing, compassionate love – with any corrupt powers that be? The good news of the Gospel is that God’s liberation is both private and public, and like in the story of Esther, God will work through even the most corrupt circumstances to make things right.