Friday, July 10, 2015

Standing up to the bullies

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 12.07.15

Readings: 2 Sam.6:1-5, 12-19; Eph.1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29;

Last week I asked some questions about the crisis in Greece and how reflections on the gospel might speak into that situation.  I propose to continue that question this morning.  First because I am highly conscious that the issues raised by the tension between Greece and Europe have troubled me and continue to do so.  Second, because behind this is a fundamental hermeneutical proposition: that we cannot read scripture without attention to the context in which we read.

The 'No' (oxi) verdict of the Greek people to the referendum last week was resounding and, stating the obvious, one of the people most responsible for achieving such a result had been Yanis Varoufakis, an economist and the Minister of Finance.  It was extraordinary and unexpected that in the wake of the desired verdict he also resigned.  Not, it would seem, out of any personal disappointment or pique but because it seemed to him, that his commitment to the cause he served, required it.  In a reflection he wrote "Soon after the announcement of the referendum results, I was made aware of a certain preference by some Eurogroup participants, and assorted 'partners', for my 'absence' from its meetings; an idea that the Prime Minister judged to be potentially helpful to him in reaching an agreement.  For this reason I am leaving the Ministry of Finance today."  He later said: "I consider it my duty to help Alexis Tsipras exploit, as he sees fit, the capital that the Greek people granted us through yesterday's referendum." Varoufakis had done no wrong - but his outspokenness had riled those European leaders who demanded his head. I greatly admire his parting shot at them: "I shall wear the creditors' loathing with pride."

You may now see why the current circumstances surrounding Yanis Varoufakis resonate as we consider the story of the beheading of John the Baptist.  At the least it may be said that it is dangerous to live the called life and we should be warned that the consequences of the calling may be murderous and unjust.

The Feast of Herod, Spinello 1385
The story of John's death is an exemplary lesson as to what the called life can involve and in his gospel Mark sandwiches it between the sending out of the twelve apostles to begin their ministry and the feeding of the Five Thousand. The called life will excite questions, speculations. Accounts of Jesus' ministry have reached Herod and speculations as to Jesus' identity are rife: Elijah? A prophet? But Herod is certain - his guilty conscience speaks: John whom he beheaded has risen from the dead. Is it that there are some things you just can't kill?

Mark gives a potted version of the story concerning Herod, Herodias and John the Baptist.  Herod and Herodias were quite an item and something of a scandal - ending up out of imperial favour and exiled on the fringes of the empire in Lyons .  There is the creepy aspect of Herod's reputed feelings about his step-daughter Salome, which we can guess that Herodias was aware of but not above exploiting to serve her ends. But in the story as Mark tells it we also get a sense of something about Herod.

We are told that Herod liked listening to John.  Now this is an unexpected detail.  Despite John being outspoken, blunt and charismatic; even despite him telling Herod of the gross impropriety of his marriage to his brother's wife, Herod was still drawn to hear John speak and when John spoke Herod's view of the world was shaken and became complicated. No wonder Herodias determined to get rid of John.

John stands in the prophetic tradition of bold truth-tellers who live their message, and frequently have died for it - often horribly.  It is not clear why Herod was so fascinated by John.  At the simplest human level it might have been a mere matter of curiosity about someone so different from himself. It may also have been the pathology of a power freak, someone so obsessed with power and its manifestations, that to encounter John and hear his world verbally shredded though by a prisoner in a prison cell to which Herod held the key, was to feel somehow secure against having his power torn from him.  Perhaps in Herod (and Herodias for that matter) we have bullies, people of privilege, who encounter in John someone who will not submit; not yield to intimidation. At a theological level it might be a reminder that God's word can still reach us even if we choose to disregard it.  Is Herod the haunted man who hears the Word but will not change his life?

The consequences of being that sort of man unfold very quickly in what happens at the banquet.  The sensual and dissipated Herod makes a stupid and boastful pledge to Salome and can't back down in front of his guests when the girl does her mother's bidding and demands John's head brought into the dinner table.  One can only speculate what the other dinner guests thought about this!

Herodias and Herod are a poisonous pair, gilded, privileged and ruthless in their hold on power.  We find such people in surprising places.  Of course one may find them in the political world and its equivalents of Game of Thrones or House of Cards but we may also encounter them, or their banal equivalents in our daily life in business, in institutions such as schools, university and church.  We may recognise them or their shadows in bullying behaviours; wherever there is misuse or abuse of position, power or wealth.  John is beheaded. Varoufakis is excluded.  Countless souls suffer daily because they are poor.

This story cautions us all - that in our calling we are not to be too surprised when we meet such behaviour.  Always the shadow of the cross lies across our lives - but as our Lord tells us "take heart: I have overcome the world." (John 16:33)

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