Bad Break-Ups

Monday, July 29, 2013 — Week of Proper 12, Year One

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 976)

Psalms 56, 57, [58] (morning) // 64, 65 (evening)

2 Samuel 2:1-11

Acts 15:36-16:5

Mark 6:14-29

Today’s Scriptures recall the vast wake of broken relationships that follow human attempts to live as God’s people. We start with the disintegration of the kingdom of Israel into Judah, led by David, and the other tribes and territories, led by Saul’s son Ishbaal. Then, we have a division in the mission field. Paul and Barnabas have a disagreement “so sharp that they parted company.” Barnabas and Mark head one way, and Paul sets out with a new companion, Silas.

In today’s gospel reading, we face another fault line: a controversy over who should marry whom. King Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and John the Baptist kept calling the marriage unlawful. Herod was content merely to have John arrested, bound, and thrown in prison for this offense, but Herodias wanted John killed.

Many churches today face a surprisingly similar dilemma. What do we do with the voices in our midst that challenge our ethics of marriage? Do we protect them? Or do we behead them?

The most important thing to do may just be to check our Herodian impulses. We are often tempted in the same ways that Herod is: susceptible to peer pressure, threatened by our critics, or afraid of looking foolish in front of company. Perhaps worst of all, we may cling iron-fisted to oaths we have made, unwilling to let them go even when they conflict with our deepest convictions. When we give into these impulses toward fear, defensiveness, and rigidity, we lose our grip on the kingdom of God.

We can try instead to do what Herod himself attempted: listen to the voices in our midst. Today’s gospel tells us that even though John criticized Herod, and even though Herod feared John, Herod protected him. Why? Because, as the gospel tells us, “When Herod heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” Herod got to listen to John with perplexity and pleasure—even if Herod didn’t agree with John’s teaching. We too can listen to these voices even when they perplex us.

We can also go further, and do what Herod failed to do: look to Christ and his ministry as something new, and not as a return of John the Baptist. When Herod heard about the ministry of Jesus and the power and freedom of his disciples, Herod thought, “John whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Herod feared that Jesus had come to reincarnate John the Baptist, to reiterate some of the holiness laws that he inherited from his community, and to confirm our worst fears about how God is judging us.

John, for his part, spoke for only one of two conflicting teachings on marriage. John’s view comes from Leviticus, which prohibits men from marrying their brothers’ widows (18:16; 20:21). But in other parts of the Bible, we find the opposite teaching on marriage. According to the book of Deuteronomy, if a man dies and has no son, then his brother should marry the widow (25:5-10). Biblical characters like Tamar and Naomi follow this tradition. And when some Sadducees ask Jesus about the custom of men marrying their brothers’ wife, Jesus, unlike John, doesn’t object to the practice.

But Jesus doesn’t come to weigh in on this debate. Jesus comes instead with the hard news that we are all adulterers in one way or another, and that people cannot dispose of their responsibilities to one another simply by canceling marriage contracts. And Jesus also comes with good news about the unprecedented relationships that are possible through mercy, grace, reconciliation, and selfless love.

Imagine if Herod had recognized Christ for what he was, instead of mistaking Christ for John the Baptist, and fearing him accordingly. Ultimately, John spoke for only one slice of tradition—a tradition that has wrestled with how to both prescribe boundaries and affirm our boundedness to each other. We are still wrestling.

There are many, many profound and prophetic voices in our church. I hope that we can learn from Herod’s mistakes and protect these voices even when they discomfort us, and listen above all for Christ’s invitation to a new commandment of love instead of for one sound bite from our past or from our worst fears.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Past Posts