I tell people that I never believed in the demonic until I started to work in the church.
This quip garners chuckles and that is usually the intent. I have shared this sentiment most often with those gathered for Bible studies, in other words, church insiders who know the church well, warts and all. Their muted laughter reveals a certain recognition but rarely does anyone, including me, want to say much more about it.
I never believed in the demonic until I started working in the church. I am not kidding, not really. Too often I have experienced the push back that comes when congregations are trying faithfully to heed the gospel. Blame systems theory, or resistance to change, or just plain sin… that works most of the time. But sometimes that push back feels a whole lot bigger than all of those things combined. It feels demonic. It feels that way in South Carolina right now. After and amid such tremendous demonstrations of forgiveness, unity and love, reports of church fires have hit the news and an upcoming visit from the KKK was announced. It feels like something cosmic is afoot.
I have not always thought such things a possibility. I remember discussing this with a Greek Orthodox friend. She was wearing a piece of jewelry that she said helped ward off evil. I told her I didn’t believe evil existed. She listed off some events, current and past, that she thought were solid examples of the phenomenon. I said I’d rather attribute those things to sin, because naming them evil seemed to distance them from our accountability. Attributing such horrific acts to sin meant we had to acknowledge we all had it in us to commit such atrocities and perhaps that recognition would help prevent them. Not a bad theological argument I guess, but certainly, all these years later, I would say a naïve one.
Such an argument diminishes the collective, systemic, massive forces that roll through history crushing people beneath their weight. Such an argument doesn’t take into account the biblical truth that humanity often inexplicitly loves darkness more than light. It leaves out that scene in the Garden of Gethsemane where the disciples, despite their best intentions and strongest will power, cannot keep awake. Perhaps something bigger and more powerful is at work in the world than even sin, both personal and corporate.
Mark certainly thinks so. Mark doesn’t soft pedal the reality of the demonic and the evil. The entire Gospel can be read as a narrative of good vs. evil. God’s kingdom is on the loose in Jesus and there is no way the forces God’s rule opposes are going to go quietly into that good night. No way. It is naïve to think that they will.
Mark devotes a lot of ink to this story of Herod and John the Baptist. Notice, even though Jesus is nowhere to be seen, the whole gruesome affair starts with a discussion of Jesus’ identity. Notice it takes place just after the Twelve have been sent out preaching, teaching, healing, exorcising. Has their reign of God work gotten Herod’s attention perhaps? Is the light of Jesus Christ revealing too much of what some want to keep hidden? Are too many speaking God’s truth to earthly power?
Each scene of this banquet brings with it an opportunity for a different outcome. There is a palpable sense of good vs. evil. Every time I read it, no matter that I know the story, every time I want to believe there will be a different outcome. Mark tells us of Herod’s ambivalence toward John. Herod arrests John, but protects him. Herod is perplexed by John, but likes to listen to him. Herod knows John is holy and righteous, but refuses to heed him. Even in Herod there seems to be this push and pull, this battle – and even though I know the story, I want Herod to give into his higher angels.
What tips the scales? Herod has a birthday party, a raucous affair, with all kinds of powerful people in attendance. The text tells us these are Herod’s great men, chief captains, the first men of Galilee. I suspect these are Herod’s yes-men. They want to impress him; he needs them to be impressed by him. Pay attention to this. It is important. Who is around our tables? At which tables do we want desperately to be seated? Do we intentionally include only those with whom we agree and who we know will agree with us? If so, this is very dangerous territory. It tips the scales away from the light because it prevents us from seeing through others’ eyes.
Consider who is around your tables, Communion table, Session table, dinner table.
I wonder what would have happened if the guests around Herod’s table had been different.
Then comes this terribly politically incorrect scene where Herodias dances… and she pleases Herod and those great men of Galilee. What in the world do we do with this on Sunday morning in our sanctuaries? This is far from a PG-13 affair. Maybe we need to say that flat out. Given that the “open secret” of the Internet is ubiquitous pornography, it is time we church folks get real. When human trafficking is rampant and sex tourism is a reality, we may need to get past our squeamishness. We may have to say flat out: Herod and his company were engaged in something far worse than the politically incorrect that night. It was exploitive, abusive and wrong.
Were any of Herod’s guests disgusted? Did they see Herodias and think of their own daughter? Did they want to leave? Did anyone move to stop her? I somehow bet some of them, at least one of them, had this reaction. However, judging from Mark’s telling, no one was bold enough to speak up. If someone had been bold enough to say “stop,” it might have tipped the scales. We must ask ourselves when we have been disgusted and yet refused to speak up. When has peer pressure or fear silenced the voice of God within us?
I wonder what would have happened if one of the guests around Herod’s table had spoken up.
Herod, so caught up in the madness, so immersed in the darkness, blurts out a prideful, foolish oath. “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” Herod’s sense of self-importance gets the best of him. Pride further tips the scales and the end of the story grows increasingly inevitable but still, still, I think, this train can be stopped.
Mother and daughter conspire. Words like “immediately” and “rushed” show the rapid unfolding of this evil plot. The request is made in front of the great men of Galilee.
Herod is deeply grieved. Ah, there is still hope! Surely, Herod will say, “No, I can’t do that.” Surely, he will say, “I know John the Baptist is righteous and holy. I won’t kill an innocent man as a result of a careless oath. I will… repent.”
But Herod, out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, has John the Baptist beheaded. That’s the final tipping point. Herod regards his oaths and his guests more than God. Evil, for now, wins.
I wonder what would have happened if Herod had cared less about what those great men thought of him and more about how God regarded him.
That is a question worth asking ourselves, too.
This Sunday take evil as seriously as Mark does and allow that recognition to help you ask and answer honestly some difficult questions:
Who is around your tables? And, subsequently, who isn’t?
When have you been silent when you should have spoken up? What do you need to speak up about right now?
Do we care more about what people think of us than how God regards us? Where is this evident?
Our answers, and how we act on them, can tip the scales between good and evil, until that time when Christ comes again and the final judgment is rendered.
- Write down who is absent from your tables. What difference does this make? How can you invite those who are missing? What are the barriers to welcoming them?
- Do some research on the Reformed understanding of evil. Augustine defines evil as the absence of good. Is that an adequate definition? Go back and read Calvin on Total Depravity. How are sin and evil intertwined?
- We pray weekly: “deliver us from evil.” For what are we praying? Read question 127 in The Heidelberg Catechism and question 106 in The Shorter Catechism.
- Do a word study of “good” and “evil” in our Book of Confessions. What do you discover?
- How is this story in Mark 6 about Christology?
- Read again the story of Esther and compare it to this story in Mark 6. How does Esther’s story inform our hearing and understanding of Mark 6?
Want to receive Looking into the Lectionary content in your inbox on Mondays? Join our email list!