The Path to Truth

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A path along a mountainside

Mark 6:14–29

Sometimes Top Ten lists get my attention, especially when it comes to rankings of cities. I like to see how Harrisburg fares, and once in a while it will make an appearance on lists that take into account livability, job opportunities, and, unfortunately, lack of affordable housing. Sadly, Toledo, Ohio, doesn’t often make such lists. That said, Toledo is near to my heart. When I was a kid growing up in rural Northwest Ohio, it offered unlimited excitement. An hour-long drive past walls of corn was all that separated us from Toledo’s multiple shopping malls, books stores, video arcades, and comic shops. Toledo is also the home of the Jeep, Tony Packo’s (a restaurant popularized by Toledoan Jamie Farr’s character on M*A*S*H), the Mud Hens baseball team, and, perhaps surprisingly, an impressive art museum.

It was during a visit to that art museum at a formative age that I first encountered a visual depiction of today’s scripture passage. In “The Feast of Herod,” a painting by Mattia Preti, a girl is presenting a man’s head on a platter to a man and woman seated at a table. An axe looms in the background, as do symbols of wealth you might find at a royal banquet.

The painting’s label explains that the young girl is Salome, daughter of Herodias, the woman seated at the table. Herod Antipas, her husband, is seated next to her. Earlier at the feast depicted, Salome performed a dance that so pleased Herod that he offered the girl whatever she wished. Her mother advised her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, who had been languishing in prison, and Herod complied with their wishes. After all, John had been criticizing the marriage of Herod to Herodias; she was already married to Herod’s brother. Also, the popularity of John was a threat to Herod, whose legitimacy as a ruler was already weak. If his marriage was an offense to God, it would further strain the “the loyalty of the people.” (Perkins, 453)

This cruel and sad scenario has captured imaginations for centuries, and is featured not just in other visual works of art but also in a play by Oscar Wilde. It might leave you wanting to place blame, and the way the story is presented in Mark’s gospel makes Herodias an easy target. After all, Mark presents Herod as “deeply grieved” that his agreement to honor *any* request Salome made resulted in John’s death. But wasn’t Herod the one who put John in prison in the first place? Biblical scholar Ross Kraemer writes that “the assignment of blame to a young dancer, commonly taken to be Salome, and her mother, Herodias, is historically suspect and highly unlikely.” (Kraemer, 322) He points to a variety of cultural and historical records that suggest some of the details of Mark’s story are suspect. They also conflict with records from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote that “John the Baptist’s popularity with the crowds was the reason for his arrest.” (Perkins, 452)

There are even some inconsistencies between Mark’s version of this story and Matthew’s, which most scholars believe was written later. Mark suggests the desire to kill John was solely Herodias’s. Mark also claims that Herod thought well of John, a detail Matthew does not mention. (Kraemer, 324)

Scholar Pheme Perkins has little sympathy for the ruler’s dilemma, writing that “Herod thinks more of the drunken oaths he has sworn and his honor before the assembled guests than he does of the prophet whom he was allegedly protecting. Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in position of authority.” (Perkins, 454)

Conflicting details might lead us to wonder where the truth is in this story, but does it matter whose idea it was to have John executed?

Last weekend at Harrisburg’s PrideFest, attendees who visited the porta potties on the south side of Soldier’s Grove were subjected to the opinions of a few protesters and street preachers who stationed themselves at that strategic location. Some protesters carried signs with Bible verses printed on them, and others took turns yelling through a bullhorn from an eight-foot ladder. I was there holding a rainbow umbrella along with several other Silent Witness Peacekeepers, and our purpose in being there was to shield attendees from the protesters with those umbrellas.

During my hour-long shift, I was a captive audience for the street preachers as they made blanket statements about all of the attendees and as they targeted others in particular. The expected hateful rhetoric was there, but what struck me was how it was intermingled with truth. The verses they had printed on their signs came from the Bible. Much of what the preachers said was in line with common Christian beliefs, such as that God created everyone and that God loves us and that Jesus is our savior. The trouble was that the truthful statements were presented alongside harmful assertions about the personhood of those attending PrideFest.

What was heartbreaking for me as I listened was the associations that might have formed in the minds and hearts of those who were being attacked. If they’ve had no positive interactions with people representing the church, they will associate church, the Bible, and Christianity with judgment, disapproval, and hate. Sadly, this plays into the dominant narrative of Christianity in our country.

I recently heard a radio interview with an “expert” on the nuclear arms race. He was explaining the challenges our government faces now that China has chosen to increase their nuclear arsenal. The US used to have to respond only to the moves of Russia, and introducing China as a major player has greatly complicated matters. He sounded very reasonable, using mathematical equations to explain how many nuclear weapons are needed to counter a given buildup by an adversary. For instance, you should ideally have two nuclear missiles for every one your adversary adds so that you can counterattack even if you lose one of your own missiles. Thus, adding China’s arsenal to the equation requires exponential growth of our own.

I was following along with his logic for a while, then finally took a mental step back and realized his entire argument is based on false premises, one being that you can “win” a nuclear war. Another is that a handful of nuclear missiles is not enough deterrent to begin one. Another is that the willingness to pay for such an arsenal exists in the population. Another is that the willingness to own such an arsenal is present. Another is that the use of a *single* weapon designed to kill many thousands of humans is *ever* acceptable.

If your beliefs about nuclear weapons are built on those premises, then increasing our nuclear stockpile might make sense. If, on the other hand, your moral code does not allow for grand-scale murder of those bearing God’s image, you can only see the radio “expert” as demonstrating sociopathic tendencies.

The street preachers at PrideFest were also operating from a distorted foundation. Their premise was that those in the LGBTQ community were living an impure life, and they twisted a few lines of scripture written centuries ago in an entirely different cultural context in an attempt to support that premise. Along the way, they ignored scriptural messages about justice, protecting the marginalized, God’s love of all creation and its diversity, as well as *everything* Jesus said about love.

They didn’t travel to the city last Saturday to help feed the hungry in Harrisburg, to oppose corruption in the capitol, or to help address our affordable housing struggles. No, they came to share their personal opinions about a cultural issue that was never even *mentioned* by the founder of the faith they claim.

Returning to today’s scripture passage, I wonder where the truth exists in John’s story. Why are there differences in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Josephus? Does it matter whether the body of John was buried or placed in a tomb? Whether he was executed due to his popularity or his criticism of Herod’s problematic marriage to his brother’s wife?

When considering those questions, it’s useful to remember that there’s a purpose in the gospel, and it’s not to serve as a history book. Each gospel writer had a story to tell to an audience, and each has different details highlighted or perhaps even modified accordingly.

Rather than weakening the power of the stories, they are strengthened by those aspects they have in common. John was imprisoned and eventually executed due to his teaching. Both he and Jesus were considered contemporary prophets in their time. Their popularity was a threat to those in power. John was a forerunner of Jesus, and Jesus continued and ultimately fulfilled his mission.

As biblical scholar Raquel Lettsome writes, “At this point in the narrative, one sower is dead, and sowing the word lies at the root of his death. Members of Mark’s community, who already know of Jesus’ death, would also know that John will not be the only casualty in Mark’s story. Jesus will die, and Mark is laying the foundation to connect his death to John’s. In Mark’s narrative, both men are ‘handed over’ or ‘betrayed.’ The means of death (beheading and crucifixion) are the most shameful ways of executing a person during this time. . . . The people’s assertion that John has been raised from the dead prepares Mark’s audience for Jesus’ prediction of his own resurrection.” (Lettsome, loc. 40719)

Mark’s writing also addresses concerns that existed decades after John’s death. Like Herod in the story, some confused John with Jesus. Ross Kraemer cites that in his writing: “These narratives respond to early Christian anxieties and contestations about the relationship between Jesus and John: they are fashioned to refute not simply the suggestion that John the Baptist has been resurrected but more precisely the possibility that Jesus is John raised from the dead by telling a narrative in which the body of John is desecrated in a manner that makes it impossible to resurrect it, at least physically, by severing the head from the body, and by leaving the head with Herodias while burying the corpse.” (Kraemer, 341)

And Wilda Gafney points to what Mark’s writings say about the abuses that so often co-exist with empire: “The story of Herod, Herodias, and her unnamed daughter dramatizes how far below the divine standard human royals can fall. . . . Rather than fulfill the law, the Herods, like most, if not all ancient monarchs, set themselves above the law and take whatever they want. People, their lives, and bodies are disposable playthings to them. Their human monarchy is death-dealing while the majesty of God incarnate in Christ Jesus is life-giving.” (Gafney, 257)

Is the Bible a flawless historical record? I don’t think so. Are there truths to be found there? Absolutely, and many you can live by.

Biblical scholars help us navigate scripture that was written in different languages centuries ago. They spend years learning Greek and Hebrew, immerse themselves in ancient writings and culture, and engage with one another to further their discipline. They are an invaluable guide to those who wish to deepen their study of the Bible.

It can be a little tougher to find folks to help us navigate life in our own time and place. We’re surrounded by disinformation, disingenuity, and widespread disinterest in the greater good. It seems *everyone* is trying to get us to buy *something*, whether that’s a service or a gadget or an opinion. And we get that messaging on all fronts, including social media, email, text messages, YouTube, podcasts, radio, and television.

Because of the messaging that bombards us, and the fact that it sometimes comes from sources we trust, you can get pulled down a path of logic that is built on a false premise, like I did listening to the nuclear expert on the radio. Or the messaging is a mix of truth and lies that ultimately misleads you. One of my favorites is the one about how the manufacture of an electric car has a more negative impact on the environment than manufacture of a gas-powered car. That might be true, but most people *drive* cars after they buy them, so the damage inflicted by the gas-powered car quickly overtakes that of the EV.

I often have to remind myself of the motivations or movers behind a given argument or product. The street preachers at PrideFest weren’t inspired to protest by the gospel; they were responding to an idolatrous cultural issue. The primary motivation of the nuclear expert on the radio isn’t world peace; he is part of the military industrial complex, which only sees solutions borne of violence and the threat of violence.

You might feel strongly about one political party or the other, but it seems neither adheres to its principles. One claims to value life, but supports capital punishment, assault rifle ownership, and egregious defense spending. The other claims to value the health of the planet, but continues to bend to the wishes of the fossil fuel industry, such as by opening up public lands for drilling. Neither seems genuinely invested in furthering the interests of most of those they represent.

Sometimes we need to take a step back and ask what is most important to us. What are our foundational beliefs? Are we being led down wrong paths by culture, consumerism, and corporations? Are we too willing to compromise our values along the way?

Thankfully, not everyone has exterior motives. Like John, who so strongly believed in his mission to prepare a path for Jesus that he was willing to die for it, there are people in our place and time whose foundations are true. When things seem hopeless, I seek them out, and they give me strength.

Whether you seek to promote peace, fight poverty, champion the marginalized, or preserve life on our planet, there are others who share your passion. Find them, and navigate this life together.

Jesus said that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free, but it sure seems hard to find some days. That said, we know there is a right path ahead of us, and we have a friend who can lead us in the right direction. He’s not trying to sell us something we don’t want, and he truly has our best interest at heart, as well as that of all of our siblings, everywhere.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Works Referenced

Gafney, Wilda C. A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W. New York City: Church Publishing, 2021.

Kraemer, Ross S. “Implicating Herodias and Her Daughter in the Death of John the Baptizer: A (Christian) Theological Strategy?” Journal of Biblical Literature 125, no. 2 (2006): 321–349.

Lettsome, Raquel S. “Mark.” In Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, edited by Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, Jr., Matthew J. M. Coomber. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014. Kindle edition.

Perkins, Pheme. “The Gospel of Mark.” In New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015.

Smith, Mitzi J. & Yung Suk Kim. Toward Decentering the New Testament: A Reintroduction. Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2018, Kindle edition.

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Intertwined: faith • community • ecology

Intertwined explores the intersection of faith & the environment. Based in the greater Harrisburg area. Visit intertwinedfc.org or @IntertwinedFC on socials.