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Flashback: What’s Going On Around Here?

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A flashback: I was 5 years old. It was the first day of kindergarten. My parents and I had practiced this – I was familiar with the bus route to and from school. There I sat. A little kid on a great big bus, coming home from school. I was prepared. I was ready for this. But… then… the bus turned here, and then there, onto roadways I did not expect. We were NOT on a direct route to my home. When I was finally dropped off at the house, after zig-zagging along back roads, my mom asked me how the first day of school went. My comment to her regarding the bus ride home was, “I looked out the window and said to myself, ‘What’s going on around here?’”

What’s going on around here? I get a sense that many of us have been asking this same question recently. And here, the author of Mark gives us his own flashback.

To remind you about “where we are at” in the story, last week we heard about Jesus’ directive to the disciples, and to us, to go out. To go out into places we do not know. To take a risk to step into, and to receive, hospitality. To go out taking not much more than ourselves, the Good News, and God’s love etched on our hearts. To cast out demons. Anoint the sick. Cure the ill.

And then suddenly, today, we are here: we listened (once again) to the story about the grisly death of John the baptizer. This lavish birthday party gone awry. Just who is this Jesus? For Herod, Jesus is a person of his fears, “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.”[1] This is a banquet filled with the power plays of the rich. Elicit affairs. An exclusive feast for military men and community leaders. The lack of consideration for the life of another human being—an expendable.

But I encourage us to not stop there. Take a moment ant turn the page. For if we keep reading Mark’s account, and follow the storyline away from Herod’s lavish party, we catch up once again with Jesus. Jesus out in a rural area. With the crowds. A place where he suggests that the disciples could, and should, provide a meal. Yet they balk. They do not have much cash on hand. Look around. There is just too much need. And yet another banquet is held. Jesus creatively reimagines the meal: Five thousand (plus) people spread out along the hillsides, gathered together in groups. Five loaves. Two fish. And all are fed. An unexpected, in the moment, experience of inclusive hospitality.

So what is going on around here? For before us today is this story about Herod, a feast, a boastful announcement, and an execution. A story packed with horrific images that numb our emotions. Desensitizes us. What if we were to s-t-r-e-t-c-h our view of what is happening beyond the narrow scope of today’s reading?

What if… we were to expand the “what is going on with the people at the top,” these people who Mark wrote about who were the rich (and potentially) famous (at least in their own minds) of their time?

  • What if… we were to look beyond this gathering of political and economic leaders?
  • What if… we were to seek the Good News that emerges beyond the party, the gourmet food, the interpretive dance, and the promised, deadly decree?
  • What if… we were to layer together what was happening at the time on the urban streets and out in the rural areas?

What would we encounter in the full strata of life in Jerusalem and beyond? Can we hear and see the Good News there?

To do this, I am going to give you a little bit of first century history: Diana Butler Bass and Karl Kuhn both describe the economic and social structures of the Roman Empire as being a strict hierarchy. In this triangular structure, the Emperor was on top of the pyramid, with a strata of social layers below: Kuhn lists these as the:

  • Elite, or governing class followed by
  • Retainers, those individuals that help to “maintain the status quo—(the) military, police, high-level servants, tax collectors”
  • Wealthy Merchants
  • Peasants, Artisans, Laborers, Slaves who “live(d) at or close to or well below a subsistence level”
  • Expendables, people who were sick, “diseased, dirt poor, prostitutes, displaced”[2]

Here, I want to weave in a word that has one meaning for us today that took on a very different sense of meaning, of obligation, 2,000 years ago. And that word is gratitude. Yes, the Romans had an understanding of “gratitude,” but their concept was very different from ours. In fact, Bass writes that the “Ancient Romans could not imagine an empire without gratitude. But their idea of gratitude—of repayment for imperial favor—was embedded in the structure of their politics. Obligatory reciprocity was the fabric of society. Gratitude was not a feeling. It was a political requirement.”[3]

Life was “a political requirement.” The people living into the lower layers of political, economic, and social status owed favors those occupying the top levels. In this systemic structure, Peter Leithart notes, “Gratitude was… (a) reciprocal service and benefaction. Benefits imposed a debt on the recipient that had to be discharged through a return of service or benefit.”[4] High taxation and slavery forced the flow of money, goods, and resources from those at the bottom of the pyramid, to the few men in power at the top. And very little trickled down.[5] “In order for the emperor to receive his proper portion (and everyone to take theirs), taxes were inordinately high on the poor. In contemporary terms, gratitude’s payback was regressive and often created huge financial debts for the lower classes. ‘Debts of gratitude’ were monetary debts, not only social ones. The poorer you were, the more you were required to return to your benefactors.”[6]

This is exactly what the author of Mark is writing about today. Herod’s extravagant party was a reflection of the Roman political system. For do you remember who was invited to the banquet? It was Herod’s buddies, military officers, and political leaders from Galilee. These were the people living near the top of the structure—those Kuhn called the “elite” and the “retainers” that maintained the status quo.

But look around. I think that it is really important to see how the gospel writer is highlighting the way in which Jesus is flipping things over by drawing on the stories that bracket Herod’s tale. For all around Herod, Jesus is already turning the tables. Setting the banquet of gratitude differently. Not a triangle, not a hierarchy, but a hierarchy tipped over on its side. The shape of Jesus’ economic, political and social system is a table. A banquet to which no one is excluded.

For here, the disciples, many who were fishermen, the very people near the bottom of the political pyramid, the people who were among the poorest upon whom high taxes were levied—these are the people Jesus hangs out with… and sends out fed. Social and political tables flipped. Flipped in the call to go out, to live into a life of radically inclusive hospitality, to accept the extravagant welcome of strangers with gratitude… whomever the stranger may be. And tables are flipped in the expectation that the these Jesus followers, the disciples, will be fed, sheltered, and cared for, even if all they provide in return is a story. A story about the Good News of God With Us, a call to repent, to “change your frame of mind,” or maybe a longed for anointment of Hope, or a healing of Grace.

And just in case THAT shift, THIS flip in the feast of life that Jesus is calling for isn’t clear enough, Mark embeds this flashback to Herod’s mob-like birthday party to jolt us awake. Alert to the deceit. The people on the margins whose lives are at risk. The dangers inherent in speaking truth to power. The banquet that quashes hope. Stirs anxiety. Produces fear on a platter.

In the sobering reality of Herod’s rule, Jesus shakes up the top-down pyramid by inviting all to gather at the table, a lush banquet were we all can sit together, eat together, build relationships together. To listen to and learn from one another. A picnic at which all are nourished. Welcomed. Diana Butler Bass point out that, “Gratitude calls us to sit together, to imagine the world as a table of hospitality. To feed one another. To feast, to dance in the streets. To know and celebrate abundance.” She goes on to say, “Gratitude empowers us… (It) is strongest, clearest, most robust, and radical when things are really hard. Really hard. All-is-lost hard.”[7]

Flash forward. Look around. What is going on around here? For, I don’t know about you, but things seem to be hard. Really hard. Sometimes even an all-is-lost hard. Have we been jolted yet? Are we awake? Alert to the deceit? To the people on the margins whose lives are at risk? To the dangers inherent in speaking truth to power?

Jesus followers of 2018: Which dinner invitation are we being called to? Herod’s? The banquet that quashes hope? Stirs anxiety? Produces fear on a golden tray?

Or, is the invitation that we are going to respond to Jesus’? That pushed over, top-down pyramid, which has been made into an extravagant Table for All? A lush banquet where we can all sit together, eat together, build relationships—together? Where we can take a risk to listen and learn from one another?

For this is the picnic of Life at which all are nourished. Where we are called by God to sit together, “to imagine the world as a table of hospitality.”

So come. Feast. Feed one another. Go out and dance in the streets. Know and celebrate abundance.

For THAT’S what’s going on around HERE!


~Pastor Kris


Reflection on Mark 6:14-29 offered July 15, 2018


[1] “The Powers That Be.” SALT’s Lectionary Commentary: Eighth Week after Pentecost (Year B). Accessed July 11, 2018. https://mailchi.mp/saltproject/salt-2642177?e=45986fae16.

[2] Kuhn, Karl. “Frightful Crossings: Reading Mark 4:35-41 in Mark’s Context and Ours.” Lecture, Green Lake Conference Center, June 2018.

[3] Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 145.

[4] Leithart, Peter in Diana Butler Bass’ Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 144.

[5] Kuhn, Karl. “Frightful Crossings: Reading Mark 4:35-41 in Mark’s Context and Ours.” Lecture, Green Lake Conference Center, June 2018.

[6] Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 144.

[7] Bass, Diana Butler. Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks. HarperCollins Publishers, 2018. 186-187.