Humanity exposed

Pentecost 7

Mark 6:14-end

Marian Free

In the name of God our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

The past few decades have revealed in vivid detail how violent the world is and how precarious, for many, is their hold on life. This week on You Tube a video was posted of a woman being executed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. On Wednesday a young man cried before the International Court as he told the story of the last time he saw his Bosnian father. Throughout the world people flee from violence to an uncertain future. In refugee camps around the world, women are routinely raped and not only by those whom they might consider their enemies. Women and children are trafficked as sex slaves even in Australia. In Syria today, Libya yesterday, autocratic rulers and their followers who are trying to hold on to power violently suppress any opposition to their rule.

Modern methods of communication mean that we receive news (especially bad news) almost immediately. Remember the video of the young protester shot in Egypt. Another person who was present took a film on their mobile phone and within minutes the world knew what had happened.

My point is this, a person would be hard pressed not to know that there are many really shocking things taking place every day and that innocent people -simply because of the countries into which they are born – are experiencing what to us is unimaginable violence and cruelty often on a daily basis.

It is not as if the world has changed, but our knowledge of the world has expanded to the point where it is impossible to ignore what goes on around us.

This is the context in which we read the account of the death of John the Baptist. Palestine of the first century was no more unstable or violent than many countries are today. Rulers like Herod, whose hold on power was to some extent dependent on the whim of Rome, were under some pressure to maintain order. Not only that, but there would be other opportunists like himself ready to take his place if the situation arose. For that reason, opposition had to be quickly dispensed. So, if someone like John was perceived as disturbing the peace then he (like say, Aung San Suu Kyi) would need to be neutralized by placing him under arrest. The execution of John  (or Aung San) would have been a more permanent solution, the death of John of Aung San might have incited their followers to cause unrest so arrest was the safer option.

Herod’s hold on power might have been precarious, but spare a thought for his wife, who like many women throughout history found herself in a situation that was extremely precarious and which – especially as her power and influence had been ill-gained – could only be maintained by devious or violent measures. If you read the second book of Chronicles you will hear the story Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, who set out to slaughter all the Royal household of Judah in order to gain the throne and to assure herself of some sort of security. You don’t need to go that far back to be reminded that women often had no say in their future, but were wedded off to whomever might provide greater stability for their fathers. Some of these women achieved security for themselves and for their children by means that we would consider immoral, conniving or brutal.

The position of Herod’s wife was not at all secure, and her daughter’s less so. Having abandoned her husband for Herod, – possibly lured by his greater power and wealth – she would be aware that relationships were tenuous and that there was no guarantee that she would remain in Herod’s favour. Further, having achieved Herod’s favour in a way that some considered immoral, it is understandable that she might have been all the more determined to ensure that she gained the respect of those around her. Her daughter, who is not the daughter of Herod, is equally vulnerable. No wonder then that the mother is anxious to rid herself of a man who is troubling her husband’s conscience and threatening her position. No wonder that her daughter seeks her advice and is willing to act on it.

I always find it extraordinary that the Gospels have such an extended account of such a gruesome story. Some other events are mentioned only in passing, but here we have the details of the dinner, the dance, the promise, the request and its completion. The same is true of other grusomes stories in the Bible. I think for example of the Levite’s concubine whom, we are told was cut into twelve pieces, or of the rape of Tamar, or the destruction of the tribe of Bethlehem. (Those OT stories are only the internal stories, not ones about Israel’s enemies!)  They are hardly edifying, not the sort of story that would enhance one’s faith or deepen one’s spirituality. However, they are important stories, not least because they reveal the ugliness of human nature and the depths to which some people will sink.

If nothing else, these accounts make us aware of the complexity of the human heart and help us to think about the nature of our own thoughts, our own petty jealousies, our own need to protect the roles that make us feel worthwhile and important or our desire to hurt or destroy those things or people who threaten us or who threaten our comfortable existence.

We live in a world which is becoming increasingly polarized. Religious conflict between those who hold the same faith and those of different faiths is increasing in some parts of the world. In other parts of the world there is suspicion that different faith groups are planning to “take over”.  Even before the GFC there was an increasing gap between the very rich and the very poor. Now we are starting to see a gap between those who are employed and those who are not. In such an environment, the baser side of human nature tends to be exposed as people compete for resources and power and those with resources do whatever it takes to protect them.

The ugly stories of our scriptures remind us that, while we might not like to admit it, we share with the rest of humanity a potential for evil as well as for good. Our scriptures don’t gloss over the difficult and uncomfortable, but expose both the best and the worst of human nature. This helps us to be honest and realistic with ourselves, to know of what we are capable, to recognise and confront the ugly parts of ourselves, and to identify and strengthen all that is good. It is important always to have an unblinkered view of ourselves for only then will we have the will to open about our frailty, willing to grow and change and cautious about judging the world.

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