The Message We Do Not Want to Hear

Sabbath Day Thoughts–Mark 6:14-29

Our nation has a long tradition of people who have spoken hard truths to those in power. In 1777, Midshipman Samuel Shaw and Third Lieutenant Richard Marven blew the whistle on the torture of British prisoners of war by Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. Commodore Hopkins was well-connected. His brother was the Governor of Rhode Island and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In response to their truth-telling, Shaw and Marven were dismissed from the Navy, jailed, and slapped with a criminal libel suit in the Rhode Island courts. When the Continental Congress learned of the injustice afoot in Rhode Island, they unanimously enacted America’s first whistleblower protection law on June 30, 1778. Shaw and Marven were exonerated and Commodore Hopkins was censured for misconduct.

Perhaps the most notorious whistleblower of the twentieth century was Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst with RAND Corporation. In 1971, Ellsberg and colleague Anthony Russo leaked a top-secret study—the Pentagon Papers. The study revealed a web of deception and misinformation about the war in Vietnam. The Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations had lied to Congress and the American people about the viability and success of the war effort. Ellsberg was charged with espionage. He would likely have been convicted if Nixon conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and Howard Hunt—The Whitehouse Plumbers—hadn’t burgled Ellsberg’s workplace, illegally tapped his phones, and plotted to have him dosed with LSD. When their efforts to quash Ellsberg’s truth telling were uncovered, the case against Ellsberg was dismissed.

Employees who speak hard truths in the workplace also face harassment and persecution. In 2010, Everett Stern was working as an anti-money laundering compliance officer with HSBC when he blew the whistle. Stern uncovered a massive, multi-national, money-laundering network at HSBC tied to terrorist groups in the Middle East. Stern sent numerous alerts to his supervisor about the problem, but his boss quashed every effort to stop the illegal wire transfers. Out of options, Stern made contact with the FBI and CIA. As the government noose tightened, Stern lost his job in October 2011. Blacklisted by the financial industry, Stern couldn’t find work. He resorted to waiting tables at PF Chang’s before eventually launching his own business in fraud detection. HSBC paid the federal government $1.92 billion in fines but never faced criminal prosecution for their actions.

John the Baptist knew all about the danger of speaking truth to power. As our reading from Mark’s gospel began, John was imprisoned at Machaerus, Herod Antipas’s mountaintop fortress and retreat. John was the only man in Israel with the chutzpah to call out Herod on his illicit marriage to Herodias. Herodias was Herod’s niece, the daughter of his brother Aristobulous, who had been murdered by their father Herod the Great. Herodias was also already married to his brother, Herod Philip I, who was very much alive and living as an ex-patriate in Rome. The incestuous and illicit union of Herod and Herodias was proscribed by the Torah. Leviticus eighteen and twenty expressly condemned their marriage. But not one priest, not one scribe, not one rabbi in Israel would confront the king about his sin. Everyone at Herod’s Feast knew that the king’s conduct was scandalous, an affront to the Torah, a sin against God, and an embarrassment to the nation.

They left it to John the Baptist, who was known for his blunt and fiery speech, to deliver the message that neither Herod nor Herodias wanted to hear. The Baptizer blew the whistle. He exposed the whole sordid scandal. His condemnation set tongues a-wagging and invited questions and scrutiny. As a result, John found himself a permanent guest of the king, confined to the dungeon at Machaerus, where he continued to denounce Herod and call for the king’s repentance. The king listened to the Baptizer with mixed fascination and fear.

Every message John preached from his prison cell was an opportunity for change. Herod could return to righteousness. He could make the choice for a holier life. Herod knew his guilt, and so did Herodias. As a woman in a deeply patriarchal world, John’s truth telling could lead to her banishment or execution. Rather than renounce her illegal marriage and return to her rightful husband, Herodias waited for the opportune moment when the whistleblower could be silenced, once and for all.

Being a whistleblower is risky business. We may not ever expose military misconduct or the abuse of Presidential power or corporate fraud and profiteering, but we all face moments when our moral sensibility tells us that something doesn’t smell right. Something is wrong. We know that if we remain silent, we will be complicit. Refusing to speak up, to say, “Stop. No.” is really a “Yes” because we have allowed wrong to go unchallenged. We know that if we speak out, there will be painful consequences for our lives: job loss, broken relationships, angry arguments, malicious gossip, outright rejection. Speaking the truth can be the hardest thing we ever do.

Although we may know the ethical challenge of being the whistleblower, we also know the shock and shame of having the whistle blown on us. We have heard hard truths that have confronted us with our bad behavior and sin. Our John the Baptist may have been the father who told us to swallow our pride, straighten up, and go home to the wife and kids. Our John the Baptist may have been the friends who confronted us about our addiction and insisted that we seek professional help. Our John the Baptist may have been the boss who noticed that we were cutting ethical corners and gave us the “Come to Jesus” speech. Our John the Baptist may have been the professor who caught us plagiarizing a paper and made us face the academic consequences for stealing someone else’s work.

We all know John. We have all had people in our lives who have cared enough to invite us to change, to be our better selves, to repent and begin again. Sometimes, we use the power at our disposal to silence them. We disconnect from the relationship. We tell them they are crazy. We deny we have a problem. We resort to threats and insults. Occasionally, we listen to them. Our lives take a new trajectory that isn’t easy, but it is right.

Herodias’s opportune moment came as her husband hosted a banquet to curry favor with his nobles, military commanders, and leading men of Galilee. The table was decked with delicacies. The wine flowed in abundance. The disturbing passion of the evening reached its crescendo as the daughter danced for her father’s pleasure. As Herod promised half his kingdom in reward for his daughter’s performance, Herodias knew she would get exactly what she wanted: John the Baptist’s head on a platter. When the tragic request is made to kill John, there is a graced moment, the king could have challenged his wife and risen to his better nature. He could have acknowledged his wrong and saved John’s life. But the moment passed and John’s fate was sealed in gory fashion.

When the Flemish artist Peter Paul Reubens painted “Herod’s Feast” in the 1600s, he did so with bold color and sensuous detail. Reubens portrayed Herod’s daughter in a scarlet silken dress, bosom bulging, coquettishly lifting the cover on a silver platter bearing the bloodied head of John. A smirking Heodias, at the king’s side, plies a fork with her pinky finger lifted in elegant fashion, ready to poke John’s lifeless head or perhaps serve him up to her husband. Herod looks on, eyes bulging in horror, hands clenching the table cloth in guilt and remorse, barely holding it together. All around them, the party continues, guests feasting and drinking and gossiping, as if the death of the whistleblower were a foregone conclusion.

It’s a terrible story. It’s hard to hear that Herod would sooner take an innocent man’s life than admit his sin and make a change. We are appalled to think that a mother would manipulate her husband and her daughter to bring about a murder. John’s death anticipates the cross and the death of the innocent Jesus at the hands of a weak Pontius Pilate and an angry mob. When this passage pops up in the lectionary cycle, preachers are tempted to give it a pass. But it is a story worth attending to. John’s end questions our moral character. Will we stand up for truth, or will we fail to blow the whistle and live in guilty silence? John’s demise also ultimately confronts us with our own whistleblowers. We have all walked in Herod’s sandals. We have not always risen to our better natures when forced to listen to the message that we do not want to hear. We read of Herod’s Feast and John’s death, and we know our aversion to the hard truths and our reluctance to change, even when it is the right and holy thing to do.

Our John the Baptist blows the whistle. There is a graced moment – the potential for change and growth. Will we become our better selves, or will the prophet lose their head?


Questions to ponder (leave a comment) . . .

When have you been a whistleblower?

Who has been your personal John the Baptist?

How have hard truths prompted you to change?


Peter Paul Reubens, “The Feast of Herod,” accessed online at https://www.peterpaulrubens.net/the-feast-of-herod.jsp

Resources:
Black, Matthew. “The US passed the first whistleblower law in 1777” in History 101, Feb. 14, 2020. Accessed online at https://www.history101.com/the-us-passed-the-first-whistle-blower-law-in-history-in-1777/.
Mullins, Lisa. “50 Years Ago, Daniel Ellsberg — Who Leaked The Pentagon Papers — Surrendered At Boston Federal Court” in WBUR News, June 28, 2021. Accessed online at https://www.wbur.org/news/2021/06/28/on-this-day-daniel-ellsberg-pentagon-papers-surrender-boston-federal-court
Mollenkamp, Carrick and Brett Wolf. “Special Report: HSBC’s money-laundering crackdown riddled with lapses” in Reuters, July 30, 2012. Accessed online at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hsbc-compliance-delaware-idUSBRE86C18H20120714
Hall, Douglas John. “Theological Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Yust, Karen Marie. “Pastoral Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.
Bryant, Robert A. “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 3. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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