The Emperor has no clothes? -- A Lectionary Reflection
The Emperor has no clothes?
Unless you live under a rock, you have to be aware that politics is in the air. It’s clear that the “people” are frustrated with those in power. It’s true here in the United States, where I live, and it’s true around the world. Economic downturns will have that effect, but it’s not just economics. There’s this feeling that the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and those in the middle are getting squeezed downward. There are voices making themselves heard from all points on the political spectrum, and the “people” seem willing to shift loyalties back and forth, hoping that someone can change their fortunes.
It’s in this context that we hear these voices from Scripture. Amos tells Jeroboam, king of Israel that God is finished with him and his government. John the Baptist challenges the lifestyle of the rich and famous – specifically that of the king in Galilee and his wife, and pays for it with his life. In the reading from Ephesians, politics may not be as present, but it does remind us where our loyalties should lie. Put your hope in God not the world. These words should give us pause, so that we might consider how we relate to society. I’m not averse to public engagement on the part of the church. I believe that there is a role for the church to play in calling on the government to honor its duties and promises. Is that not what Amos was up to? The question is – where do we place our allegiance? Amos and John were not afraid to speak truth to power, and they ruffled feathers along the way. What are we willing to do?
We begin with Amos. This 8th century BCE prophet rises up in Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II (785-745 BCE), a period of territorial expansion for Israel and its southern neighbor Judah. The times are good. People are getting rich. The neighbors are respectful of the nation’s power. But not long after Jeroboam’s death this proud kingdom fell into oblivion as the Assyrians marched in, conquered the territory, and scattered the populace.
Amos pops up in this moment and rains on the nation’s parade. Hindsight suggests he’s rather prescient, but for Amaziah the priest Amos is not only annoying he sounds rather treasonous, in suggesting that Israel, in its pride had walked away from God’s ways, and God was finished with them. Amaziah’s suggestion is that Amos go bother the kingdom of Judah. In fact, he could be implying that Amos is working for the enemy (Judah); after all, that’s his homeland. So, why is he here? Why is he bothering us here in Bethel, which is the king’s holy place and royal palace? Why don’t you go elsewhere and both them?
Do you see the connection? Church and state linked under the king’s oversight. Religion is supposed to uphold the state, be the entity that blesses the monarch’s activities. Consider our own situation. We love to sing patriotic songs in our churches and place the flag in prominent places in our sanctuaries. Indeed, as I drive around town I spot churches flying the American flag proudly above the “Christian Flag.” What is the symbolism here? What role is religion playing? What if the prophet challenges this linking of patriotism and religion?
Amos answers his critic. I’m not a prophet he says. I’m but a shepherd, a member of the lower classes. I speak because God has chosen me for this purpose, because God has set out a “plumb line” and finds that the nation isn’t square. It’s too far off from center. There’s no hope for reclamation. Indeed, Israel is too far gone and God cannot forgive its sin. It’s not a very positive message, but is it not a call to remember to whom we owe our allegiance?
The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is one of the more unusual tales of scripture. It has been fodder for many a Hollywood Jesus movie – not the beheading so much as the dance that leads up to it. In this reading from Mark, Jesus stands in the background. It seeks to explain why Herod is worried about Jesus. Who is this preacher who is stirring up the people, much as Amos stirred up the people centuries earlier? So he asks and gets a number of answers that range from the return of Elijah to his being a “modern-day” prophet. Most worrisome to Herod is the possibility that Jesus is really John the Baptist, the prophet whom he had executed, had returned from the dead to haunt him. With Herod’s conviction that this must be John, we hear the story of John’s execution at the hands of Herod’s guards.
John had made a nuisance of himself in Galilee by calling out the king (Herod Antipas, one of Herod the Great’s sons is a vassal king ruling Galilee at the behest of the Romans). One the points of contention is Herod’s marriage to the wife of one of his brothers – Herodias – who is probably also a half-sister. It’s a rather complicated relationship, just underscoring the debauchery that the upper classes can indulge in. Herodias is none too pleased and seeks to have him killed. The only problem is that Herod respects John and likely fears him as well. He had been in the habit of inviting John to converse with him. It must have been interesting conversations, if our view of John is correct. He wouldn’t have held back, and that might have been the drawing card. Rulers and those in authority often are surrounded by sycophants who tell them what they want to hear, but John offered an alternative voice. It wasn’t a comforting one, but it gave clarity even as it brought confusion to his soul. He knew John was right – he lived a lie, but he couldn’t break out.
Finally Herodias hatches a plan. It’s Herod’s birthday and the king has invited all the important people in the kingdom to join him for a party. There is food and there is drink and, well, you know, you can use your imagination. It’s at this moment that Herodias puts her plan into place. She sends out her daughter (or Herod’s daughter) also named Herodias (though we often know her as Salome). She goes out and dances and pleases the king with her dance. Hollywood suggests that this was an erotic dance that, well, got a rise out of the king. So overcome with lust for this young woman – his daughter or step-daughter depending on how we read things – that he loses control of his senses. He promises her anything she wants up to half the kingdom. So, what to do? Herodias obviously knew her husband and knew this would happen, but the daughter seems innocent of this plot and asks her mother for advice. It is an overwhelming offering? Herodias, who has used her daughter for this purpose to manipulate her husband (manipulation is often the tool used by those who don’t have visible power to get their way), tells her to ask for John’s head on a platter. Herod doesn’t want to do this, but he has no choice. He made a promise and had to keep it. And thus, John’s head is delivered on a platter. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely?
Amos and John the Baptist share something in common – they speak out against the sins of the rich and powerful. They call for those in authority to be accountable to God. Amos is told to flee, John loses his head. To whom are we accountable?
As we come to Ephesians we move in a somewhat different direction. Amos and Mark challenge us with stories of earthly power and its corrupting tendencies. In Ephesians our author, who claims to be Paul, offers us a different vision – a vision of the heavenly kingdom. It is very different in nature from that of Herod or Jeroboam. It is a realm that offers us the opportunity to experience holiness. We have been chosen for adoption through Christ. In him we have redemption – we’re made clean by the blood of Jesus. Too often we read this in transactional mode, but can we not see this as teaching us that in the blood of Jesus shed by human hands, God’s holiness makes us pure as we are washed in it? (On this question see Richard Beck, Unclean, pp. 39-40).
The point that emerges from the Ephesians letter is that a time is coming and is already here when all things on heaven and earth are brought into unity under the reign of Christ. Heaven and earth – they will be brought together, and heaven will bring holiness to the earth. I’m reminded here of the discussion in Richard Beck’s book about “negative dominance,” the belief that the impure always overwhelms the pure, which is why one doesn’t touch the leper or the dead, lest one become unclean. This poses problems for the church if it imbibes this idea. It undermines the missional impulse of the church.
Negativity dominance is problematic in the life of the church because, in the missional moment, when the church makes contact with the world, the power sits firmly with the world as the location of impurity. According to the logic of negativity dominance, contact with the world defiles the church. Given this logic the only move open to the church is withdrawal and quarantine, separation from the world. In short, many missional failures are simply the product of the church following the intuitive logic of disgust psychology. [Beck, Unclean: Meditations on Purity, Hospitality, and Mortality (p. 30). ]
In Christ, however, this view is turned on its head – the clean (Jesus) makes clean by his touch and by his blood. In other words, in Jesus positive dominance reigns. Thus, the church is able to enter the world without fear.
In an age when upward mobility was impossible, the message was – you have chosen (elected) by God to be children of God by adoption. Is this a message that is aspirational today? Do we feel closed in and powerless? Does the idea that we have been chosen by God – much as the shepherd from Tekoa in Judah (Amos) was chosen to speak on behalf of God? According to Ephesians we have been chosen for this purpose, to the praise of God, and we have been sealed with the promised Holy Spirit – the one who empowers – so that we have our guarantee of our inheritance, which is redemption to the praise of God’s glory.
In each text we hear an invitation to remember to whom we belong. When in doubt, Ephesians reminds us, we’ve been sealed with the Holy Spirit (baptism?). Thus, there is no need to fear. Amos had no fear, nor did John, because they knew that the emperor had no clothes. Do we have that same perception?