Our gospel for today from Saint Mark is actually a flashback that Herod has when he hears of all the work that the disciples are doing in Jesus’ name. Some were saying the John the Baptist had been raised from the dead and Herod was thinking they might be right – and this is when we have this flashback where we get to hear what happened to John the Baptist.
It’s not a happy story and it’s kind of a big wet blanket text right here in the middle of the summer. It’s one of those gospel texts that when I read it, instead of proclaiming afterward, like I always do, that this is the gospel of the Lord, I want to put a question mark after it. This is the gospel of the Lord?
King Herod in this gospel is a descendent of Herod the Great, who was infamous for having all the toddler boys killed after the Magi announced Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great had a few sons – two of which he had killed, along with his favorite wife, because he heard a rumor they were plotting his death.
Two surviving sons were Herod Philip and Herod Antipas. It’s like that show, Newhart – do you remember that show? This is my brother Daryl and this is my other brother Daryl. Anyway, here it is Herod and his other brother Herod. Herod the Great’s grandniece Herodias came along and married Herod Philip, her uncle. I read there was a lot of inter-marriage within this family because they believed that their bloodline was superior and they didn’t want to sully it by marrying outside the family. Herod Philip and Herodias had one daughter. The story that we read about in our gospel begins when Herodias leaves Herod Philip for Herod Antipas – her other uncle. Unlike Herod Philip, Herod Antipas was the greatest Prince in the family – he held rank and wealth. It didn’t matter to Herodias that Herod Antipas was already married – she quickly left Philip and took their daughter and went to Tiberius to be with Herod Antipas.
This was not legal according to Mosaic Law. If Philip were dead, it would have been honorable, in fact it would have been required at one point in Jewish history for a brother to marry the widow of his brother – but there was nothing good about what Herod Antipas and Herodias have done.
Now even though their marriage arrangement was illegal and distasteful, no one interfered – Herod was powerful and influential. Only one person spoke out against what had happened – “Mark 6:18 reads, ‘for John had been telling Herod, ‘it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
So here is John the Baptist, pointing out the sin that no one else will point out. He’s got guts. And we might say, “Good for John the Baptist!” Until we remember that time when someone pointed out some sin or shortcoming of ours and we remember that it doesn’t feel very good.
What do you mean I could be a better giver? I do pretty well. Well, sure I didn’t need that new pair of heels but they were so pretty and they were on sale.
What do you mean I really need to stop gossiping? I mean, it’s not like I said anything that wasn’t true. Well, sure that’s not exactly an uplifting way to talk about my neighbor, but come on.
What do you mean I better think hard about the first commandment and the false gods sucking up time in my life? I mean, sure I spent way more time on Facebook and catching up on old episodes of the X-files last week than studying scripture or in prayer, but everyone needs some down time. Right? Come on.
None of us like being faced with our sins. Those who call us on them become an unpopular drag really, really quickly.
This was the place in which John the Baptist found himself. He called out Herod and Herodias on their sins and they did not like it one bit. Herodias wanted him dead immediately but Herod was afraid to do this because he knew that John was a righteous and holy man. In fact, here in the gospel of Mark it says that Herod liked to listen to John. Maybe he wondered if there were things he should be learning from John. The gospel of Matthew contradicts this, however, and says that Herod wanted to kill John but he was afraid of the people. Regardless, we do know that ultimately he had John imprisoned.
But that wasn’t enough for Herodias. She was out for blood. Our translation reads, “She had a grudge against him.” Other translations read that she “nursed this grudge” – she fed it and tended to it and kept it alive.
It’s crazy how crazy anger can make us – especially if we feed that anger. A very long time ago I remember a fellow I had been dating broke up with me and of course that was hard and sad – we had been dating for a couple years. But then a day or two after we broke up, I found out that before he broke up with me he had started dating someone else. This completely changed my sorrow to righteous anger. How dare he? My indignation knew no end. My energy immediately turned from weepy tears to plotting how I could inflict the most pain upon this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Norwegian Lutheran jerk.
But all the angry letters I might want to write him, all the little speeches I planned in my head that I would present to him when I saw him next, all his friends that I planned to date in retaliation – I knew none of it would really be satisfying. Oh, I definitely let him know that I found out about his sorry little cheating heart – I had to do that. But then, I stepped back and I remembered what Jesus said about loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. So I prayed hard – every day. I prayed like I don’t think I have ever prayed before. I prayed for myself and I prayed for that ex-boyfriend, I even prayed for his new girlfriend. I prayed for them with bitterness for a long time, but I kept praying, until the anger started subsiding, the hatred melted, and I could start to see clearly again. I could feel myself slowly starting to forgive them – and that felt so much better than the cold little stone of anger I was tempted to keep carrying inside.
I wish Herodias could have understood how good it feels to forgive rather than to nurse hatred and grudges. It sounds like she was laser-focused on her revenge, however.
She made a plan – so she would be ready when the opportunity came. The opportunity for her revenge came on Herod’s birthday – there was a big party for his birthday. This would have been a party for men – women of good reputation didn’t go to these parties – not even Herodias, his wife, would have been invited. I read that the only women usually found at these kinds of gatherings were women who danced and entertained men after the meal. Whatever the equivalent was in those days of women who jump out of cakes.
So then it is peculiar that his daughter, who is actually Herodias and Herod Philip’s daughter, comes in to dance. Here the daughter is simply called Herodias but in other places she is called the daughter of Herodias or Salome. Most theologians I read speculate that it was Herodias who sent her daughter in there, not caring about her daughter’s reputation as much as she is banking on that Herod has been drinking and just might be feeling generous enough to offer her what eventually does. The King said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.”
The girl leaves and asks her mother, “What should I ask for?” Now what kid does that? If you ask my kids what they want, they don’t come and ask me – they know very well what they want. They probably have a list prepared right now they could hand you. Coming up with requests isn’t hard for kids usually. So that’s why some think that Herodias had coached her daughter beforehand, “After you dance for your stepfather, if he offers to give you something, come and tell me.”
Well, we know what Herodias told her daughter to request – the head of John the Baptist – on a platter. I always thought that part was a bit extra nuts – that it had to be on a platter. But whatever. The scriptures say that Herod was grieved to do it, but because he didn’t want to lose face in front of his guests and go back on this promise to the girl, he had John beheaded. The head was placed on a platter, given to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. This is the gospel of the Lord? This is the good news of Jesus?
Well, thank goodness, this story doesn’t stand by itself in scripture – right before this, we are hearing the story of all that Jesus was doing and how word was spreading about his healing and the disciples were going out and casting out demons and curing the sick in Jesus’ name. And right after this story about John’s death, the miracles continue with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on water and doing more healings.
But just as John was killed for speaking truth to power, the same thing would eventually happen to Jesus. This gospel of Jesus Christ – this gospel that makes life worth living, that brings healing to the sick and wholeness to our hearts and amazing grace, it is not without cost. For John the Baptist and for Jesus and for countless martyrs for the faith it cost them their earthly lives. And we are living a very shallow, hollow, surface sort of faith if we think it does not cost us something as well.
C.S. Lewis said, “The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says, “Give me your all. I don’t want so much of your money and so much of your work: I want you…no half measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want the whole tree…. I will give you a new self instead. I will give you Myself.”
What does this mean? It means we are the children of God, given the gift of God’s grace – and a gift like this – how can we help but want to thank the Giver? How can we do this? How can we live lives of responding in thankfulness for God’s beautiful grace?
Being willing to be convicted when we are wrong and try to do better is a start. Giving not just out of our leftovers but giving our first fruits, the best we have to offer to God, that is a start. Stepping up, being brave to use our voices and efforts to speak up for justice for those who are experiencing injustice, that’s a great start. Forgiving, even and especially when it is hard, turning away from the temptations that make us less than the people God has called us to be, being diligent about studying the Word of God, beginning and ending our days and filling the hours in between with prayer, visiting the sick and the elderly and the homebound, writing the note of encouragement and support, teaching your children about the Lord’s prayer, the creed, and the ten commandments, honoring your parents with visits and support especially as they age, being honest in word and deed, using your words to speak well of others and never cut others down, be faithful to your spouse, be thankful for what you have….all of these things are a great way to start.
Not because our salvation is dependent on us doing these things but because we are so thankful for the love that Jesus has already so freely given us, we want our lives to be transformed by him. Isn’t that what we want? I mean when someone gives you a gift, you want to respond in turn, and I pray that we never take God’s grace so for granted that we forget to seek him daily and be shaped by Jesus daily.
Most of us will likely never be killed because of our faith, and yet this faith we share does require something. Namely everything. May God help us to give this in Jesus’ name. Amen.