written and preached by Rev. Natalie Shiras
July 15, 2012 Mark 6:14-29
I met with the Lenox clergy this week and asked what they were preaching on for today. Not this text. Any other text but this. It’s an intimidating passage included in the three year cycle lectionary we follow. This is the first time in thirty years that I have tackled it. It is challenging to preach a text of terror. Please bear with me as we examine the dark side of human life and see if there is any redeeming value to the story.
I went online and learned that this story of political ambition, lust, seduction, and murder has provided endless inspiration for artists and writers. Titian, Caravaggio and Gustave Moreau are among many artists who painted it; Oscar Wilde wrote a famous play about it, and Richard Strauss used the story for his very successful opera, Salome. Ken Russell and Billy Wilder incorporated it into films. Probably no other story from the New Testament other than Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection has provided more stimulation for the artistic imagination.
It’s a Biblical tragedy. Herod, the weak son of Herod the Great, allows himself to be manipulated by his wife, Herodias and her daughter, Salome, erroneously called Herodias in this Markan version of the story. Herodias is now with Herod, previously married to his half brother which would be considered incest in Jewish law. She is angry and filled with vengeance that John the Baptist would criticize their marriage. Salome, the daughter, is married to another half brother of Herod. She is willing to be compromised by her mother’s vengeance and to use her seductive powers to control the weak Herod’s lustful mind, hooked by her looks and her wild dancing at his birthday party. With poetic license Richard Strauss in his opera has Salome take the grotesque action of kissing the severed head of John the Baptist. Herod is so horrified that he immediately has his men kill her on the spot.
John the Baptist on the other hand is a truth-teller, announcing the coming of Jesus, living an ascetic lifestyle that must have seemed strange and threatening to the royal court, and preaching repentance to Herod about his marriage. It is John the Baptist who pays the ultimate price when Herod chooses to save royal face and make his own image as powerful king more important than regard for another man’s life. Notice that everyone else at the birthday banquet keeps silent about Herod’s order to kill John the Baptist.
We are forced here to see what we do not want to see and hear what we do not want to hear. In the story evil is found at the center of power. The powerful, driven by the forces of sex, money and power prevail over the weak and innocent. The brutal political power of King Herod overcomes the political powerlessness of John the Baptist, the precursor for the same dynamic that will lead to the execution of Jesus.
But it is not so neat, this contrast of good and evil. Herod actually is torn. In verse 20 it says that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
In the end Herod’s ambivalence overcomes his better self him and he allows himself to reject a moment of decision about John the Baptist. What is he doing, after all, to swear anything to Salome, including half his kingdom? Is he drunk? He is unable to act with clarity and decency toward Herodias’ daughter’s request. He is taken with her and chooses to accept her request to murder John the Baptist.
What has this to do with us? Our lives for the most part are not so obviously controlled by the evil of power and corruption and lust. John’s execution seems remote at best.
And yet everyday we have the opportunity to see evil at its worst in the news of needless deaths and the slaughter of innocent people. Maybe we know of people in our own family or in others’ families who are struggling with their own texts of terror: addiction, abuse, lust, misuse of power.
The beheading of John shows us how to look at our own tragedies. The seduction by Salome forces us to look at the cycles in our own families that passes from one generation to the next—addiction to alcohol or drugs, promiscuity, violence, anxiety, fear, negative beliefs about ourselves— and the consequences of these behaviors in ourselves, our families and our society.
What do we do in those moments? Are we like Herod, who rejects the moment of grace and instead honors Salome’s request? Or would we accept that moment of grace and stand up for someone’s life? Stand up for what is true?
We go along in our lives when everything is going well. And then one day we are thrown by a calamity, by a disruption in our familiar lives. We thought everything was moving smoothly and now it seems things are unmanageable. Has that ever happened to you?
My life became unmanageable when I allowed too much drinking and yelling to go on in my marriage. At first I didn’t want to make waves and just tried to keep the peace. But when that didn’t work, a friend told me about Al-Anon. I went to Al-Anon to get help and that made all the difference. I was able to speak truthfully to this situation that was no longer working for me. It led to positive changes in my own life.
When life becomes unmanageable, that’s when we turn to God, that’s when we turn to a higher power. In the twelve steps programs, we admit that we are powerless over an unmanageable situation and come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. We make a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God. We then make a searching and moral inventory of ourselves that can lead to positive changes in our lives.
Belief in one’s own power resists the truth. Herod’s insatiable quest for power prevented him from seeing the truth of the life of John the Baptist. Those struggling with addictions resist the truth by believing they can overcome those addictions by themselves. A belief in our own power alone even resists looking at small transgressions and guilty secrets. What this story of Herod shows is the absurdity of our pretence toward our own omnipotence. That’s the redemptive lesson of the story—to recognize this absurdity and realize that our Creator, with us as created partners, wants us to come closer and restore us to our rightful minds. That recognition is grace. Amen.