A couple of years before I went to seminary, it was summer and our daughter, Cyndy, had graduated from high school – she was 18 and her brother Andy was just turning 21. Andy and his friends were planning to go in to Houston to hear some group play at a bar and they wanted Cyndy and her friend Carrie to go with them. So they had asked me for permission.
The guys thought that the girls could get in as long as they didn’t drink. I decided that this wasn’t a good idea since Cyndy’s friend was only 17 and we couldn’t get hold of her parents, so I told them, “No.” Everybody accepted that and there wasn’t any real argument. The boys all left and Cyndy and Carrie stayed there. Cyndy came up and hugged me and said, “Thanks, Mom. We didn’t really feel comfortable going, but I didn’t want to disappoint my brother.”
That was Cyndy’s dilemma – to be supportive and cool in her brother’s eyes versus feeling comfortable about what they wanted to do. Herod had a dilemma, too. Herod’s dilemma was that it was his birthday and the festivities were just beginning to peak. Everyone was either drunk or getting there pretty quick and so they probably weren't using their best judgment. The king was in a really good mood – a magnanimous mood - and was very pleased by the dance of the young woman. Our text says ‘his daughter, Herodias,’ but that's probably incorrect. Most likely it actually means Herodias’ daughter. That interpretation is supported by Josephus, the Jewish (political) historian, who calls the daughter, ‘Salome.’
Herod was of Jewish descent and ruled only at the pleasure of Rome. But for a Jew he was a very important man, a powerful man, and he wanted to look good in the eyes of those who were with him. Having been pleased by the dance, he made this astounding offer―anything you want – even half my kingdom. It was foolish of Herod by any stretch of the imagination, but it supported his self-image of who he was and who he wanted others to think he was.
The girl had no idea what to ask for, so she went out and consulted with her mother. She came back and asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Chances are really good that she didn’t really know what she was asking for – she just did what her mother asked without really understanding. Scripture doesn’t tell us how old she was, but I would imagine she would be about the age of 13 to 15. And in those days girls were not actually schooled, except possibly in court manners so that they could attract a good alliance in marriage. Her mother, Herodias, had wanted for a long time to get rid of John the Baptizer. He had been very vocal in condemning her and Herod for marrying. He represented a thorn in her side by drawing attention to her sin.
As I said before, Herod, although not religious himself, had a certain respect (and probably fear) for the Jewish religious tradition. John was a prophet and was speaking out as a prophet calling people to own up to their sinful ways. And John was calling people to a different kind of atonement for their sins - not an animal sacrifice at the temple, but the sacrifice of a contrite heart and metanoia - turning their lives around.
Our scripture says that Herod liked to listen to John and he probably spent time down in the dungeon talking to him and listening to what he had to say. Our lesson says that Herod knew John to be a righteous and holy man and that he protected John. So, when the daughter asked for John’s head, Herod had a dilemma.
Here he had made this sweeping promise to give Salome whatever she wanted, never dreaming that she would ask for something so – so bizarre. And now he’s trapped. He didn’t want to give her this request – but he didn’t want to look bad in the eyes of the court officials and military officers there. He didn’t want to look like someone who does not hold up his promises. They all knew what John had been preaching, and Herod didn’t want to appear weak in their eyes. In the Middle East political arena, any sign of weakness is a death knell. That is as true today as it was in Jesus’ time.
What is interesting is that this need for power and face is in actuality a weakness. It drove him and forced him to do something he didn’t want to do, all for the sake of saving face. It’s a kind of peer pressure at an extreme level. For Herod, his word was more important that a human life.
In our lives we face dilemmas all the time. I remember once when my son quit a good paying job because of a dilemma between his own sense of right and wrong and what his company was doing. I quit a summer job up on Lake Travis for the same reason – I didn’t like the ethics of the owner of the business. There are times you just have to do that. You have to step back and decide if you are going to be a part of whatever it is you don’t agree with, for the sake of what? A paycheck? What others might think of you? To remain in power?
When those moral dilemmas come, we need to remember our understanding of God, and all that God calls us to be and do, to make those decisions. We should never allow ourselves to become so ingrained in a situation that we have to act against our conscience in order to please or satisfy someone else.
Now, you may, or may not, have twigged to the fact that this story is actually a “flash-back.” It starts out saying that Herod heard the stories about Jesus and his disciples, and Herod decided this was actually John having been raised from the dead. So John is already dead - this flashback tells the circumstances for his death. So the question is, why would Mark choose this place in the gospel to tell the story of John’s beheading?
The reason is because this lesson is it’s not really intended to be a stand-alone lesson. It is actually the meat & cheese part of one of Mark’s ‘sandwich’ readings. Mark does this all the time. He loves to take two stories and use them to reinforce each other or to make a point.
He will begin telling one story and stop in the middle to tell a different story, and then go back to the first story. He did it with the story from 2 weeks ago - the healing of Jarius’ daughter and the woman with an issue of blood. He does it with the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple and he does it with 6 other stories.
In last week’s Gospel lesson, Jesus sent the disciples out by twos proclaiming a call to repentance, casting out demons and curing the ill. That is what Herod is responding to in today’s lesson. Next’s week’s gospel starts with the disciples coming back and rejoicing in all that they accomplished.
Both stories have their own point, but they also function together to relay a message to Mark’s community who were being persecuted. The message intended by this juxtaposition is to remind them that bad things are going to happen, and good people are going to die, but the good news of God’s love and forgiveness and his healing still goes on wherever God’s people reach out to help others.
And this is our inheritance when we set our hope on Christ – when we’ve heard the word of truth and we believe in him – we belong to God. We don’t have to do things to please the people around us because we have a God who has chosen us before the foundations of the world. A God who is faithful to us in all circumstances, and who will never desert us. This is the one we should please. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen.