It will be nineteen years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of St. Margaret’s. It was a memorable interview in many ways, but one thing I especially remember was a question I was asked by Murray Tait, who was People’s Warden at the time. He said, ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’
Preachers often have difficulty with that question – after all, we’re dependent on our congregations to pay our salaries, and it can be so tempting just to tell people what they want to hear! And yet we know that passing on the challenge of Jesus is also an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus won’t always sound like good news, especially when he calls us to leave selfish ways behind and put God’s word into practice in our daily lives. How do we react to that challenge? Today’s gospel tells us about two people who were challenged by God’s message, and how they reacted to it.
I need to clarify that the Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, the one who tried to get the wise men to lead him to the baby Jesus in the Christmas story. Our Herod is his son, Herod Antipas; Herod the Great had divided his kingdom between his sons, and Antipas got Galilee, where Jesus was brought up.
There are two things you need to know about Herod Antipas. First, he was a puppet ruler; he kept his throne because it suited the Romans to have him there. Because of this, keeping the peace with Rome was always a priority for him. But secondly, like his father, he really wanted the people he ruled to recognize him and accept him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews – they were Idumeans, and this was one of the reasons they were very unpopular with the Jewish people; how could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people, the Jews?
And the choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation. Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had met her at his brother’s house; the two had become infatuated with each other and had left their previous spouses to marry each other. It’s actually not clear whether a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and there was a lot of controversy at that time about the proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife. It’s fair to say that a large percentage of the population of Galilee saw Herod and Herodias as living in sin – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King.
And this was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist. Our text says ‘John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”’(v.18). We shouldn’t understand from this that John and Herod had enjoyed a quiet fireside chat over a glass of wine, discussing Herod’s matrimonial woes! No – when it says ‘John had been telling Herod’, it means, ‘telling in public, in his sermons’. And if John was saying this about Herod’s marriage, the people would have understood him to be denying that Herod could be God’s true anointed king – which, of course, would have been an act of sedition on John’s part. At this point – as a ruler interested in keeping his throne – Herod had to arrest John.
But now comes the curious twist: Herod had a soft spot for John, too! In fact, he was more than a little afraid of him, knowing that ‘he was a righteous and holy man’ (v.20). Even more curiously, we read that Herod ‘liked to listen to (John)’ (v.20). It sounds as if there was an internal struggle going on in Herod; he was angry at what John was saying, and yet deep down he knew there was truth in his words.
But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a manipulator, determined to get what she wanted, and she wanted the Baptist dead. A dance on Herod’s birthday gave her the opportunity to get what she wanted. Our NRSV translation opts for a minority reading of the text and identifies the dancer as ‘Herod’s daughter Herodias’. However, this makes no sense; there is no evidence that Herod had a daughter who was also called Herodias. The majority of manuscripts identify the dancer as ‘the daughter of Herodias’ – presumably by her marriage to Philip. The Jewish historian Josephus gives her name as ‘Salome’. Herod, an impetuous man, was so infatuated with her dancing that he made a rash vow promising to reward her with anything she wanted, up to half his kingdom. This was Herodias’ opportunity; the girl asked for advice from her mother, and her mother had no hesitation about using her daughter as a pawn: she was to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. ‘The king was deeply grieved’, but felt bound by his oath, and that was the end of the matter.
Now – what can we possibly learn about Christian discipleship from this grizzly story?
Well, let’s look at the three main characters. Let’s start with Herodias. Here’s a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She’s not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly.
It’s possible that her own personal insecurities were fuelling her determination to have her own way. She knew her marriage to Herod was doubtful in the eyes of the people, and she knew Herod was hungry for their approval. She knew he had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew if he chose to listen to John’s message, she stood to lose her marriage and her position as the wife of the Tetrarch of Galilee. You can imagine how she must have felt.
Of course, that’s often the way it is with bullies – they often have a deep-seated insecurity inside, an insecurity they’re determined not to reveal to anyone. So they overcompensate; they come across as forceful personalities, and if you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world’s a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they’re determined to be the winners every time.
The lengths Herodias was prepared to go to in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Do you think it was a pleasant experience for a young girl to be presented with the head of John the Baptist on a plate? But Herodias was quite prepared to put her daughter through this trauma in order to get what she wanted. Apparently she saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so she could get her own way.
Sad to say, this sort of thing isn’t unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try to be kind to everyone, and so bullies can throw their weight around in a church for a long time before someone confronts them with their behaviour and challenges them to stop it.
And of course, if we’re ever going to grow as Christians, we dohave to stop. Herodias saw herself as the lead actor in her own play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we’re ever going to grow in the Christian life, we have to learn to take ourselves out of the centre of our own universe and give that place back to the one to whom it rightfully belongs.
So Herodias exemplifies the person who uses power to get what they want. But now let’s turn again to her husband, Herod Antipas. He’s a fascinating character! If ever there was a man with conflicted emotions, it was Herod! Deep down inside, he knew what was right, but over and over again he showed himself unable to do it.
It started with the arrest of John the Baptist. As a shrewd politician, Herod knew that if he was going to keep his throne he had to arrest John, but he seems to have felt guilty about the fact. He liked to listen to John! No doubt John talked about the things he’d always talked about – the coming of the Kingdom of God, and the need for people to turn their lives around so they could get ready for that Kingdom. John had never shied away from spelling out specifics, and no doubt he continued to do so when he talked with Herod; no doubt he told Herod “It’s wrong for you to have your brother’s wife”. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think this means he was ‘perplexed’ about what John meant. No one could miss John’s meaning! No – he was perplexed about his own response to the message he was hearing: would he obey, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to actually do it.
And of course the same thing happened when Herodias’ daughter asked for the head of John the Baptist. No doubt Herod saw immediately that he’d been in the wrong in making such a rash oath, but he cared too much for the good opinion of those around him to retreat from it. Once again, he knew what he ought to do, but he didn’t do it.
Most Christians will recognise themselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message – we do it here every Sunday – but we’re often ‘perplexed’ about putting it into practice. It seems so costly! It’s so hard to actually do the things Jesus says. Nonetheless, if we’re going to grow in our Christian lives, we have to face the fact that it isn’t enough just to ‘enjoy listening to’ the Christian message. Jesus told us that if we do that, we’re like a person who builds their house on the sand: the rains come and the floods rise and beat upon the house, and down it comes. Obedience in theory won’t help us build a life that can stand up when the storm comes; only obedience in practice will do the job.
So the story’s telling us we have to be willing to take ourselves out of the centre of our own lives and commit ourselves to following God’s anointed king, Jesus. It’s telling us we have to be willing to put Jesus’ teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And the story’s warning us: if we do this, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.
John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He’d given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He’d spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He’d pointed to Jesus, the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he’d followed God’s call to speak the truth to powerful people, and he’d come to a sticky end.
Mark – and the early Christians who read his gospel – didn’t see this as something strange. Mark wrote for Christians in Rome who were being savagely persecuted by the Emperor Nero. They understood that this was part of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus. Two chapters later in Mark, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). In all likelihood Jesus meant this saying literally; many of those who followed him would take up their crosses and go to the place of execution, just as he had. To be a Christian meant being unafraid to nail your colours to the mast, identify yourself publicly as a follower of Jesus, and accept the consequences.
Of course, we know the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. But a decade later Herod was deposed from his throne by the Romans and ended his life in exile in Gaul, while John was already looked on as a hero by the growing Christian movement. Even more than that, as Jesus said, “those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:35). John lives in glory today, and one day he’ll be raised to live with Jesus forever, and I’m sure he has no doubt that he made the right decision. But – when he was looking at the executioner’s axe, I’m sure he was just as scared as we would have been in his place.
Speaking of fear – one last thing. In his brilliant little book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says that the virtue of courage – which he calls ‘fortitude’ – is something we need whenever we try to practice one of the Christian virtues. Here’s what he says:
Fortitude includes both kinds of courage – the courage that faces danger as well as the kind that sticks to it under pain…You will notice, of course, that you cannot practice any of the other virtues very long without bringing this one into play.
I know what he means. You believe God is calling you to do something, but you can see the possible negative consequences. You might not literally lose your head as John the Baptist did, but you might lose some financial security, or some comfort, or the good opinion of your friends. You can’t help feeling some fear and anxiety about that. So are you going to let the fear control your actions, or are you going to do what’s right? That’s where the rubber hits the road!
Don’t make the mistake of praying that God will give you a feeling of courage. Courage isn’t a feeling; courage is the habit of doing the right thing, even when you’re afraid of the consequences. There’s an old saying: “Courage is fear that has said its prayers”. And the content of the prayers is simple: “God, you’ve called me to do this difficult thing, but I can see the path ahead is going to be hard. Quite frankly, I’m scared. So can you please help me not to let fear control me? Help me do what you’re calling me to do, and give me a sense that you’re with me in it”.
I can’t begin to count the number of times in my Christian life I’ve had to pray a prayer like that. And I’ve learned from experience that the prayers don’t take the difficulties away, but they do give me a sense that I’m not alone. “I am with you always”, says Jesus, “to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). He was with John the Baptist, and he’ll be with us too. So let’s pray for the courage to follow him as faithfully as John the Baptist did.