Seventh Weekend After Pentecost: “Speaking Truth to Power”
July 11-12, 2015
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
If, when you were a teenager, a very wealthy person had said to you, “Ask for whatever you wish, and I will give it,” what would you have asked for??
Out of all the wonderful possibilities open to her, the teenager in today’s Gospel asks not for a new wardrobe, or a faster chariot, or a trip to some exotic destination, or a little villa all her own, but for the head of John the Baptist.
There are so many things wrong with this picture, where do we start?? Herod, Herodias, her daughter whom we usually hear referred to as Salome, but in this translation has the same name as her mother, all have “issues.”
No wonder Herod had issues. Herod Antipas, whom we meet in this weekend’s Gospel, was the son of Herod the Great, who ordered the slaughter of the innocents after the wise men from the East spilled the beans that a King had been born in Bethlehem. Herod the Great was a Jew. He built the temple that Jesus worshiped in. He was crazy and murderous. He was so paranoid he had a number of his own children killed, so convinced was he that they were plotting against him. And yet, he kept kosher and wouldn’t eat pork. Because of this it was said, “It’s better to be Herod the Great’s pig than his son.” Well, Herod Antipas was his son. Are we surprised he was messed up??
Herodias, Herod’s wife in today’s Gospel, started out as his sister-in-law. She was married to his half-brother Philip. She actually wasn’t just his sister-in-law; she was also his niece. Their family tree is pretty scary and almost incomprehensible. There was much “amiss,” but John’s particular message to Herod was that it was against the Law (as stated in Leviticus 18:16, 20:21) for a man to marry his sister-in-law.
Boy, did Herodias not want to hear that! Our Celebrate translation (NRSV, Mark 6:19) says,
…Herodias had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him….
The Message paraphrase is more to-the-point when it says,
Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him….
John was criticizing Herodias and she didn’t appreciate it. She wanted to silence him, but she couldn’t, because her husband Herod protected John, despite the fact that John called his morals and his marriage to Herodias into question.
Listen to this description of Herod’s ambivalence toward John; it’s really fascinating:
…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. (Mark 6:20)
I have a giant book of church sign photos, and one of them reads:
If the truth hurts,
The truth of his sin hurt Herod; a part of him was open to John’s message, which was all about repentance. Herod was fascinated by Jesus, too. Unfortunately, whatever it was inside Herod that recognized and resonated with the truth was smothered by the lie that he needed to save face and please both his cronies and his subjects; the upshot was that both John and Jesus died on his watch.
Then there’s the teenager, the daughter of Herodias. One of the Bible commentators said that only prostitutes did solo dances like that in those days, when the protocol at a banquet would have been for men and women to dine in separate rooms. (I didn’t find that corroborated anywhere, though.) In any case, the young woman caught the men’s attention, to the point where the certainly drunk Herod sloppily offered her whatever she wanted, “even half of my kingdom.” (Mark 6:23) The truth was: Herod wasn’t a king and he didn’t have a kingdom to give away. He was a tetrarch, someone the Romans put in charge to do their bidding and keep the peace.
The teenage dancer must have read all those fairy tales about people being given wishes and choosing poorly and stupidly, because she seeks her mother’s advice. Herodias sees this as the perfect chance to force her husband to shut John up once and for all. She doesn’t seem to care about the impact on her impressionable daughter or her husband. The ends justify the means. Off with his head! The daughter is incredibly, horribly compliant and rushes off tell her stepfather what “she” (actually her mother) wants. She adds the awful little detail that the Baptizer’s head should be presented on a platter, as if he were the next course.
There’s a lesson for parents and grandparents and mentors of all kinds here. Children, in one way or another, inquire of us, “What should I ask for [from life]?” (Mark 6:24) What are we telling them, by our actions, as well as our words?
And then there is John the Baptizer himself. He is bold to speak truth to power. His condemnation of Herod’s marriage created what’s called “moral disequilibrium” in Herod. He wasn’t ready to change, but now he was uncomfortable with the status quo. John upset the apple cart inside Herod, and got him thinking, got him wondering about whether what he had done was wrong, and whether there might be a higher authority than Caesar to whom he would eventually have to answer.
Remember the story of Thomas More? He upset the apple cart inside Henry VIII, because Henry was insisting his subjects sign a document stating that Henry was the head of the church. (This was ironic because Henry had earlier been honored by the Pope as a “defender of the faith.”) Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England, refused to sign the document and after a period of imprisonment was beheaded. (He was a man of good humor as well as good faith and courage. It is said that he asked the executioner to allow him to free his beard from the block, because his beard had not offended the King….)
There was quite a role reversal last week when Pope Francis apologized to “a a hall filled with social activists, farmers, garbage workers and Bolivian indigenous people.”1 On one hand he apologized for the church’s abuse of power and exploitation of the native peoples in Latin America during the colonial period. On the other hand he who represents ecclesial power is constantly speaking truth to worldly power, including various governments and multi-national businesses, when he challenges us all to care for the environment, to value compassion over consumerism and to elevate people over profit. He is a man of courage and humility that befit the example of John the Baptist.
Speaking truth to power takes a special brand of courage. In September we’ll be discussing a wonderful book with the interesting title The Society of Timid Souls or How To Be Brave by Polly Morland. Can we find the courage to speak the truth to loved ones whom we know will disagree? Can we find the courage to speak the truth to those in power who don’t want to hear it and who might use that power to “shut us up” in one way or another? To be continued….
1Jim Yardley and William Neuman, “In Bolivia, Pope Apologizes for Church’s ‘Grave Sins’,” New York Times, Friday, July 10, 2015, A4.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham