Three Ways to Live
It will be ten years next month since I was interviewed by the search committee for the position of rector of this parish of St. Margaret. 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 the People’s Warden at the time; some of you here will remember Murray and his wife Diane, who were very active members of this congregation and now live in Calgary. As near as I can remember it, Murray’s question went something like this: ‘Do you consider it to be part of your job as a preacher, not just to comfort us, but also to challenge us?’
Preachers - who are, after all, paid by their congregations - often have difficulty with that question! And yet we know that this is indeed an important part of our calling. The message of Jesus will not always come across as good news, especially when it calls us to leave sinful 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.
Let’s recap the story for a minute. First, who are these main characters? Herod in this story is not Herod the Great, 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 king who 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 recognise him as their legitimate king. You see, the Herod family weren’t really full-blooded Jews at all – they were Idumeans, and for this reason they were very unpopular. How could God’s true anointed king not be one of God’s chosen people?
The choices Herod Antipas made in his personal life didn’t help the situation, either. Herodias had been the wife of his half-brother Philip; Herod had met her at his brother’s house, and the two had become infatuated with each other. Herod had divorced his own wife in order to marry her, and Herodias had left her husband for him. It isn’t entirely clear whether or not a formal divorce ever took place between Herodias and Philip; in Jewish law a woman had no right to divorce her husband, and the question of what constituted proper legal grounds for a husband to divorce his wife was a hotly contested issue at the time of Jesus. A large segment of the population saw Herod and Herodias as living in violation of God’s law – and, to them, this was further evidence that Herod Antipas simply could not be God’s true anointed King.
This was why Herod Antipas had to arrest John the Baptist, you see. Our text says that ‘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 for John to say this about Herod’s so-called ‘marriage’ to Herodias was to add his voice to the voices of those who were saying ‘Herod cannot be God’s true anointed king; if he was, he would not act in this way’. 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 the Baptist’s words.
But Herod and John were no match for Herodias; she was a scheming woman, 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 and Herodias had a daughter also called Herodias. The majority of the 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 so that was the end of the matter.
What can we learn about Christian discipleship from the three main characters in this story?
Let’s start with Herodias. Here is a woman who sets out to get what she wants and doesn’t mind who gets hurt along the way. She is not afraid to use power to better her own position, and if people try to stop her, she crushes them mercilessly.
No doubt, in Herodias’ life, her insecurities fuelled her determination to have her own way. She knew that her marriage to Herod was of doubtful legitimacy. She knew that Herod hungered for the approval of his people. She knew that Herod had a soft spot for John the Baptist. And she knew that if Herod should choose to act on any of those impulses, 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 that they are determined not to reveal to anyone. And so they overcompensate for this; they come across as forceful personalities, strong leaders, people who will brook no opposition. If you dare to stand in their path, they trample you down without mercy. To them, the world is a ‘dog eat dog’ sort of place, divided into winners and losers, and they are determined to be the winners every time.
The lengths to which Herodias was prepared to go in order to get what she wanted are quite shocking when you think about it. Granted, 1st century Jewish society was used to violence, but 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 prepared to put her daughter through this in order to get what she wanted. She saw people, even people she loved, as pawns to push around so that she could get her own way.
Sad to say, this sort of thing is not unknown in the Christian church. We Christians can be just as determined as anyone else to get our own way, and I sometimes think that Christian congregations are particularly vulnerable to the activity of bullies. This is because we try very hard to be loving toward 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 are ever going to grow as Christians, we do have to stop it. Herodias had only one real god: herself. She saw herself as the lead actor in the play; everyone else existed for her benefit alone. But if we are 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 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 John’s arrest. As I’ve said, as a shrewd politician he 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 repent – to turn their lives around – so that 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 that it was wrong for him to have his brother’s wife. We read that Herod was ‘perplexed’ about this, but I don’t think we should understand this to mean that 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 it, or not? He knew what he should do, but he couldn’t summon up the moral courage to 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 had 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 did not do it.
Most of us Christians will recognise ourselves in Herod. We all ‘like to listen’ to Jesus and his message, but we’re all ‘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 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. We have to be willing to put his teaching into practice, rather than just listening to it and agreeing with it in theory. And finally, we have to realise that doing this doesn’t necessarily guarantee a happy ending for us.
John the Baptist was a faithful and honest man of God. He had given his entire life to the proclamation of God’s message. He had spoken the truth fearlessly and seen huge crowds of people responding to his words, accepting baptism as a sign of repentance and commitment to God’s kingdom. He had pointed to Jesus, the true lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. And then he had followed God’s call to speak the truth to people in worldly power, and he had come to a sticky end.
Mark, and the early Christians who read his gospel, did not 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, Mark records Jesus as saying, “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 Christ, and accept the consequences, whatever they might be.
Of course, we know that the final outcome is very different. In the short term, Herodias is victorious and John is dead. A decade later, though, 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 of 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 will 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, it can’t have been that easy.
So in this passage Mark is teaching us about the life of discipleship. To follow Jesus means laying aside our determination to have our own way and turning instead toward the way of obedience to Jesus, God’s anointed King. It means not just finding pleasure in listening to his message, but actually putting it into practice - making the hard decisions about our way of life as followers of Jesus. And we are not promised that this will be easy – in fact, we ought to expect that it will involve suffering for us in some way, as it did for Jesus and all his earliest followers. But we are assured, despite the suffering, that this is the right path for us to choose, and that if we do choose it, in the long run we will not regret it.