The Common Good

Trapped in Your Own Story: Salome, Herod and John the Baptist

"Salome, Second Version" by the German painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)
"Salome, Second Version" by the German painter Lovis Corinth (1858-1925)

NB-W Sermon 7_16_2012 <—-Click here to listen along.  Sermons are are spoken art form.

When Harper was born we decorated the nursery in a Noah’s Ark theme…images of Noah and of animals entering a large wooden boat  two-by-two. It’s a common enough decorating scheme for kids' rooms.

I mention it because this week at Bible study we discussed how weird it is that the beheading of John the Baptists isn’t a common decorating scheme for kid’s rooms.

Because this is just too gruesome a tale to show up on rolls of juvenile wall paper.

In case you missed the details, here’s what happened:

So Herod is the ruler of the region, and while vacationing in Rome he gets the hots for his brother’s wife who he then marries. John the Baptist, then suggests that maybe that’s not ok.

Now, Herod likes John, as much as anybody can like a crazy bug-eating prophet who lives outdoors and speaks consistently inconvenient truths. Truths such as it’s not ok to marry your brother’s wife, which, incidentally, is the truth that when spoken, got him arrested to begin with. 

It also got John on the bad side of Herod’s new illegal wife Heroditas. She did not like John. Then when Herod throws himself a big birthday party his daughter-in-law Salome dances for him and all the other half-drunk generals and CEOs and celebrities who were there. 

We don’t know the exact nature of her dance but we do know that it “pleased” Herod enough that he offered to give her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. So, you know, I don’t think it was the Chicken dance.

Salome runs to her mom and asks "What should I ask for?” And her mom says, “the head of John the Baptist.” Herod found this disturbing. He clearly didn’t want to do it, but the text says that he went through with it. Why? Because of his oath and because he didn’t want to disappoint his dinner guests.

So by the final course of Herod’s birthday dinner John the Baptist’s head was on a platter.

That’s a gruesome tale. I mean, at first glance it’s like one horrifying weird thing after another. And what in the world is a girl to preach about such a story?

I mean, it’s lousy as a morality tale. What’s the “moral” of the story? If your daughter dances at your birthday party and you are so enamored by it that you offer her whatever she wants and if she  asks you to murder someone, don’t do it just to impress your dinner guests? Uh, ok.

But looked at in a certain way, this story isn’t so far from us. It is still being played out today. In my life and maybe in yours, certainly on the American political stage and elsewhere throughout the history of humanity before and after Herod.

It’s easy to demonize Herod and dismiss this story as something weird that happened before things like the enlightenment and war crimes tribunals, but if we do so too quickly we might miss seeing how nothing really has changed much in 2,000 years.

We live in an age as faithless and corrupt as Herod's. People still quickly divorce someone because simply because they fall in love with someone else’s wife or husband. And I myself, like Herod, have purposely distanced myself from people who have spoken truths to me that I’m not ready to face. And young girls are still made to be sexual objects for powerful men. And I have done or said things that have hurt others just so  I don’t lose face with people I’m trying to impress.

The details of this story are horrific, but they aren’t as removed from us as we might think. What Herod did was despicable. There’s no diminishing it. But maybe besides being a villain, he’s also kind of a tragic figure.

Because he knew better. Herod wasn’t some soulless, bloodthirsty, godless devil. He knew it was wrong. He knew it was wrong and after it was done he had a guilty conscience. Because later on, when he hears about Jesus why else would Herod assume — of all things — that the most logical explanation for why there was a man in his region who healed people and cast out demons was that it must be the guy he beheaded who had come back from the grave. 

That’s a guilty person’s assumption, straight up. He had a guilty conscience, which means he knew better and he did it anyway, like he was stuck in a story of his own writing.

What’s tragic is if Herod went to his grave with all of his violence and stupidity and sin on his conscience never once knowing that he and his illegal wife and her child Salome and John the Baptist all are beloved children of God. 

What’s tragic about Herod is how different he is from the prostitutes and demoniacs and tax collectors and Pharisees and centurians we meet in the Gospels. They encounter Jesus Christ and are freed from the bondage of their past.  In the presence of Christ they are given a glimpse of God’s bigger story of love and mercy and are shown who they really, truly are in the eyes of a loving God, and they are made new.

The story of whom they are is given a new ending and a new meaning. But Herod was trapped in his own story and it feels to me like it’s a story that tortured him, one from which he felt there was no escape.

When our own little stories begin to feel self-contained and inescapable, that’s when things are tragic. Maybe on some level you feel that way.

Trapped. Unable to change the story of who you are. Unable to change your behavior or attitude or outlook. So caught up in the events around you, so caught up in the identity you’ve had for so long that it clings to you like a skin suit.

And if that’s true and you were hoping to hear some good news today, I need to be the first to tell you:

There is no good news in this story. 

I looked for it. But maybe that might actually be the point. Maybe we are supposed to notice that this is the only story in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus isn’t mentioned. There is no Jesus. So if this story stood alone, there would be only sedition and sin and violence and bondage and political maneuvering and incest. The only thing that makes this story good is that it’s not the end of the story.

One of the most Gospel-y things I’ve heard in a long time was that great line from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which a character says that there is a saying in India that in the end all will be well. And if all is not well, it is not yet the end.

So while there is no good news in this story, and while there is no Jesus in this story, what’s amazing is that the story of Herod’s birthday is immediately followed by the feeding of the 5,000.

The Godless Black Mass of Herod’s party is immediately followed by another party — a Eucharistic one in which there is no exploitation of children, or killing of prophets. There is only Jesus, and thousands of people sitting on the green grass, and a few loaves, and a couple fish, and all are fed by what seemed like not enough, and there were still baskets or loaves and fishes left over to share.  

They were living a new story, a story written by a God who desires that all are fed and all are loved and none are exploited and desires it so much that God offers us a reminder of this every week right here at this table. This table is the antidote to whatever version of Herod’s birthday party is playing out in our own lives and in the world around us. 

You aren’t trapped. God’s still writing the story and it’s so much better than one we’d come up with and thanks be to God for that.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is the founding Pastor at House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, Colorado — an urban liturgical community with a progressive yet deeply rooted theological imagination. Learn more atwww.houseforall.orgThis post originally appeared on Nadia's blog, Sarcastic Lutheran.

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