15th July 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6: 14-29
Judith Clark is training for ordination at Ripon College, Cuddesdon, and has been on placement at the Priory for four weeks. Alongside her ministerial formation, Judith is reading for a PhD through Oriel College, Oxford. Her thesis focuses on angelology within the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice , a liturgical document thought to date from around 100 BC that was found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls .
Instilled from childhood, we grow up with an understanding of Good and Evil: – Disney films, children’s stories and even the imaginary games we play, have a hero or heroine and equally compulsory nemesis. We know, for example, to fear and therefore feel hostility towards the Giant in Jack and the Beanstalk and cheer for Jack as he cuts down the beanstalk, kills the Giant and rescues the Goose who lays the Golden Eggs. As we age however, we realise that neither the message nor the morals hidden within is either totally black or white. Jack trespasses in the Giant’s space, steals the Giant’s property then, as the giant pursues Jack down the beanstalk, Jack cuts it out from under him. Now I am not saying that the Giant is blameless, after all he is trying to capture the interloper Jack to eat him! Jack, though, is patently no saint either. Our maturity allows us to recognise that people are complex, they have many layers, and everyone is capable of doing right, wrong and everything in between.
Indeed, ‘It is a fact universally acknowledged…’ when we love a story or a novel, have read it repeatedly and know it inside and out, (to the extent that if you were asked to star in a film of the book you would not need any time to learn the lines as you are already able to say them along with the central character.) Well, it is then that complacency rears its ugly head, allowing us to think we know the story, the characters, all the nuances, the literary themes and tropes. It may come as no surprise that my favourite novel is Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett, a strong, independent female, is one of the most complex literary figures ever written. Yet each time I read the novel or watch the 1995 BBC version, I can’t help siding with her against the insufferably rude, arrogant and proud Mr Darcy. Even when I know that the real villain is Mr Wickham and that Elizabeth is far from perfect herself. After all, she is absolutely determined not to like Mr Darcy, quite content to believe Mr Wickham’s story without any knowledge of the facts and is, for a while, too proud to admit her own prejudices!
Consequently, If I were to ask you to name people of conscience within the Bible (excluding Jesus) who would you name? Ruth, who did her duty and stayed with her mother-in-law, Nathan the prophet who called out David’s relationship with Bathsheba, Joseph, who refused Potiphar’s wife’s advances? Or from the New Testament, would you perhaps name Mary, Mother of Jesus, or Joseph her husband. The majority of you may also declare John the Baptist, who preached repentance, social conscience and faith.
How many of you would, I wonder, add Herod Antipas to this list? No, I grant you he is not a very likely candidate. After all, he has married his brother’s wife. In the horrifically tragic Gospel passage of John the Baptist’s death, Herod’s conscience does start to bother him. John invades Herod’s conscience. This passage tells us that Herod fears John because John is a righteous and holy man. We are also informed that Herod hears John’s preaching and, more worryingly for Herodias his new wife, Herod starts to listen! Not only does he start to listen, he starts to think about what John is saying, which confuses him greatly and therefore, he begins to question, think about and reflect what John is publically and repeatedly declaring. His marriage to Herodias is declared by John to be a sham, since Herodias has divorced her first husband and married his brother, which, whilst her first husband lived, was against Jewish Law.
This message is, of course, extremely troublesome for Herodias who, by trading in one brother for the other, has managed to improve her wealth, power and social standing. She did not therefore, want John’s interference, to change Herod’s mind and forcing her at best to be returned to her first husband or, alarmingly, to be exiled from both, which would have left her vulnerable, and a potential societal outcast.
Hence, when opportunity presents itself, Herodias, who has been murderously waiting for an opportunity to kill John the Baptist, cunningly develops an almost Machiavellian plot and rivalling perhaps only Lady Macbeth- convinces her own daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Whether young, eager to please, or lacking in character, Salome (as Herodias’ daughter is believed to have been named) executes her mother’s wishes.
This biblical passage does not paint either of these two women in a favourable light. However, nor does it flatter Herod. He should not be praised for carrying out his vow to Salome and going through with his promise but should be condemned and criticised for being a coward. Herod could and should have refused his step-daughter (and by extension her mother) but he doesn’t.
This story of John the Baptist’s beheading is, interestingly, the only narrative within the Gospel of Mark which doesn’t focus on Jesus. It does however, present a parallel. A rhetorical topping and tailing (if you will) of the Gospel narrative, a connection between what occurred at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, with Jesus’ death upon the cross. Herod, has the power, authority and ability to save his nemesis John’s life, but he doesn’t. Pilate, in contrast has greater power, more authority and could have prevented Jesus’ death. However, Herod is frightened of losing face, having promised Salome anything she desires in front of many local dignitaries and noble people. Pilate in contrast, was frightened of an uprising.
It is thought-provoking though, is it not, that when Pilate sends Jesus to Herod a few years later, Herod sends him straight back to Pilate. Herod was responsible for the death of John the Baptist but would not be responsible for killing Jesus. Was this due to another act of cowardice in not wanting to make that sort of decision? A fear of who Jesus was? Or simply a guilty conscience, after his part in the death of John the Baptist? After all, Herod was only a tetrarch – a ‘puppet king’ to the string-pulling Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate.
How many of us can say we have never heard that little voice of conscience, which we have then resolutely ignored, in favour of the easy option. Taking the correct stance isn’t, very often, the most direct or popular route. Perhaps, like John, we need to have the courage and the strength to say “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’”