As a priest, it’s my job to preach the Gospel. One of the vows I made at my Ordination to the priesthood was “to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” And actually I’m usually pretty inspired – even driven! – to preach the Gospel (gospel: meaning the Good News . . .)
But it’s kind of hard to preach the Gospel today because there seems to be absolutely no good news in this horrible story. There’s not even any Jesus in this Gospel story . Jesus doesn’t even show up . . .
So what on earth is this tale of anger and revenge, resentment and death doing here in the Gospel of Mark? Where is God in this awful story? What is this scripture trying to say to us?
Let’s go back to the scene of the crime, back to Herod’s birthday party. This lavish feast was in a palace – with a select guest list of important officials. Herod’s wife, Herodias, was there. This was the wife that Herod had stolen from his brother. John the Baptist had condemned this unlawful marriage. And for that John landed in prison.
It was actually Herod’s wife Herodias that wanted to do away with John completely. Herod had thrown John in jail – probably to placate his wife. And maybe he was trying to control John’s free-wheeling, public criticism of his marital affairs. In any case, John was arrested because he was a truth-teller. . . John dared to tell Herod the truth.
Mark, the story teller, tells us that “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man” — and here the meaning fear is the biblical kind: fear meaning respect, ultimate respect.
Herod was in awe of John. He liked to listen to him because he knew John spoke the truth And, Mark says, “Herod protected John.”
So why did Herod give in to this terrible request? Wasn’t it enough that John was in prison?
Herod had promised Herodias’ daughter that he would give her anything she wanted. He never imagined that she would ask for John’s head – and He was grieved at her request. But his guests had heard his oath. His reputation was at stake. So Herod gave the command, and soon the head of John the Baptist arrived – on a platter.
So the moral of the story? Perhaps it’s this: The rich and powerful are used to getting what they want. They are willing to do most anything to keep or improve on what they have; and anyone who stands up to them, usually get trampled. That’s what happened to John.
The details of this story are horrific – what Herod did was despicable. But the thing that hits me as the real tragedy in this story is not John the Baptist’s death . . . The real tragedy is Herod’s life. In addition to being a villain, Herod appears to be a tragic, double-minded wretch.
Herod liked John on one hand. Maybe there was some spark of God that drew him to John’s message . . . At the same time, Herod was offended by John – he was thrown off balance, insecure within himself. He was pulled apart, divided. He doubted.
You see, things could have been different if Herod had listened to his own inner voice that resonated with John. Herod could have made a different choice. But the desire for power and status had replaced God in Herod’s life. Herod couldn’t risk his own reputation to spare John’s life.
Things could have been different if Herod had acted on the truth he heard – if he had not hesitated to act. But as it happened, he doubted that truth . . . he waivered . . . he hesitated . . . and then it was too late. It could have turned out differently for Herod –but he had missed his window of opportunity. . .
At the party, Herod was backed into a corner. He knew it was wrong to grant Herodias’ request, but he had neither the strength of conviction nor the power within himself to make the right choice.
Our lives are filled with choices. Choices can be especially difficult when they challenge our self identity – or our reputation – or our habitual need for power and control . . .
Remember the Apostle Paul when he wrestled with difficult choices – pulled between his own worldly sense of himself and a higher calling? He wrote in the letter to the Romans:
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
Ever been there? All of us will go through it!
So how do we approach difficult choices – and the doubts that challenge our sense of self-identity, our values?
The 19th century author and theologian George MacDonald had this to say:
“Everything difficult indicates something more than our theory of life yet embraces, checks some tendency to abandon the strait path, leaving open only the way ahead.”
Doubts are windows of opportunity. Doubts will drive you to look at the true foundations of your life. Doubts will challenge your world view – your view of reality. Perhaps you’ll realize that you’ve been looking for fulfillment and happiness in all the wrong places.
What is ultimately awesome in your life? . . . Don’t settle for anything less than God!
If you’re feeling open to do something and you know you should do it – if you’re hearing a Divine calling and yet you’re hesitant . . . recognize your doubts for what they are.
And when it’s time to move ahead – make a decision! And with prayer, and with God’s help, move decisively . . . while the opportunity to act is still alive . . .
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.