Love is All but Absent
Year B, Proper 10, RCL, Track 1
Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, Mark 6:14-29
We have a responsibility to truth-telling and to admonish our fellow human beings when circumstances require.[i] These are not my thoughts but the thoughts of Saints Ambrose, Bede, and Chrysostom from the 4th and 7th Century. Herod married his brother’s wife Herodias. This was an illegal marriage under Jewish law. Though due to his power and privilege it seems that no one took action against him. But Herod’s power didn’t stop John the Baptist from calling Herod out; from telling the truth.
Recall that last week that Jesus sent the disciples out two by two. He sent them to spread the Good News, that all shall repent, that we should turn from our current ways and return to God. The disciples appear to be the social media of the time, spreading Jesus’ message. And as we see, his message has gone viral. Even Josephus, a Jewish writer born at the time of Jesus’ death writes that John was a well-known and respected figure of the time.[ii] Herod hears Jesus’ message and seems a bit confused because this message is almost identical to the message that John extolled. But John is dead, he killed him a while back, and Jesus, like John, now has a large following. Our story opens with Herod hearing of Jesus and his disciples. Hearing this message of repentance coming from Jesus, causes Herod to have a flashback; a flashback to the time when he orders John’s execution.
In this memory, Herod’s stepdaughter dances for him and his guest at his birthday party. His stepdaughter pleases him so much that he offers her a gift, anything up to half of his kingdom. Now we all know this wasn’t any kind of dance. It was a dance that pleased a man so much that he offers her all that he can. His daughter could have anything her heart could desire; phenomenal wealth, land, and power. But instead she doesn’t’ know what she wants and she asks her mother, Herodias. Herodias knows what she wants. For a long time she has desired to rid herself of a tormenting little man; a man who keeps bringing up her illicit marriage. Not thinking of her daughter’s best interest or wishes, she makes a selfish choice and asks for John’s head. A decision that leads to death, not life
When we get past the ick factor of the dance, we continue to find the sinful reality of their lives. The king makes a promise in a moment of ecstasy, a promise, like his marriage, that was also illegal under Jewish law. According to law you do not have the right to make or keep a promise that leads you to sin. This promise is akin to what children often say and do not mean, “I swear on my life” or “If you do this for me, I will do anything for you.” But as we know Herod makes this oath in front of his court.
Now our story says Herod “was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to [John].” “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him;” at least in the past. But now Herod is facing a choice of his own; to save face or kill an innocent man. Again we see a choice between selfishness and love. Out of selfishness he wants to save face, he wants to look like a strong king in front of his friends. Out of selfishness, he doesn’t want to go against his wife’s wishes. He could have put a stop to this but instead, he follows his selfish desires, which lead to death, the death of John. And according to some, the death of his kingship.[iii]
We are faced with choices each day; most likely not on the same scale that we read about today but choices nonetheless. Most of our choices come with some consequence. The consequence could be just lightening our wallet if we decide to indulge in the convenience of dining out versus making dinner at home. But some of our choices have bigger consequences. Whether we are deciding to help someone on the side of the road or deciding which candidate to vote for; we maybe look out for our self-interest rather than deciding which choice leads to love.
As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said in his homily last week,
“selfishness, or self-centeredness, or as the ancient mothers and fathers used to say that hubris, false pride, . . . that false, self-centered pride that puts me in the center of the world, and you and God and everybody else on the periphery, that selfishness . . . is the root of all evil. It is the source of every wrong. It is behind every bigotry. It is behind every injustice. It is the root cancer of every war. It is the source of every destruction. That selfishness destroys homes! It will destroy churches! It will destroy nations! And left untethered, it will destroy creation! . . . And love is the cure.”[iv]
Love is the key. Loving your neighbor; loving and helping those whom we overlook in our daily lives.
In our Gospel today, love is all but absent. We do not see the raising up, the rebuilding, the healing, the return to wholeness. In today’s Gospel, we see hatred and fear coming out of self-centeredness and selfish desires; each leading to death and eventual destruction. Not only physical death; not only physical destruction; but spiritual death and destruction in which Herod almost relives this event as a nightmare. To Herod, Jesus is not just another prophet but the reincarnation of John the Baptist; a holy man who he feared and killed despite his righteousness.
Spiritual death is a slow thing. Over time, we become consumed with desire for what we have or want to have. The desire to control others. The desire to demean and degrade those around us. Love does not protect us from the painful realities of the world in which we live. Just look at John the Baptist. Look a Jesus Christ. Look at so many people who have stood up for what is right in the world. The world persecutes these people who try to improve the life of others even at their expense. The Herods and Herodiases of the world are trying to improve their lives or their friends and families lives; trying to build themselves up at the expense of others.
Love will not prevent our physical death. But love offers us much more. It offers us happiness, happiness in sharing what we have in life with others. Happiness in sharing our hardships and burdens with those we love. Love builds our relationships and brings us to wholeness and brings others to wholeness. Even Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians, “[God] chose us in Christ . . . to be holy and blameless before him in love.” And I believe this is the reason we are here; so that we can find that mysterious love that is eternal and never failing. The love that comes from our creator and redeemer, Jesus Christ.
[i] Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament II, Mark p83, Ambrose, Bede & Chrysostom.
[ii] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.116-119, c94CE
[iii] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18.116-119, c94CE
[iv] Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon form the General Convention Revival 7/7/2018 https://www.episcopalnewsservice.org/pressreleases/79th-general-convention-of-the-episcopal-church-july-7-revival-sermon-by-presiding-bishop-michael-curry/