There is hardly a more tantalizing figure in the whole of the Bible than that of Salome. The alluring young woman who dances for her stepfather the king and tricks him into giving her the head of John the Baptist on a platter has captivated the minds of painters and poets for centuries. Artists have drawn her again and again: dancing with long, flowing hair dressed in long, flowing veils; or smoldering with wily, wicked eyes; or gazing down at her gruesome prize with a strange, vacant smile. Authors and composers have written her either as a hapless innocent trapped by her scheming mother or as furious woman scorned, who lashes out at John the Baptist because he will not love her. Choreographers have fashioned their own versions of her infamous dance, usually with hearty helping of sensual looks from beneath lowered lashes and sultry poses in true Walk-Like-An-Egyptian fashion. Recently, she has even shown up as a character in the HBO series True Blood, where she is imagined as a centuries-old, supernatural creature of darkness. But whether portrayed as a victim or a viper…or a vampire…Salome has always been a siren, drawing our attention again and again, taking center stage and refusing to let us look anywhere else.
Salome is such an enticing figure that it is easy to forget that she is not the central character of this Gospel story. She really has only a supporting role; she is so unimportant, in fact, that Mark the Evangelist doesn’t even bother to get her name right, mistakenly calling her Herodias, which is actually her mother’s name. We know her real name, Salome, not from the Bible, but from the writings of the secular historian Josephus. Of course, we should cut Mark a little slack on the name issue, because the first-century Herodians have one of the most twisted and tangled family trees in history. Herodias is Herod the Great’s granddaughter, who first marries Herod the Great’s son, Herod Philip (who is, that’s right, her own uncle), and, then, upon Herod Philip’s death, remarries his brother, named Herod Antipas, who is also her uncle. Thank God Herodias herself thought a little outside the box when it came to baby names.
But her baby, her daughter, no matter her name and no matter how tantalizing her character might be, is not the central figure in this story. The main character here is not Salome, or her mother Herodias; it is not really even John the Baptist, despite the fact that part of the point of story is to explain John’s death. No, the lead character of this story is, somewhat surprisingly, Herod himself. The entire story centers on Herod – his perspective, his actions, his feelings. We hear that Herod is worried about this Jesus he’s been hearing so much about, guessing – wrongly – that he is some strangely recent reincarnation of John the Baptist, whom Herod himself has just had killed. We learn that Herod had actually liked listening to John the Baptist while he was alive, even if his words had confused and frightened him. We see that when John had denounced Herod’s pretzel of a family tree, Herod had tried to protect him from his own vengeful wife by throwing him in the relative safety of prison. We sense Herod’s insane desire for his stepdaughter and his intense frustration when he realized how he had been duped. Throughout this entire passage, it is Herod we come to know best, Herod’s perspective, Herod’s feelings, Herod’s actions. Herod is far, far from heroic, but he is the hero – the deeply flawed, deeply confused, deeply sinful hero – of this story.
But why in the world is this story so much about Herod? Why does Mark present this story from his point of view? Why not use John’s point of view – after all, he’s a character that we actually care about. Why not describe John’s long wait in the dark dampness of the prison, his prayers, his consolation, his courage in continuing to proclaim God’s truth to Herod’s power? Why tell us so much about Herod if he is such an anti-hero? The answer to this question, I believe, lies in the verses of Mark’s Gospel that bookend this story. Just before this passage, Mark describes Jesus’ calling of the twelve and sending them out in pairs to proclaim the message of repentance and to offer healing in his name. We learn that the disciples have gone out and preached the word of God, and that that word has been heard and has changed lives. And the verses that immediately follow the passage we heard today pick up this same thread, describing the disciples joyfully sharing the good news of all that they had done, telling their Lord Jesus how the word they had preached had changed the world.
But sandwiched right in the middle of these stories of powerful, effective discipleship, is the story of Herod, a man who hears the word and has absolutely no idea what to do with it, a man who perhaps could have been a disciple if he had just had the courage to open his heart and let the word in. Herod is a foil for faith, a negative image of all of the people who heard the word and actually listened. It isn’t as if Herod doesn’t know that John the Baptist is speaking the word of God. He knows that John is a holy man rightly dividing the word of truth, and yet he cannot – or will not – allow that word to break in to his own soul. He cannot – or will not – allow that word to change him. And so he does the only thing he can do – he takes that word and hides it away, locking it out of sight, where there is no risk that it might actually do something, might actually change him or his family or his world. Herod tries to force that word into a form of his own choosing, shaping it in his own image. He stuffs it into the darkness of a dungeon in the hopes that when it comes back into the light it might look more like he wants it to look and sound more like he wants it to sound. No matter how much his soul is drawn to this wild and wooly wilderness prophet, Herod can never really hear what John has to say. He never lets the word in; he never allows himself to be open enough to actually listen. And so his story ends in tragedy, with neighbor manipulating neighbor, with a beautiful, God-created body transmuted into an object of destruction, with deception, and death, and a body laid in a tomb with no hope of an Easter morning.
Imagine what it would have been like if the Herod’s story had been different. Imagine what it would have taken for Herod to hear the word and to risk real change. Imagine how he might have found the courage to say to John, “I hear you, but your words frighten me. Help me to live without fear; help me to repent, to change, to mold my life in the shape of your proclamation. Give me a word, and give me the power to let that word create in me a new life of repentance and forgiveness, of listening and of love, of power in weakness, of brothers and sisters in Christ, of a family shaped by the tree of the cross – a life where there is no more making an idol out of human flesh, no more trickery, confusion, and fear. Speak, John. Speak, prophet, for the servant of the living God is listening.”
Imagine what it would have taken for Herod to change, to let the Word change him. And now imagine what it might take for you to do the same thing. Imagine what it might take for you to let yourself be truly and forever changed. For you have heard the word this morning – you have heard it spoken and sung, proclaimed in your midst, and you will meet the Word made flesh at this altar. What would it be like to let that Word in and be changed?
We all know how easy it is to live like Herod, to hear the word and have no idea what to do with it because of our own stubbornness and fear. We all know how easy it is to try to stuff the word of God down into some private prison in our hearts and to bring it into the light only on Sundays, or when we are in pain, or when we already feel safe, or when we need something, or when we are surrounded by people who already agree with us. But this morning, God is inviting us into a still more excellent way – to let that word go free, to let that word truly reign in our hearts, to let that word shape every word we speak, every action we take, every emotion we feel – to let that word truly change us.
This is a bold thing to contemplate, to truly let the word of God in. It takes courage to listen, courage to let ourselves be molded to the shape of that word. It takes courage to change. But here is something that just might help: we are, in fact, already changed. We are already changed. This is the hope that we find in Christ – we are already changed; Christ’s death and resurrection have changed everything, God’s adopting us as heirs of Christ has changed everything, the Holy Spirit’s movement in the Church and in our own baptisms has already changed everything. We are already changed from now into everlasting life, and this is a change that we can believe in. So why not live like it? Why not let ourselves live in harmony with that truth? Why not fearlessly fling open the doors of our hearts and let the word of God really, truly, beautifully, wonderfully, miraculously change us? Why not give that word center stage and refuse to look anywhere else, and let that word dance?
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
15 July 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia