Sermon for Sixth Sunday after Trinity – High Mass Sunday 12 July 2015
Sermon preached by Fr Michael Bowie
The events of today’s gospel are dramatized in Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome: I remember it as a quaint and sensuous film, Salome’s Last Dance, by Ken Russell, which cast an aged Stratford Johns as the fleshy degenerate Herod: he seemed to have come a very long way from Z Cars!
Wilde motivated the whole story as a complicated piece of sexual jealousy and intrigue (he may be right, though the gospels don’t unpack this).
He portrays Herod as lusting after Salome, his wife’s daughter; Salome meanwhile, is consumed with passion for the unattainable John the Baptist. Her mother Herodias, enraged by Herod’s interest in Salome, conspires to involve Salome in John’s death in order to compromise her. Salome tries to kiss John, who rejects her and tells her to go and look for Jesus to find forgiveness.
Salome now extracts the promise of John’s death from her step-father-uncle, and performs a lascivious dance in exchange for it. The severed head is brought and she finally has her way with John, kissing his dead lips. Herod now realizes he has endangered himself and put himself further in the grip of his adulterous and corrupt wife. The final Wildean flourish, after the portrayal of Herod’s remorse and Herodias’ approval of Salome’s action, is Herod’s concluding line as he catches sight of his step-daughter relishing John’s execution: ‘Kill that woman!’
It’s a good story, and may even be true to the events. Wilde was a great story-teller and a keen observer of human weakness (as he said of himself, ‘I can resist anything except temptation’). But, to our purpose this morning, his well-crafted play neatly demonstrates the difference between fiction, or even news (which is often fictional), and a Gospel.
Mark gives us a more telegraphic account of motives as he introduces the story:
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. Mark 6.17-20
What follows – the request for half the kingdom, the king’s niece dancing at a royal banquet, the tricking of the king into the execution of the prophet – shares many details with popular folk-tales.
Mark’s point is what John, and Herod, stand for. He knew (everyone, presumably, knew) that Herod had had John killed: this is the accepted version of events, as it might have appeared in the Jerusalem News of the World. But where is the Good News, the Gospel? The clue lies in the fact that this is the only story of this length in all four gospels which is not immediately focused on Jesus. It is, as I suggested last week, a piece of back-story, intended to illustrate something about Jesus, but from the wings.
The Good News, the Gospel, is found in Mark’s understanding of John as the forerunner of Jesus; here Herod is standing in for his more austere Roman master, Pilate. John was introduced in chapter 1 as the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord, baptizing the one who is recognized at that moment as God’s beloved Son. While Luke adds depth and context by establishing the connection between John and Jesus through parallel accounts of their conception, birth, naming and childhood (Luke 1 & 2), Mark dates the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry from the arrest of John (1.14) and makes John the forerunner of Jesus in his death.
In the stories of both John and Jesus a weak political leader is trapped into allowing the accused to be subjected to violent and undignified execution in spite of the truth they know. In both cases disciples come, take the body and place it in a tomb. The plot against Jesus has already begun (3.6) and Mark’s audience is now shown a preview of what may happen to a righteous prophet (a theme also heralded for us this morning in the first reading, from Amos). The link to the story, verses 14-16, even contains the ironic prophecy of Jesus’ resurrection :
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.”…But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.“
That link reminds us that what we’ve heard this morning, in the guise of a discrete story, is in fact the filling in yet another Markan sandwich, told in real time, as if it is happening while the disciples are out on the mission on which Jesus sent them in last week’s Gospel.
And, as we noticed last week, today’s story is followed directly by the conclusion of the mission:
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. Mark 6.30
This piece of Markan sandwiching leads, in turn, into the feeding of the five thousand, another mighty work…
So, while the disciples are out learning to be the Church at mission, John the Baptist is executed, a dark precursor of what lies ahead for them as well as for Jesus, even while they are proclaiming the works of God and sharing the Good News.
As one writer puts it:
‘Truth-telling becomes a perilous venture in the world of Herods and Pilates. Even when one has friends in high places, there is little security.’
While true, that is not the most significant thing about this story. We can, like Wilde, make of it study in human weakness and political sleaze; we can make history speak and take note of the dangers inherent in the politics of puppet regimes in empires (recent examples abound). But Mark is not primarily interested in any of these things. His book is Good News, not the News of the World or even Newsnight. He does not treat John as sadly betrayed or tragic figure, but as the heroic vanguard in the glorious battle of the cross which will issue in the victory of the resurrection: the life which we pray is our inheritance as it was John’s, through the love, suffering and Easter triumph of Jesus Christ, celebrated, offered and received at the Altar this morning.