An opportunity missed: The tragedy of Herod’s decisions

A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity
Amos 7.7-15 & Mark 6.14-29 

herodLike last week, also this week’s readings, one from the prophets and one from Mark’s Gospel, lead us to think about prophethood, or about our ability to hear and speak truthfully. This morning, in Mark’s Gospel we hear the account of the beheading of John the Baptist, which I suspect is a story known to many of us. The story occurs in all three synoptic Gospels, in Mark, Luke and Matthew.

In all three cases, the story about John’s beheading is not placed chronologically, but is told as an explanation why Herod is so afraid of Jesus. Herod fears that John the Baptist is resurrected in the form of Jesus. This is not a resurrection as a healing miracle, but taps in to the belief that good or evil spirits could come back as another person, some sort of reincarnation, so to speak. The placement of this story has scholars led to believe that it is a court legend, a story about good and evil, about power and powerlessness. It also raises the question about complicity and taking responsibility for our actions.

So let’s explore this episode a bit further by focussing on the key character in the story: King Herod. Let’s see what his tell us about human nature, and about what it means to take responsibility for events in our private and public lives. Herod is a complex character, and in many ways his role in history is tragic. The Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, who was the son of Herod the Great and reigned throughout Jesus’ ministry. It is the same Herod who according to Luke’s Gospel became friends with Pilate in the last week of Jesus’ life.

The first thing we hear about Herod is that he is afraid. He is afraid that the spirit of John the Baptist has come back to take vengeance. It shows that Herod knows that, although he wasn’t the person physically killing Jesus, he is the person who gave the order, and so is responsible at least in part. And indeed, he takes this responsibility by saying ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.

From the text we can infer that John the Baptist and Herod had had a number of encounters, and Herod respected John, as he knew that he was a righteous and holy man, and hence also protected him. Although Herod had had John arrested because his wife Herodias had a grudge against him, he did not go as far as killing him. Maybe in his mind he was trying to find a middle way, a compromise to keep his wife happy without doing what he knew was wrong.

But one evening, Herodias, Herod’s wife sees an opportunity to get rid of John the Baptist permanently. She knows that Herod is a man of honour, whether that is at heart or because it comes with his office, we don’t know. So as soon as Herod swears to his daughter that she will get whatever she asks, her mother knows that he will follow this through.

So Herodias asks for the head of John the Baptist. As an aside, it does make one wonder how much she hated this person to be willing to go this far. Why was she so begrudged by him? The only reason it seems to me is that she knew he was speaking the truth and that she was afraid to lose her husband if he kept listening to that man. Although we read that he was deeply grieved, Herod sends for a soldier to execute his command. He does it out of regard for his oaths and for the guests. We get the sense that he sees himself as a man of his word, not matter what.

It maybe something we feel some politicians lack, but here we also see the danger of the inability to change one’s mind. Yes, promised are meant to be kept, but maybe there are times when compassion ought to trump consistence?

When I hear this passage, I somehow feel for Herod. I’m not telling you anything new when I say that we all make mistakes, and we all have made decisions with consequences we could not foresee. Does this apply to Herod as well? Did he find himself caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was it just a moment of weakness that lead to this tragic event?

Let’s skip a few years from the start of Jesus’ ministry, when the beheading of John the Baptist takes place, to the last week of Jesus’ life, after his entry into Jerusalem. Here Herod appears again. We read in Luke’s Gospel that Pilate, when he refused to condemn Jesus, sends him to Herod instead, as Jesus was technically under Herod’s jurisdiction. Herod was very glad to see Jesus, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign.

Here is an opportunity for Herod to redeem himself. He cannot undo the killing of John the Baptist, but here he has an opportunity to do the right thing. On the evening of the banquet when Herodias made her request to kill John the Baptist, he was not strong enough to withstand the silliness that turns fear into hatred, but here he can, saying ‘no’ to the crowd’s request of having Jesus killed.

However, again, Herod is weak. After questioning Jesus, he mocks him, puts a robe on him and sends him back to Pilate. This time Herod doesn’t condemn a person to death by what he says, but by what he refuses to say. And so, in some way, Herod is also complicit in the death of Jesus. Maybe not as explicit as in the case of John the Baptist, but maybe this time it’s worse, as this time there was no oath to keep and he himself must have realised the similarity between the two situations.

Reflecting on Herod’s actions, we too can wonder first of all when we are complicit in causing injustice to others, by speaking or refusing to speak, by acting or refusing to act? When do we choose popularity over righteousness and holiness? I guess most of us can think of situations when we were caught in the moment, knowing we did what was wrong, but were afraid to lose face at the same time.

However, with God there is always a second chance. None of us go without making mistakes, sometimes with grave consequences for ourselves or others. That is what it is to be human. But what do we do when we get a chance to redeem ourselves? Do we learn from our mistakes, admit to them, and try to do better next time?

One last observation about Herod and his decisions is that both times he was driven by fear. Fear to lose his honour, fear to lose his position, his authority. So when we make our decisions, let us not be driven by fear. Jesus famously said ‘those who love their lives will lose it’, and maybe this is what he meant: if we’re trying to protect who we think we are by turning our backs to God, we will not make it very far.

Perfect love drives out all fear. So let us continue to learn how to love God and one another. Then we will grow in God’s image, and be strengthened to speak words of healing instead of condemnation, to become more and more people of love and compassion instead of fear and hatred.

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