A Dish Best Served Cold
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 others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Salome was young and beautiful and especially good at dancing. Her forte was the dance of the seven scarves. The scarves were silk and each a different color of the rainbow and by the time she finished no one could tell where Salome began and the rainbow left off. After one particularly riveting performance at a birthday dinner for the king, the banquet room broke into wild applause. King Herod Antipas cheered louder than everyone else. Perhaps it was because he was Salome’s uncle, and he felt particularly fond of his niece. But Uncle Herod was also Salome’s stepfather, if you can figure that out. Salome’s mother, Herodias, had divorced Herod’s half brother Phillip (some sources say was her father’s half brother) to marry the divorced Herod Antipas (also her uncle). They were from the “I am my own grandpa” school of family construction. Anyway, maybe Herod cheered loudly because their relationship was so complicated that he had to make an extra special effort to win Salome over. Who knows?
The marital status of Herod and Herodias was the social and political mess that John the Baptist had dared to publically criticize as immoral. Evidently when John went to prophet school he missed the lesson where the story of Elijah and Queen Jezebel was told with its emphasis on the moral of the story: “Don’t ever anger a Queen.” Though Romans may not have had a problem with a man marrying a woman who was both their niece AND their sister-in-law, Jewish law frowned upon it. Especially when the woman’s former husband was still living. Herodias was angry with John for publically shaming her.
But Herod almost liked John, admired the way John spoke out so boldly on religious matters. Herod even feared John a little. Herod argued that Herodias shouldn’t take it so personally, that John was just being a testy, critical prophet. He was just doing his job. But Herodias let her grudge against John grow stronger in the darkness of silence.
After Salome had finished dancing, she stood there panting as her uncle slash stepfather sang her praises. Herod was so impressed that he magnanimously said he would give her anything she asked. Not to squander a golden opportunity, the dutiful daughter Salome consulted with her mother out in the hallway. Here is where we start to suspect, and maybe Herod does as well, that this whole thing was a set up. We get the sense that Herodias has been nursing her grudge against John and cold heartedly orchestrating her revenge. Herodias knew just what she wanted: the head of John the Baptist. Salome parroted her mother’s request, and added her own little touch: she would like the head on a platter.
Now Herod was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He intended John no harm, he knew John was a hot political issue, but he had given his word to Salome. Lamely, Herod gave in, and Herodias gloated at the sight of John’s silent head on a platter. As the saying goes, revenge is a dish best served cold.
I find it interesting that Mark, whose gospel is usually terse and to the point, spends so much time on this story. This long narrative is fleshed out with juicy, gossipy details. And Mark places the story just after the story of Jesus sending the disciples out two by two on a preaching and healing mission. Here, the death of John the Baptist becomes a foreshadowing of another death. Like Jesus, John deals with a ruler, Pontius Pilate, who is impressed with him enough to want to spare his life, and who also wants to please a crowd with a magnanimous gesture. And, as one commentator puts it, “both (leaders) are manipulated to carry out the deadly hostility of a third party; both, though seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control.” (Lamar Williamson in his Mark volume in the Interpretation series).
Theologian Thomas Long suggests that Mark is trying to tell us that when the church goes on its mission in the world, that it is likely to run into conflict with the powers of that world. Mark seems to be saying that there is a connection between God’s mission in the world and the senseless death of a prophet. As Long puts it: “Mark wants us to know that when the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.” In other words, there are risks involved in proclaiming the truth and justice of God to the world.
We can name so many examples of those who risk their lives for holy justice, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador come immediately to mind. There are so many more whose willingness to speak truth to power has cost them their lives. Faith can be risky business.
I know some of you have read the paper that Harvard Divinity School student Michael Woolf wrote about OCBC. If you’d like to see a copy, speak to Jim Wallace. Woolf chronicles OCBC’s involvement in the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980’s. The phrase he uses to describe this congregation’s involvement in acts of civil disobedience for the cause of social justice is “holy risk.” He notes the other areas where OCBC has practiced social activism in its history: anti-slavery work, civil rights work in the 1960’s, opposition to the Vietnam war, and the decision to become a community welcoming and affirming of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered community in the early ‘80’s. In his paper, Woolf writes:
Though not perfect, OCBC’s tradition of social engagement and continued involvement with social concerns constitute what Sharon Welch calls an “ethic of risk,” which, according to Welch, possesses three elements: “redefinition of responsible action, grounding in community, and strategic risk-taking.”(Quoted from Sharon Welch’s A Feminist Ethic of Risk in Woolf’s paper.) OCBC’s history of social activism both serves as a representative example of Welch’s ethic of risk and brings it into being, laying the groundwork for this ethic of risk to continue into the future. (From “Holy Risk: Old Cambridge Baptist and the Sanctuary Movement- paper by Michael Woolf, 2012)
The congregation’s involvement risked break-ins and legal action for providing sanctuary to a Salvadorian trade unionist and political refugee. OCBC’s work as a welcoming and affirming congregation placed it at risk of being dis-fellowshipped from our denomination as well as risking the stability of the congregation. As Thomas Long says “When the church rises up to be the church, the world rises up to be the world.” Speaking the truth in these situations did not result in any OCBC member’s head being served up on a platter, although we do know many who did lose their lives in the Sanctuary Movement struggle. Mark’s story of John the Baptist is one that resonates with a congregation familiar with Holy Risk.
What will God call this congregation to risk in the future? Sharon Welch’s ethic of risk suggests that risk taking creates a context where a community can learn from those who have taken risks before and make space for other risks for justice to be taken in the future. And there will be many opportunities for risking justice ahead of you. Part of your discernment as a congregation will be to identify where and how God is calling you to speak and act in your future ministry. You are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who urge you on. John the Baptist, who was not hushed even when his head was severed from his body, still speaks the truth to us all: that God’s prophets will never be silenced. Though the Herod’s of the world will kill, the coldhearted revenge of injustice will never be the last word. The last word is always God’s redemptive, resurrecting love for this world. For that, let us give thanks. AMEN.