Off With His Head

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost  |  Mark 6:14-29

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Off With His Head

I’ve never seen a single verse from this passage on a T-shirt or a refrigerator magnet.

It is such a strange story. For one thing, it’s a sandwich. That’s what brilliant theologians and expositors call a passage where Mark sticks one thing in the middle of something else.

Painting of Salome by Titian
“Salome” by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), c. 1515. Held at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome.

In the middle of this story about some disciples going out and preaching on their own, we hear about the beheading of John the Baptist. It is ironic, since preaching is precisely what got John the Baptist in trouble—he had been opening his mouth and telling the people who would listen everything that he thought they ought to hear. Unfortunately for John, one of the things he preached was that people in positions of power ought not to behave like King Herod.

Speaking the truth to power is generally not welcomed by the ones with the power. It’s like that all the way up: parents, teachers, bosses, politicians and kings. Just because what you have to say may be true is no reason to expect that they will want to hear it.

It’s the job of faithful people to tell it anyway, even if the hearers want to chop off some heads, even if it lands us in a Birmingham jail.

Stories like this one stick with you. We’ve been telling them to each other ever since Og and his clan started watching firelight on cave walls. We still do it. That’s the real reason flat screen TVs are more popular than the old versions–a flat screen hanging on the living room wall matches our deep ancestral memories of listening to stories in the cave, painting the walls by firelight. Technology has just brought us back to where we started. And stories carry more truth than rules ever could.

The story of John the Baptist sounds like Southern gothic writing, like something from The Sound and the Fury or Deliverance. A lecherous half-drunk king, a beautiful half witted girl, a witch of a mother—how’d you like to have a mother like this one?—and a bearded wild man prophet with his head on a dinner plate. We’re inclined to believe every word of it, not because it is in the Bible but because who would make up all that?

There’s much we can learn.

We need to be careful of our promises, for one thing. Jesus warned people not to swear to things without thinking. In Matthew’s Gospel we hear, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.”

Herod made an oath, in front of everyone, promising his daughter—her name may have been Herodias or it may have been Salome—anything she wanted. He did not foresee the consequences. Not that killing one more person gave Herod any qualms, but he liked listening to John, which is dead odd, since it was Herod listening to John that had gotten John imprisoned in the first place.

Painting of Salome by Caravaggio
“Salome” by Caravaggio, c. 1607, National Gallery in London

“Out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” The slightly smaller fish in the pond were all gathered around watching, and Herod did not want to look like the sort of man who would go back on his word.

It is ironic, isn’t it? Everybody in the room had seen Herod do worse than refuse to kill an innocent man. Nevertheless, he kills John—though he had someone else swing the sword—to maintain appearances and for the sake of pride.

And it didn’t work, did it? Once they brought John’s head up from the prison, like a gruesome entree on a serving platter, nobody thought better of Herod for it.

Even that bunch of court sycophants knew Herod better than that. They weren’t blind.

Maybe I should make a little confession here. You see, I often do things (no head chopping) just for the sake of pride or to keep up what I think is an appearance. Monty Python said it right. I’m not fooling anybody.

Let’s think about the girl’s mother, Herod’s wife. Herodias. Now there’s a piece of work. She really does sound like the evil witch in a fairy tale, doesn’t she? The girl comes, breathless, to her mother, who is not at the party—perhaps it was a men only affair—saying, “What shall I ask for?”

The head of John the Baptist. On a platter. Hold the body.

She reaches down and asks for the worst thing that her self-absorbed, arrogant, revenge seeking mind can think of. We despise her.

Worse, we understand her.

Don’t we?

Let’s be honest with ourselves. If we have to pick the character in this little play that is most like ourselves, who is it? The pretty dancing girl? Maybe. We’ve all done stupid things and been proud of them at the time.

How about the king? Herod himself? Not many of us really want to identify with him. We know too much about him to be sympathetic.

John the Baptist? That is a possibility. We’ve all lost our heads at one time or another, with the difference being that most of us put our own heads on plates and walked off without them. Some of us have been imprisoned, either physically or more likely in other more subtle ways. Some of us know what it is like to have other people begrudge our existence, sometimes for very wrong reasons. Some of us might identify with the prophet.

Most of us are not so honest as John the Baptist, not so brave. We’re not sure that we are speaking for God—that thought gives us pause. It should give any decent person pause.

How about the wicked, evil, horrible, no-good, witch of a queen? Well, if this were an actual play, that would be the fun part, wouldn’t it? To really let loose and be the dark hearted self-serving vengeful creature that this woman became? Now that would be entertainment.

We love the stories with evil witch queens, and we love them for a lot of reasons. One that we need to think about is this—we know that she is just doing what we’d love to do, what we might do, if we weren’t afraid or if we had the power. Oh, we might not go killing folk, not at first, but imagine getting anything you want.

The reason we hold onto stories like this one, with John the Baptist losing his head, dying in a cause he could not have fully understood but for which he was willing to give his life, and other stories like it, real and imagined, is for the truth that is in them.

G K Chesterton said this about fairy tales:
“Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

Neil Gaiman summarized the idea this way:
“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” He went on to describe the power of great stories to “…furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better.” (Here’s a link to a wonderful article on a website called BrainPickings.org — Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last.)

We hold onto the fairy tales with the wicked witches and evil kings and trolls and dragons not because they are factual, but because they are true. In much the same way, we do not tell the stories of the Garden of Eden and of the prophet Elijah and of John the Baptist because of factual content. Such facts are only for people who want to distract themselves from the truth. There is a difference.

John the Baptist was executed by Herod. That is the simple fact of the matter. We are still telling this story because John the Baptist dead had more to offer than Herod alive. That is the truth.

Now imagine that you are sitting wherever the evil queen was sitting, and the girl comes to you.

“I can get anything, anything at all,” she says, only now she sounds just the tiniest bit like a beautiful snake in a story about a garden.

“Anything,” she whispers. “And I won’t tell anyone that it was your idea. What shall I ask for?”

What do we tell her? More to the point, what do we want to tell her? It is the sort of test that helps us figure out who we are, uncovers what we hide from ourselves. What would we ask for? What do we want?

What would we see on our platter?

Know thyself, the Greeks said. The unexamined life is not worth living. More than 400 years after Socrates, Jesus gave us something of the same idea. “By their fruits you shall know them.”

By our answers, we shall know ourselves.

This is the real hero’s quest, to find the secrets we keep from ourselves. In stories, the girl or boy, our hero, goes off to find a treasure or to slay a dragon, but that is usually only in stories. The true heroes are you and I, which is why we love these tales. The real quest takes us inside our own hearts, to see whether there is any treasure after all, or to slay the dragon we find hiding there.

We get one life, one wish, one story. What happens next?