Sunday, July 12, 2009

Herod’s Oath: When what is Right isn’t what was Promised

This morning’s Gospel reading (Mark 6:14-29) is one of those stories that I’m often surprised wasn’t left out of the Gospel of Mark, much less our lectionary series. It seems to offer little to the story of Jesus, focused on John the Baptist and his unfortunate demise. It most likely occurs here, in the Gospel of Mark, to bring home the fact of how dangerous it is to be a prophet. It is a clear message to the potential cost of speaking truth to authority, and making a public stand. Doing so will anger people, especially those with power and those comfortable with the status quo, and it is likely to get you into series trouble, and perhaps even killed.

There are, however, some really interesting things to point out about this story of John’s demise at the hand of Herod. It is the only New Testament story that can be closely examined by a non-Biblical, secular history source. Josephus was a Jewish historian who lived immediately after Jesus. He served as an advisor to three Roman emperors, and his history books were widely read for centuries. Josephus writes that the Herod of this story, the son of Herod the Great who ordered the killing of babies found in the birth narratives, married his sister-in-law in controversial fashion. Herodias left her living husband for Herod, and Herod’s wife fled to her father, an Arab king named King Aretas. This ultimately led to a battle where Herod’s army was wiped out.

Josephus also writes that, shortly before this battle, Herod had John the Baptist executed. Josephus does not say if John criticized the marriage, but it is inferred in the sequence of the story that John’s execution is not an isolated event, making it entirely possible that John the Baptist really did publicly oppose the marriage, and perhaps suggesting that Herod’s defeat was punishment for his actions.

One other fascinating discovery is that Josephus mentions that Herodias, from her previous marriage, had a daughter named Salome, thus entering a name into our collective Biblical memories that is NEVER MENTIONED anywhere in our Biblical texts. Perhaps Mark mistakenly used Herodias’ name instead of Salome, (the footnote in the NRSV says “other ancient authorities read ‘the daughter of Herodias herself”...this was what Matthew used in 14.6), or perhaps she was known by her mother’s name as well (suggests the annotated NRSV). Regardless, many of us (including me)end up with Salome’s name without reading Josephus and the name Salome not appearing in the Bible.
(Accounts of Josephus taken from the website of Pastor Edward F. Markquart, Grace Lutheran Church, Seattle, Washington.)

Now that we’ve looked at our non-Biblical source, I want to dwell on the Herod of Mark’s account. Mark tells us that Herod assumes Jesus is John the Baptist raised, launching into the story of how Herod put John to death.

The tale has Herod throwing John in prison for speaking the unwelcome
truth that Herod’s marriage to Herodias was not lawful. John lives, however, because Herod recognizes the Baptist as a holy and righteous man. The text even goes as far to say that John perplexed Herod, that in some sense he feared John, and protected and listened to him even as The Baptist sat in Herod’s prison.

So Herod has a birthday party in front of a bunch of important people. We are told that his daughter (that would be Herodias’ biological daughter) dances for him and the experience pleases him so much that he offers her whatever she wants, solemnly swearing to even give her half of his kingdom. She goes to her mother, giving Herod’s wife the opportunity for revenge against John...who, remember, had publicly declared her marriage unlawful. The request for John’s head is made, and the text says, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” And so follows the gruesome conclusion of the story...

Here is a story full of corrupt authority. John is imprisoned for speaking the truth to someone with power. Despite himself, Herod recognizes John’s authority and integrity. The stage is set for the final set of choices. Herod, taken in by the young woman’s dancing, makes a foolish oath that he’ll giver her anything. Whether he does this to gain her favor, or impress his guests, we can only speculate. But it backfires in his face when she asks for the head of John the Baptist.

We are told that the King didn’t want to, but is compelled to honor his word.

As I read commentary after commentary on this passage, I saw the conclusion being made that Herod had no choice in the matter but to keep his word. One person wrote that Herod had fallen in to the trap. Herod “had to” honor his bravado and grant the young woman her request.

Another wrote that the only semi-honorable thing Herod does in this story is - reluctantly - keep his promise made to his daughter.

I have to ask: where is the honor in keeping your word if it is the wrong thing to do?

Herod would have lost face with all of his guests. The cost would have been great: who knows if his officers would have ever served him again with any passion? Who knows if any other leader would have ever trusted a promise of Herod? He would have forever been known as an who did not keep his promises. Would that have been a cost worth paying to do the right thing?

It has been said by many a wise person that we our only as good as our word. But when the promise that we’ve made is wrong, at what point do we admit our mistake and accept the cost that comes with breaking our word? It is not something to do lightly, but when it’s clear we’ve committed to something that is wrong, isn’t the most honorable thing to do is let go of our honor and risk tarnishing our reputation? Is our word worth the cost of not doing what is right?

What, for God’s sake, would Jesus do?

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