Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Undoing of Pride

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.--Mark 6:23-26

This morning's Gospel lesson seems to be not only a sad commentary on that moment many centuries ago when a king ordered the beheading of an innocent man because of an oath he'd made before guests at a party. It seems to offer insights into our contemporary world where pride and wanting to save face in front of others trumps thoughtfulness, and realizing when making an apology would be more important than carrying out a promise.

I haven't put the whole Gospel reading up here, but this is the portion of Mark where we're hearing that people are all scratching their heads and wondering who in the world is this guy Jesus. Could he be a propet like Elijah? Or maybe he's more like John the Baptizer? The latter is what this King Herod believed, who is a different Herod than the one that slaughtered children out of fear of a rival in Bethlehem. We have something like a flashback where we find out what had happened to Jesus' cousin, John the Baptizer. John, the one preparing the way and eating locusts and honey, had dared to tell King Herod that he was wrong for marrying his brother's wife. This didn't sit well with the wife, and wasn't something Herod wanted to hear, either, so he had John arrested and thrown in jail. Then we have the scene with Herod's birthday party. Mark tells us that this is a big shindig with lots of courtiers, officers, and leaders. Our imagination can fill in the details of the rich food, lots of wine flowing freely, people making merry and probably getting a little tipsy. Herod's stepdaughter does a dance in front of these men and delights all of them, especially her stepdad who is overcome in the moment and makes the solemn promise to give this girl whatever she asks for. 

And so she gets her instructions from her mom, and tells Herod what she wants: John's head on a platter.

According to what Mark says, this wasn't the type of request Herod thought he'd have to entertain. He was prepared, perhaps, to find the finest spices for her, the most purple of all robes, maybe even a few thousand acres of the best land of Galilee. But....

John's head? On a platter?

We can imagine the continuation of this scene. All eyes are on Herod. Given the times, I won't go so far in my own imagination as to think that this created quiet in the room as everyone waits to hear his answer. Instead, this is a time when being brutal was a sport. I mean, the Romans did crucify people. Still, we get that, for Herod, this isn't an easy thing. We get that because we remember the recounting of this story is a flashback for him as he is listening to what people are saying about, "Who is Jesus?"

It's too bad we can't pause the story for Herod at that moment when his stepdaughter makes her request. It's unfortunate that his bravado and drunken pledge to give her whatever she asks for leads him to actually give her what she asks for. What would have happened if he'd said, "OK, I was wrong to say I'd give you whatever you asked for because what you've just asked for is too much for me to give"?

I think about the promises that get made when lobbyists are writing out a check to a politician. Sometimes the politician is extorting the contribution by saying, "If you want me to do 'x' for you, give me money for my re-election." But there are plenty of times when one can look at the contribution list to a candidate's campaign and see where corporations and other high-rolling members of society have made sure to put their cash behind the person who will do their bidding in the halls of government whether its the best thing for the people and planet or not. Rarely will you ever see a candidate go against what a big donor wants.

The same thing happens in the church. I've read where there is suspicion that at least one bishop who has remained on the fence about blessing same-sex couples and kept that streak alive at GC with the resolutions on the marriage canons may be catering to one of the large and well-heeled congregations in his diocese. As long as this one house of worship, with all its monied people, keep saying that they don't want to recognize LGBT relationships, an entire diocese is made to suffer. 

What would happen if those with money and power to influence leadership heard, "No," once and awhile? They'd probably find another who would do their bidding and shower that person with all the riches of the world. But it might also signal something else to a broader audience if leaders, upon reflection, would be willing to say that money isn't everything, and some promises simply can't be kept any more. It could result in that leader losing their position of authority. But what good is it to have authority if one is presiding over a system where innocents get slaughtered?  Better to have the grace to say, "I'm sorry, I was wrong," than to save face in the vanity of thinking this will preserve power. Sometimes being vulnerable leads to greater gain. 

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