Scripture Mark 6:14-29
6:14 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.” 15 But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
6:17 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. 18 For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 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.
6:21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 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.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer.” 25 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.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.
6:27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
If you remember from last week, Jesus had been going around the countryside preaching, teaching, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead. And King Herod heard about it. So this part of the story is a flashback. Because Herod, hearing about Jesus’ works of power, is looking back over what he has done and getting a bit scared about consequences. “Oh no. This must be John the Baptizer, raised from the dead.” Not a zombie. But the actual person, returned to life by God. And he was totally worried, because he had done something that he knew at the time he did it was a serious mistake. He had made an open ended promise.
If we were watching a movie or reading a book, and one character said to another, “I will do this thing for you, but sometime in the future you will owe me a favor.” we would be jumping up and down saying, “Don’t do it! It’s a trap!” Part of the reason we feel that way is because of this story. Herod made a very unwise promise, because he really wasn’t thinking of all the possibilities. I mean, realistically, what would a typical young woman of the time ask for? A new chariot, clothes, jewels, a handsome husband. You know. Stuff. The kind of stuff a wealthy king could easily provide. But Salome wasn’t a typical young woman.
Salome was the daughter of Herodias and her first husband Herod II, son of Herod the Great (the King Herod from the stories about Jesus’ birth) and half-brother of Herod Antipas, (the King Herod in this story). So, Salome was both Herod’s niece and his step-daughter. When she married Herod II, he was in line for the throne. But his mother had been involved in a plot to poison Herod the Great, so she was executed and her son was kicked out of the succession. Our Herod was next in line. The two met and fell in love in Rome, where Herod was getting the Emperor’s approval to take the throne. Because, you know, Rome pretty much owned the world, so no one could inherit a throne without the Emperor’s approval. While in Rome Herod and Herodias both divorced their current spouses and married. This all made the Roman Emperor happy, but did not endear Herod to his people, the Jews of Galilee. And John preached loudly against this breaking of the Law, because Herodias remarried while her previous husband was still alive. Anyway . . . So, Salome had been raised in households filled with political intrigue. Instead of asking for those things that make a typical young woman’s heart sing (like shoes!), she thought in terms of political power, and asked her mother what would be the best request. And her mother, who really did not like the things John said about her, asked for his head on a platter.
Sometimes, like Herod, we promise things unwisely. And then his pride wouldn’t allow him to go back on that promise in front of all his guests. His wife knew that, and took advantage of his pride - his weakness. He might have backed out if he hadn’t had a house full of people - diplomats and merchants, wealthy nobles, probably some Romans. People he had to impress, because if word got back to the Emperor that he was wishy-washy, his life could be over. Literally.
That usually isn’t the case with us. Pride, yes. Wanting to impress others. Yes. Being in fear for our lives if we don’t keep our promise. Probably not. But keeping a promise when it goes against your principles and/or your beliefs, that’s not good. And that is what Herod did. If ever a promise should have been broken, this is one. Because he enjoyed his conversations with John. He knew John was a holy and righteous man. He really didn’t want to kill him. But because he made a promise in front of all his guests, he did a thing he knew was wrong, a thing he didn’t even want to do.
We tend to think that the worst thing we can do is promise something we don’t intend to do. I used to do that all the time. I would find myself in some sort of trouble and say, “Oh God, if you just get me out of this one I swear I will never do it again.” And I pretty much always did it again. Haven’t had to do that in a long time, for which I am grateful daily.
What is worse is to swear by God’s name that a lie is true. That one even has a commandment against it. “You shall not take the Lord your God’s name in vain” means you will not use God’s name to swear to a lie. So perjury, lying under oath in court, has pretty significant consequences. Our Quaker brothers and sisters will not swear by God’s name, ever, because they believe that if they swear to something and it turns out that they are mistaken in what they have said, in what they believed to be true, that would be acting against the commandment. So they will affirm their word in court or when taking an oath of office, but they will not swear on a Bible.
But worst of all is to make and keep a promise that goes against our ethics and our faith. These are the promises that should be broken. Even the oath taken by soldiers specifies they are required to disobey an order, if they are ordered to commit a crime. “I was just obeying orders.” turns out not to have been a good defense for soldiers who have been convicted of war crimes - like Pfc. Lynndie England in Iraq and Lt. William Calley in Vietnam.
The most important promise to keep is the one we made to God at the time of our baptism - our promise to renounce evil. This is greater than any other promise we might make at any time. It is the one to which we are bound at all times, in every thing we do. We are sworn to make a determination whether any given thing we might do or say is good or evil, and then to avoid - renounce - the evil, and do the good. Any word or action that would cause another person to suffer needlessly is most likely evil. Any word or action that would cause someone to be treated unjustly is most likely evil. Things like racism, sexism, ageism, homophobism - these are among the many evils to be renounced - in ourselves and in our society. When we hear people hating on other people, or bullying other people, we need to renounce it. When we see people treating others unfairly or unjustly for no reason other than skin color or accent, or religion, or perceived orientation, we need to renounce it. We need always renounce evil when we become aware of it, so that we may be true to the promise we have made to God and to each other.
It is easier to be silent, and not to speak out against evil. But the promise we each made at our baptism is to renounce evil, to be true to God and to one another. This takes courage and strength. It takes determination and faith.
So when we go from this place let us go filled with strength and courage to do the right thing, always. Let us go out and be true to the Lord our God, and to our faith. Let us go out remembering the promise we have made, in Jesus’ name. Amen.