Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Amos 7:7-14; Ps 85 8-end; Ephesians 1, 3-14; Mark 6:14-29
Hymns: This is the day the Lord has made, The prophets spoke in days of old, Amazing Grace, Lift up your hearts
Well, it’s quite a tale isn’t it, Herodias’s manipulation of the weak, lustful, greedy Herod Antipas, which caused him to have his holy and much respected friend the prophet John the Baptist killed and served up at dinner. Prophets are generally unpopular – see last week’s gospel – as Amos the hapless shepherd found when raising his voice against evil practices brewing in Israel: he was sent away quickly lest the King be offended, or more immediately those benefitting from the changes loose benefits. As a prophet, John had experienced opposition: but his death was gross. So why did Herodias want his head? (Let me say before we go further that I am taking the commoner reading -in Matthew and Luke as well as Josephus the historian and some Mark translations- that the daughter of Herodias danced, a girl often called Salome, not Herodias the daughter of an unnamed mother)
Having met his step-brother Philip’s wife Herodias, incidentally the niece of both of them, Herod had decided that, compared with her, his own wife was second rate. He divorced her and married Herodias, his willing ambitious sister in law, to be joined –unusually- by her daughter Salome, a girl of twelve or thirteen. John refused to keep his mouth shut about this incestuous marriage of the powerful Herod, a man whom Jesus called a fox, not because he was cunning but because, like a fox, he caused damage just because he could. Herod could have reneged on his promise to offer his step-daughter half his kingdom once he realised what his wife Herodias was up to: but he chose to save his own face and sacrifice his friend John.
The story brings to mind that of other innocent men in the Bible, as well as other wicked and weak ones. One was sacrificed because a weak provincial governor didn’t have the guts to offend the crowd and save another prophet, Jesus, from death, preferring to save his own face. A perhaps closer parallel is the earlier killing of the innocent Naboth, a death engineered by Jezebel to satisfy her husband Ahab’s greed and status and opposed by the prophet Elijah who, not by chance, is referred to in this Gospel reading. And of course there is Uriah the husband of Bathsheba, whom David had killed not because Bathsheba had seduced him, as pictures too often show, but because he had taken her in a fashion which was as criminal then as now, and murder was easier than polyandry.
Is there a common thread in these stories? The picture on your service-sheet is of Salome, portrayed as an experienced temptress. That her mother had her dance for her step-father at a public banquet was an abuse of an unmarried daughter by her mother. It happens, yes: but why does the opprobrium rest with Salome, whose name means peace, more than her mother or indeed than Herod himself, whose names mean heroine/hero? Jezebel was a manipulative woman, full of ambition for Ahab- as was Herodias for Herod- and her family links in that region so important to him strategically that he had abandoned God for Baal to please her. Again, she is remembered as spectacularly bad- but Ahab, who benefitted from her sin, just like David and Herod Antipas, do not generally figure as wicked killers in ecclesial memory.
Our offertory hymn will be Amazing Grace, and you may be wondering how we get to that from these blood-baths! After reflecting on sin, choice and power, we’ll take the other readings and the life of the hymn-writer, John Newton. Herodias and Herod Antipas made choices which led to the wrong use of their step/daughter and the death of John: David made a choice which led to Uriah’s death; Jezebel and Ahab made choices which led to Naboth’s death: Pilate made a choice which led to Jesus’ death – though with an inevitability not present in the others, who freely planned and chose to sin. Is each sinner equally responsible? If a person has enough food, permanent solid shelter, an income and family support and still, faced with temptation, chooses to sin, that person carries the burden of their free choice until they repent and cease such actions. But what of a hungry person who steals food to survive, or prostitutes themselves to get food and shelter for their child? What of a person who has a job after months of unemployment and poverty and keeps silent during their probation time if a superior insults a colleague or molests the newcomer? Relative powerlessness so constricts their freedom to act that compared with a similar act of a well-placed person, their sin is slight and their burden light. Salome was a young girl, manipulated and almost prostituted by her mother: despite pictures and stories to the contrary, she carries little guilt. David, Herodias, Ahab, Herod Antipas, Pilate, all made free choices and carry full responsibility.
John Newton chose to be a slave trader, working on slave ships from 1745-1752, supporting a slaver a while longer, and eventually becoming an Anglican priest. He wrote the hymn in Onley, Buckinghamshire when, growing in faith, he fully accepted his past chosen slave trading experience as pure sin. What helped him reach that point? He realised, as Paul puts it ‘[we are chosen by God ] to be holy and blameless before Christ in love…we have redemption through his blood and the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the richness of his grace.’ Steadfast love and faithfulness of and to God, righteousness and peace were not absent from the Hebrew Bible, as our Psalm makes clear: ‘mercy and truth spring up, righteousness and peace have kissed each other.’ But it is the forgiving of sins through God’s love and Christ’s death and resurrection, the receiving of glorious grace freely given, which allowed John Newton to be redeemed and change his life, which had been every bit as bad as that of Herod or Herodias, David, Jezebel and Ahab.
Slavery or murder may not be weighing us down: just ordinary wrongs we have done to others. May Amazing Grace speak for and encourage each one of us here to be gentler with ourselves and more honourable to others, sustained by the Spirit, forgiven through the love of Christ, and embraced by the grace of God.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 12th July 2015