Martin Luther and his family had a very large dinner table when they lived in the cloister of what once was the monastery of Wittenberg. Martin and his wife Katie and their children were often joined by other guests—Luther’s students and faculty from the University of Wittenberg, visiting dignitaries, and theologians. You can imagine the lively conversations that took place at that table. They were so interesting that Luther’s guests took notes on them. The notes were eventually collected in a book appropriately titled Table Talk. It’s still available today, and we can read Luther’s humorous stories and sly observations along with his more serious theological reflections.
I didn’t find any references to our passage for today in the Table Talk index, but I imagine it would have made for an interesting discussion. Imagine the questions Luther and his guests might have feasted on along with their meal, perhaps beginning with “Why is this story even in the Bible?” After the introductory verses, the passage never mentions Jesus, or God for that matter. There’s no happy ending—no obvious good news here.
Even the story’s place in Mark’s gospel is odd. We can read about Jesus sending the twelve out in mission, skip over our passage entirely, and go right to the apostles’ return without missing a beat. It’s not obvious why we should think of it as anything more than a gruesome little side story about power that corrupts and is itself corrupted—a story of debauchery and pride and manipulation that could easily be the basis of a TV show rated “mature audiences only.” But, if we accept Paul’s assessment that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), then we have to assume that there’s something in this passage for us.
The passage begins with a report that Herod had gotten wind of the activities of Jesus and the twelve. Jesus had healed many people, and the twelve had had many successes themselves in casting out demons and curing the sick. Jesus’ name was becoming a household word, but there was still an element of mystery around who this miracle worker actually was. Some thought he was John the Baptizer, raised from the dead. Some thought he was Elijah. Others thought he was simply a prophet in the mold of those who had come before him.
Mark notes that Herod came down on the side of John the Baptist, whom he had beheaded. Then Mark goes on to tell the sordid tale of how that event came to pass. It all began when John criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. There’s some disagreement among historians about exactly what the family connection was, but it was close enough to be considered inappropriate according to Jewish law, and Herod was a Jew, in name if not in practice. John had called Herod to account for this, and that really made Herodias angry—angry enough that she wanted to kill John. But she couldn’t, because Herod had imprisoned John and was protecting him.
Herod may have locked John up because of the Herodias kerfluffle, or possibly because he saw John as a political threat, or a combination of the two. But, regardless of the reason, Herod had some mixed emotions about John. Herod was afraid of John. That wouldn’t be surprising if Herod considered John a political rival. But, Mark tells us, that wasn’t the reason for Herod’s fear. He was afraid because he knew John to be a righteous and holy man. So, although Herod had John under lock and key, he hedged his bets by protecting John.
On the other hand, it appears that Herod had also spent some time in John’s company. Herod liked to listen to John, even though he was perplexed by what John had to say. Mark’s Greek word tells us that Herod’s conversations with John left Herod with feelings of self-doubt and confusion about his choices and decisions. So, for a time, John was safe.
But Herodias found an opening for getting rid of her nemesis when Herod gave himself a big birthday bash. He invited all the Galilean elite to gather ‘round his table—royal courtiers and top military brass and other A-list power brokers. It was clearly the place to see and be seen—a table full of people who were living evidence of Herod’s position of power.
At some point in the evening, Herod’s step-daughter entertained the guests with a dance performance. If you’ve ever seen any artwork featuring this scene, the daughter probably looked like a “Sports Illustrated” swimsuit model, dancing as though she were at a stag party. But, Mark’s Greek word for the girl is the same one he uses to describe the twelve-year-old daughter of the synagogue leader Jairus, whom Jesus had healed when she’d been given up for dead. So, this dance may have been more of a cute, childish performance than a seduction.
Whatever it was, it pleased Herod and his guests enormously—so much so that Herod makes an absurdly generous promise—that he will give the girl anything she wants, including half his kingdom (in spite of the fact that he doesn’t have the authority to give away any part of his kingdom). For me, this supports the idea that this was the dance of a child who wouldn’t know any better, in front of guests who do. I can see Herod—the benevolent stepfather—squatting down to a child’s eye level to solemnly swear that she’ll get whatever she asks for. I can see her eyes, big as saucers, as she just as solemnly nods back. Awwww, how cute! Herod probably thought she’d ask for something like a pony.
Not knowing what to ask for, and maybe with little-girl bashfulness, she rushes back to her mother for advice. Herodias seizes the moment, and we know what she told the girl to ask for. Herod is “deeply grieved” when he hears her request—overcome with sorrow, Mark’s Greek tells us. Was he grieved because he didn’t want any harm to come to John? Or was he grieved because he’d been pushed into a corner in front of his guests—pushed to make a choice between killing an admittedly holy and righteous man or losing face by backing away from his ridiculous promise?
Obviously, his sadness wasn’t as great as his fear of embarrassment. So, without further ado, a soldier is sent, John’s head is obtained, and it’s given to the girl on the requested platter. The girl gives it to her mother, who must have been overjoyed. No word on how the girl felt at being handed this grisly reward for her dance performance. No word on whether Herod gave it a second thought, since it appears he never even saw the bloody results of his promise. The story ends with one stark statement: When John’s disciples heard about what happened, they came and took John’s now-headless body, and laid it in a tomb.
I can imagine Martin Luther and the guests at his table examining this story to figure out what Mark wanted his readers to get out of it. As we prepare to gather around the Lord’s table, we can ask the same questions they might have as we search for what it means for us today.
Our first question might be, “What was on Herod’s mind as he listened to the reports about Jesus and the speculation about who Jesus was?” We know what his response was. Herod agrees with those who think he’s John the Baptist, raised from the dead. I wonder if Herod was feeling the weight of what he’d done to John. Did he feel a sense of guilt about doing something that was clearly wrong, just to maintain his popularity among those whose good opinion he craved? Or was he simply afraid that the John’s ghost had come back to cause more trouble and inconvenience for Herod and his kingdom?
We’ll never know, of course. But our question about Herod’s mindset may raise a question about our own. When we do something wrong—when we make choices that are more expedient than faithful—how do we deal with the consequences? Do we acknowledge that we’re wrong, take responsibility, and repent? Do we ask for forgiveness—from the person we’ve wronged if that’s possible, and from Jesus no matter what? Do we change our ways in response to the grace-filled forgiveness we receive? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and write it off as an unfortunate mistake: “I didn’t mean it. You’re taking this too seriously. Can’t you take a joke?” Do we think that any negative consequences are unfair and that people who call us to account are just being mean to us and trying to make us look bad?
Mark tells us that Herod liked listening to John, even though he was puzzled by what John said. So, here’s another question for our table talk. How might things have been different if Herod had continued listening to John? How would things have been different if Herod had tried to understand John’s message about the kingdom of God that had come near in Jesus? Herod was a Jew, and he was in a position of power. If he had continued to listen to John, perhaps he would have come to believe in Jesus and in his teachings. From his position, Herod could have led in an entirely new way—a way that conformed more closely to God’s kingdom of justice and compassion.
Of course, we can only speculate about this. But, here’s the question for us: “What would the world be like if we were willing to listen to people whose words perplex us?” How might we be changed if we didn’t dismiss those whose stories and experiences are foreign to us, or whose calls for change sound threatening to us? If the past year and a half has done anything, it has brought new voices to the forefront of our collective consciousness—immigrant voices, Black voices, and the voices of low-wage workers among others. If, unlike Herod, we resolve to continue listening to those who perplex us, we may find that their message holds out both a challenge and a promise of a world that comes closer to the Kingdom of God.
While it was Herod who had imprisoned John, and Herodias who had it in for him, it was Herod’s step-daughter who was used to accomplish John’s murder. Whether she was a young woman or a child, she was manipulated by those more powerful than she to accomplish someone else’s agenda. Her mother wanted her detractor dead. Her step-father wanted the admiration of others. They both manipulated the girl to get what they wanted. That raises the next question for us: “Whom do we manipulate in order to gain what we want?”
It might be hard for us to think of a time when we’ve personally manipulated someone into doing what we want because it serves us well. But, we do allow others to do it for us—people with political or financial clout. We do it with our votes. We do it when we look the other way when companies we buy from or invest in make decisions that work for us but not so well for others—like dangling needed jobs in poor neighborhoods in exchange for locating air-polluting factories that increase asthma cases there. We may not be doing the manipulating ourselves, but we’re fine with this trade-off because those dirty factories aren’t in our neighborhoods.
And, there’s the companion question: Who’s manipulating us to get what they want? This question occurs to me when I hear concerns about higher wages. The objections are always about how we would have to pay more or make less if low-wage workers get higher pay. That seems to be the main focus of the economists you hear in the news as well. But, why do we have to look down the economic ladder? Why don’t we look up the ladder and ask, “Why shouldn’t the people at the top of the ladder be willing to take less, or at least just maintain the multi-million-dollar compensation packages they already have?”
Who gets all of us on the middle and bottom rungs of the ladder to point our fingers at each other, rather than pointing them up at those who really have the power to control both pay and prices? It’s a question we should ask. Who’s the Herodias who just might be manipulating us into serving their interests because they’ve made it appear that that’s the only way to serve our own?
Herod was willing to cut off John’s head to serve his own purposes. Here’s the question that raises for our table talk: “Whose heads are we willing to cut off to serve our own purposes, figuratively speaking?” Do we cut off the heads of immigrants by keeping them out of “our country”? Are we willing to cut off the heads of people whose sexuality makes us uncomfortable by forbidding their ordination or denying their right to marry? Do we cut off the heads of children by refusing to vote for school levies or ignoring the need for affordable childcare and housing?
The flip side of that question is, “Whose heads are we willing to defend?” I listened to an interview with the travel expert Rick Steves earlier this year. Maybe you’ve heard him on WGTE or used his travel guides. He was discussing the links between his love of travel and his faith, and he made a statement that really stuck with me. When asked about his experiences with the poor of the countries he visits, he observed, “As a Christian, I believe it’s honest to vote for what is good for the people who are struggling more than what’s better for my bottom line.”
Steves’ statement made it clear whose heads he’s willing to defend. We also know whose heads Jesus was willing to defend. He was willing to defend to the death the sick and the weak and the friendless, the powerless and the voiceless. He went to the cross for all who need the grace-filled forgiveness and compassion of God. The heads he was willing to defend are ours.
I imagine that Martin Luther and the guests at his table would be finishing up their table talk over coffee and dessert right about now. As they left Luther’s table, maybe they continued thinking about Herod’s lavish table, surrounded by the Galilean elite, hosted by a man who was willing to sacrifice the life of another for his own gain. And, maybe that led them to thoughts of other tables. A table where Jesus sat with his friends. A table where Jesus ate with Pharisees. A table of green grass, where thousands were fed. A table in the village of Emmaus, where the eyes of despondent men were opened. A table along the shore, where Jesus cooked fish for his disciples. A table in an upper room, where he offered food and blessing to his guests, including the one who betrayed him.
Maybe that’s the reason Mark included this story in his Gospel—to remind his readers that the Lord’s table is so different from tables like Herod’s. The Lord’s table reflects the kingdom of God. It bears the most precious food and drink. All are invited to this table, regardless of station. This table is hosted by the one who lived in the service of others and died offering himself as a sacrifice—a sacrifice for us. At this table, each of us is welcome and the table talk is of nothing but love. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young