ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH July 12, 2015
Decision making can be difficult, especially for life changing events. Some people find it difficult to make decisions whether big or small. They spend much time reflecting and weighing all the pros and cons in an attempt to make the best possible decision, and even then they may reluctantly move forward. Other people make decision-making look easy, quickly considering the facts, deciding what course to take next, and going with it. Then there are those who don’t appear to spend much time evaluating or considering the consequences and jump right in.
As we go through life, we make hundreds if not thousands of decisions each day, from the mundane choices of what to eat, what to wear, what to do next, to the larger decisions that take up our lives. As I was thinking about decision-making, I thought of some of the biggest decisions we have to make. These can include, choosing a college or university and a subsequent program to enrol in, a career, where to live, whether to buy or rent a home, whether to get married, to have children, how to invest for the future, even when to retire. As we age there are also difficult decisions to be made. Many of these decisions we would rather not consider or think about, such as what to do in case of severe illness to oneself or a loved one, when to move to a retirement home or nursing care facility, when to give up your driver’s license, even decisions about end of life care. Decisions are definitely a large part of our lives, whether simple or complex.
This brings us to today’s Gospel story, where King Herod found himself in an impossible situation having to make a hard decision. This is a difficult story to hear. In fact, it would be wonderful and easy to just skip over this nasty narrative about Herod killing John the Baptist and read the more uplifting story of Jesus feeding the five thousand, which follows in Mark’s Gospel. This retelling of John’s death is a dark story full of vengeance and hate, about quick decisions and promises, and ultimately about murder and death. This is hardly something you would think would be included in the Gospels, as there doesn’t appear to be any good news in this story. One may even wonder why Mark includes it, as this story definitely stands out in a number of ways. The story of John’s death is the largest anecdote and the only flashback narrative of Mark’s Gospel. What is most intriguing is that this story is one of only three in the entire Gospel of Mark, where Jesus doesn’t appear. The only other two times this occurs are in the verses describing the Golgotha plot found in chapter 14:1-2, when Mark describes the chief priests and scribes looking to arrest Jesus, and 14:10-11 describing Judas Iscariot’s meeting with these same scribes and priests. The second time Jesus is not present in the text is in 16:1-8 when Mary and the other women go and find the empty tomb. Which again begs the question, why Mark included this dark passage about Herod and John? In short, I believe it is because Mark is using it as a literary tool to emphasize the significance of Jesus’ expanding mission, but that’s for another day.
As a story, King Herod’s execution of John is difficult to hear and perhaps even to understand. The beginning of this passage, verses 14-16, describes the speculation of Jesus’ identity. Herod and others have heard reports about Jesus and his works and miracles, which leads them to question who Jesus is. They wonder whether he is John the Baptizer, Elijah, or a prophet. King Herod is convinced it is John the Baptist, as he states, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” This shows Herod’s respect for John. We are told in verse 20 “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man”. Herod had John arrested because he was speaking out against him and his wife Herodias. Herod had divorced his wife and had married his brother’s wife Herodias, despite the fact that his brother was still alive. John publically criticised the king for his actions. Herodias was furious about this and wanted John killed; however, despite John’s words against him, Herod liked to listen to John speak. Herod finds himself in a difficult position. On one hand, he recognizes John as a man of God, but on the other hand, this man is publically saying things that would hurt his position and reputation. Therefore, Herod makes the decision to solve the problem by placing John in jail. Even though John has not committed a crime, Herod puts him in prison to protect John from Herodia’s scorn as well as to silence him. It was not a moral or ethical decision, but purely selfish and convenient.
We get the sense that all would have been good for Herod, if the story had stopped there. However, this all changes during his birthday celebration he holds for himself. It all starts out innocently enough. Herod asks Herodias’ young daughter to come and dance for his honoured guests. Dancing would have been one of the customary forms of entertainment at banquets such as these. We can picture the scene, as this young girl dances for the assembled group. She finishes, and there is great applause and appreciation. Proud of his daughter’s effort and willing to look good in front of his courtiers and officers, Herod offers her a gift. But, this isn’t just any gift, he says to her “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it. Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” Wow, this must have been quite the dance, or was he just so caught up in the moment? Perhaps his ego and power were going to his head, perhaps a little too much wine at the party? Maybe it was even more innocent than that, maybe he was just very happy with his daughter and wanted to give her something great, not once considering that she would ask for anything spectacular. From the Greek word used to describe the girl, we can assume that she was around twelve years old. So can we really blame Herod, I mean what could a young teenager really ask for? In modern day terms, I’m sure she’d ask for the latest and greatest phone or tablet, perhaps even a shopping trip for new clothes. Whatever it was, Herod could have easily afforded such gifts. Never in a million years would Herod have imagined that this young girl would come looking for the head of John the Baptist on a platter!
Yet, here he was sitting at his banquet surrounded by his officials, and that is exactly what she asks of him. What could he do? What could he say? Everyone at the party had heard him make that promise to his daughter, and everyone had heard her reply. Herod had a decision to make. Was he going to live up to his promise or was he going to renege? He knew that John was a holy man and he liked listening to him speak, even though John’s words perplexed him. On the other hand, this man did speak out against his marriage. Herod knew that essentially John was innocent, so could he kill him at his daughter’s request? There was a lot at play in this decision. If Herod denied his daughter’s request, he would have looked weak in front of his officials, which would affect his reign and power going forward. He would also have disappointed his daughter, and I’m sure he knew also his wife. There was too much at stake for him to go back on his promise, so reluctantly he decides to kill John. His decision was purely self-protecting. He was looking out for himself and his future. Regardless of whether it was the right thing or not, Herod made the difficult decision to grant his daughter’s request. The result being that John the Baptist lost his life.
It’s easy for us to read this tragic story and to criticize and blame Herod for his terrible decisions. We read this story critically and see that Herod made bad decisions and choices, beginning with his marrying of his brother’s wife, putting John in jail, making that promise to his daughter, and then choosing to have John killed. There is no telling what might have happened if Herod had decided differently for any of these. However, what it does come down to is that this is a story of decisions.
In our own lives, we all have decisions to make. Our decisions may not be similar to those of Herod, but they can still have lasting effects on others and ourselves. Just as we can read this story, reflect on it, and analyze it, it is important that we too look at our own lives. When we make big, difficult decisions are we making self-protecting decisions, or are we seeking what God is calling us to do? Are we looking to Jesus for help and the guidance of the Holy Spirit or are we going about it on our own?
As we go about our lives, we need to be looking to God during our decision-making. When we approach Jesus with our uncertainty, we can have faith that he will listen and that he has the answer for us. We only need to seek him and his divine wisdom to help us through our decision making process. Prayer and meditating on Scripture are ways in which we can approach God, seek guidance and help, and to confirm our decisions. Through prayer, we can talk to God. We can lift up our concerns and our apprehensions regarding decisions we have to make. We can ask questions and put forth our ideas to our Lord, and he will listen. We may hear God’s answering voice speaking directly to us or through others, but know that God will answer.
As we read Scripture, we can also seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit to help us in our decision-making. Life changing decisions can be difficult to make; however, the Scriptures can speak to us and help us, if we take the time to read and meditate on them. Sometimes the answer will be found in the words of the Scriptures, while many times the Bible will not directly have answers to our questions, for example “where should I live?” However, God still can speak to us through the Scriptures, offering guidance. Through prayer and discernment, the Holy Spirit will speak to us.
We make decisions every day. Most are minor, while others are larger in scope. Left to our own devices, we will make mistakes and wrong decisions from time to time. It is only natural that we fall back onto ourselves, trying to look out for our own well-being; however, if we seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit in our decision-making than we know that our decisions will be transformed from self-protection to God’s calling. Amen.