Power (still) corrupts

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Sunday 11 July. Here it is for you to read or listen to again.


Taken as a story today’s gospel reading has everything. Royalty and power, sex, violence, narrative tension – it’s no wonder that it inspired the play Salome by Oscar Wilde, an opera by Richard Strauss and a film starring Rita Hayworth. But it’s an unusual story to find in the gospels– it hardly refers to Jesus at all. It reads much more like a passage from the Old Testament. But perhaps that is the point, as John the Baptist is the last of the prophets heralding the coming of the Messiah, and with his death that story comes to an end. But surely the Bible is about more than our entertainment – why are these stories there?

I think the answer is that Bible has 3 purposes: to tell us about ourselves, to tell us about God, and to teach us how we can relate to God. If we are to get to know God better it has to be in the context of understanding who we are, as well as who God is. Stories like this one are not hard to relate to. It describes what happens when people in power think they are above the law. Rules are meant for other people, not for them. Let’s look at the main characters, one by one.

We know a little more of the background from other historical sources. Herod fell in love with Herodias who was at that point married to his half-brother. They both got divorced and were married, Herodias bringing her daughter, Salome, from her first marriage to live with them. Herod’s was not an amicable divorce – the father of his first wife, the king of Petra, raised an army, and a war ensued.

So the couple were responsible for two wrecked marriages, the betrayal of a brother and the death of many soldiers in battle.

The message of John the Baptist for everyone was that they should repent. He was quite specific about it and listed the sins he could see around him. A more prudent man would have stopped short of including the most powerful people in the country, but John was single minded. The king’s sins needed to be pointed out along with those of his subjects. Herod was impressed by John, and liked to listen to his message, but he put him in prison to please his wife. Public duty and private life had become inextricably mixed, and the ruler made a decision to keep his wife happy. When it was his birthday he gave a lavish party, as much to impress the guests with his wealth as to enjoy himself. It was a gathering of influential men. The wine flowed, and it was time for the entertainment. Salome had grown into a talented young woman, and Herod called her to dance for his guests. Another symptom of the dysfunctional family, as the girl’s stepfather was willing to expose her to the lustful glances of the men. He himself was carried away, hardly a heathy way to regard a stepdaughter. He spoke and acted on impulse, without thinking things through, and promised Salome whatever she wanted as a reward, without thinking about the consequences. Her shocking response was to ask for the head of John on a platter. Herod would not take his oath back. He could not be seen to lose face in front of the powerful men of the region. They would scent weakness and he could not risk any loss of authority. Instead, he gave the gruesome order to behead a man he respected and liked.

Herodias wielded power in the only way that women in male dominated societies can – by attracting powerful men, and persuading them to do what she wanted. She reminds me of Lady Macbeth – utterly merciless. Sexual misconduct has always been more of an issue for women than men, and the words of John stung her. She couldn’t be like her husband and not really care. She wreaked a horrible vengeance and didn’t scruple to implicate her daughter in her crime.

Salome had grown up in this atmosphere of wealth, corruption and power. Even so, she seems to have embraced the culture. Like her mother she used her body for her own ends and was complicit in the murder of John – even adding her own degraded twist of asking to be offered the severed head on a plate.

John was the prophet who speaks out reckless of the consequences. He was a shockingly uncompromising man, who dressed in skins and ate food where he could find it. But he was certainly not out of touch. Crowds of people came to see him, and no doubt asked for his advice over their personal dilemmas. He knew what was going on at court, and without hesitation he publicly condemned the immorality. Surprisingly, Herod, still liked to spend time with him. Although he was unsettled by John’s message, he still liked to listen to him. John, finding himself in prison, continued to speak as he always had.

I wonder what the party guests were thinking. They were the ones in front of whom Herod could not lose face. What if they had expressed their shock and outrage at Salome’s request? Could they have given Herod a way to save his friend? We don’t know, because they didn’t speak.

If this story is not just a history from 2000 years ago, but is there to tell us about ourselves, what does it have to say to us?

A recent TV drama Time, set in a prison, had a subplot about a young man who had killed a friend when he was 13. In a scene where he is confronted by the victim’s parents, who want to understand, they are utterly appalled as he confesses that he did it so as not to lose face in front of the crowd that had gathered around. The teenage years are hardest time to stand out from the crowd and I suspect many of us would wish that at some time we had been braver. As we age the pressures become more subtle, but it is still sometimes hard to lose face. To apologise is only a sign of weakness if it is not meant. To say sorry from the heart requires real strength of character. How many family feuds could have been avoided, with relationships intact, if only someone had had the courage to apologise, or at least to meet the other person halfway.

Herodias, too sought to preserve her reputation. She had behaved badly and wasn’t prepared to have anyone tell her so. If Herod refused to lose face, she refused to face herself. Perhaps her greatest sin was encouraging her daughter to be as bad as herself. Ultimately, when we stand before God, our bluster will be useless and our sins exposed. Far better to examine our consciences now, and ask God’s forgiveness in humility and repentance.

If the passage speaks of the sins of the individual, we cannot ignore the implications for those in power. Herod spoke before he thought things through. Donald Trump’s propensity to Tweet and then refuse to withdraw what he had said led to bizarre advice such as drinking bleach that led to tragic consequences for those who believed him. The power he gave to members of his family made a mockery of open and democratic government.

John, meanwhile had the dilemma of whistle-blowers everywhere.  It can be an excruciating choice, not only for Chelsea Manning who was imprisoned for exposing the realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but for ordinary men and women who see things they know to be wrong in their workplace, and fear both losing their jobs and reprisals if they speak out.

In Herod’s day there was no democracy, the ordinary people had little influence, and only the rich and powerful party guests could have intervened. We live in a democracy, and so every one of us is the witness to the behaviour of those in authority. Public opinion is a powerful force, and that means you and me.

John is not only the last of the Old Testament prophets, but he is also the herald of the new, the first of the martyrs whose blood was shed for the gospel. The story of his death sheds light on our human weaknesses and sin, both at the individual and corporate level. His message was an unequivocal call to repentance, and his death foreshadowed the cross, where Jesus meets the admission of our own sins and weaknesses with the forgiveness and love that overcomes all.

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