Head on a platter
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
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.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
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. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 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. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 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.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 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.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Arthur Miller wrote a play which first came to the stage in 1953 entitled “The Crucible.” The play was based on the Salem Witch Trials which took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the years 1692 to 1693. Although it is a fictionalized version, he based it on the historical facts where twenty people were executed for witchcraft in what Wikepedia calls one of Colonial America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria.
The play starts with some young girls being caught late at night in some sort of pagan ritual. They don’t want to tell the truth of what they are doing, which is trying to put a curse on someone they don’t like.
They say they are dancing, but when they are pushed and pushed to confess eventually they say they are bewitched by others and start naming all kinds of people in the village who are witches and who have entranced them in their spell.
In particular there is Abigail Williams, the main antagonist, who in the play has had an affair with a man, and to cover it up accuses a lot of people of witchcraft. Before long there are fourty people arrested on the charge of witchcraft.
The man she has an affair with is John Proctor, the main protagonist, who has guilt about the affair, and is arrested himself for witchcraft, when he speak up for his wife who is accused of witchcraft.
A large theme of the play is around John Proctor trying to be true to himself, holding out against confessing, and caring for his wife whom he wronged. In the end his wife forgives him and sees the goodness in this man who is eventually executed unjustly.
The theme of the play is about unjustified witch-hunts and it is no secret that Arthur Miller wrote the play because of the era of McCarthyism when there was a kind of mass hysteria surrounding communism and many, many, people were accused of being communists in the United States in the late nineteen fourties and throughout the fifties.
Not only accused, they were subjected to interrogations, job losses, firings, blacklistings and imprisonments, often with little or no evidence at all.
So for instance people who worked for trade unions or in the entertainment industry who criticized anything in government were some of the victims. Arthur Miller himself, was questioned by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and convicted of Contempt of Congress.
Now this is not new stuff. Witch-hunts go back to the very beginning of time.
Falsely accusing people is something that we humans have done from the very beginning.
In fact, we all know that one of the ten commandments was this: you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
I don’t know whether you have ever been the subject of a kind of witch-hunt? But it is pretty common.
In fact, who among us has not in our minds, made assumptions about people, or had a first impression that we didn’t like somebody, and maybe been proved wrong about that person or those assumptions?
Which one of us has not listened to some gossip about somebody else?
Or shared a story or a tale about someone which put them in a bad light, but we had no proof about that tale. We just heard if from somebody else?
Or maybe you have been on the wrong end of the witch-hunt. They say that bullying runs rampant on the internet and that people routinely spread rumours and untruths and gossip about others on the internet.
Maybe you have been the one at work, at school, with peers or in your family that the others talk about or put down and use innuendo or gossip or lies.
Do we get the irony that the ones who follow the one who said: “God sent not his son to condemn the world” and the ones who follow the one who said to a woman caught in the act of sinning: “I do not condemn you…”
…like to condemn….
Because it seems that it is human nature to always be on some kind of witch-hunt, to always find the bad guy or girl, to point fingers and accuse and scapegoat.
And today’s gospel lesson is case in point. It is the story of the beheading of John the Baptist. And for Mark it is just not an historical thing to remember. For Mark it has significance. He spends fifteen verses on it. Remember Mark is like the Reader’s digest condensed version of the gospel. He is usually short and to the point, so if he spends 15 verses on it, it means he wants us to take notice.
The back story behind this is rather clear. Herod, the tetrarch or ruler of Galilee, was being denounced by John the Baptist, for marrying his brother Philip’s wife, Herodius.
So Herod desires something that he shouldn’t desire. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbours’s wife. Thy brother’s wife too, for that matter
So when John denounces Herod, Herod arrests John the Baptist, but he doesn’t kill him, because he recognizes that john is a holy man, and Herod know that John speaks the truth.
But Herodius, the wife gets into conflict with Herod. She loathes John the Baptist for exposing their sin, and she wants him dead.
Then Herodius’s daughter Salome dances for Herod at a big party. Herod is so thrilled with the dance that he will grant her a wish.
Now may I stop here and just clear up what I think is a bit of a fallacy. The Greek text referring to Salome is that she is a girl, not a woman.
Maybe you have heard of the Dance of the Seven veils which I think Oscar Wilde used as a reference to the dance that Salome did for Herod.
Maybe in movies, or some such, you have seen a depiction of Salome dancing for Herod. Often it is of a beautiful young women, dancing without a lot of clothes, in a most sexually provocative way, to the point that Herod is whipped up to a sexual frenzy.
It is very possible that is just men projecting their own sexual fantasies back into the story.
I don’t think it is a story of sexual lust by Herod gone awry. Much more likely it was a young girl and he was pleased.
But the sinister part of the story is that when the young girl goes to ask her mother what she should ask for, Herodius tells her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
The sinister part is that the mother includes a young girl in this act of injustice and terror.
The mother teaches the child to want a person’s head on a platter.
And it seems to me that a lot of the children of this world are taught the same thing.
To want peoples’ heads on a platter.
The number of children in this world who are indoctrinating into systems of hate, into acts of violence, into prejudice, into child soldiering, into terrorism is legion in this world…
And none of us are immune from the ways we can subtly teach our children to want someone’s head on a platter.
But maybe you also see the parallels between the story of John the Baptist and the story of Jesus.
There is a man who holds their lives in his hands. He is torn between doing the right thing and doing what somebody else wants them to do.
And what that somebody else wants them to do is to scapegoat an innocent man and have them killed.
And in both cases the one in authority listens to the mob or listens to public opinion and does the opposite of what their heart tells them is right.
It is no accident that Mark tells the story of John the Baptist beheading, because he wants us to see the process very clearly or how we want to put someone’s head on a platter.
They did it to John. They will do it to Jesus and we will continue to do it throughout history.
Someone has to be the victim. Someone has to pay. We have to get the bad guy. We have to condemn and punish and exclude and isolate someone.
And we do it with innocent people and we do it with guilty people.
I don’t know whose head you want on a platter? Maybe someone who has hurt you.
Maybe some politician.
Maybe someone in the news who has committed some terrible offense.
I suppose in my life, I have had my fair share of times when I was so angry at someone, or felt like someone had hurt me, and I wanted their head or heads on a platter.
But I am pretty convinced that is not the way of Jesus.
Jesus told us to love our enemies. Repeatedly Jesus talked about forgiveness.
Jesus talked about reconciliation. If you have something against your brother or sister…
If you have been wronged by them…
…go to them and the two of you work it out and be reconciled.
Jesus talked not just about justice for the poor and the sick and the disenfranchised, he also talked about setting prisoners free.
He said that when you visit someone in prison it is the same as visiting him.
The very radical nature of the gospel is that of love for all, forgiveness for all. That nobody is too bad for God. That nobody is beyond redemption.
The radical nature of the gospel is that even thought we all have sinned and come short….
That Jesus died for us all.
I am aware that several days ago charges were laid against the bus driver who was involved in the terrible accident where the Humbolt Broncos hockey team was involved and 16 people died.
I thought I heard that he was charged with 16 counts of dangerous driving causing death and he could serve up to 14 years in prison for each count, although I am sure that if he is found guilty he will not be sentenced to 224 years.
But my concern is that how easy it is to want his head on a platter.
How easy to want revenge. How easy to think that justice will be done if we get this man and throw the book at him.
Of course I do not want to negate the pain and suffering of those who have lost children and loved ones…
And I don’t know all the details, and there hasn’t been a trial and he is still presumed innocent, although I have my doubts that many presume he is innocent
But I am wondering if there is another way. Does Jesus offer us a better way of justice than to demand someone’s head on a platter, even if in some ways that person deserves it.
Jesus words from the cross are: Father forgive them.
It may sound rather naïve of me to suggest to those who are grieving to forgive…
to suggest to those who are suffering terrible injustice in this world to forgive…
Many years ago when India was undergoing a lot of political turmoil and religious tension and the new country of Pakistan was created, which was a country geographical divided with an eastern Pakistan and a western Pakistan.
Now they are two countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
At the time the Pakistan was created along religious lines with the majority of Pakistan being Moslem and the majority of the remaining India being Hindu, it created a huge refugee crisis and millions of people left their homes to move to the country of their religion. There was a ton of violence and many people killed in ethnic fighting.
Supposedly at that time a Hindu man came to Gandhi. He said.
“I am going to hell.”
Gandhi questioned: “Why?”
The man replied. “Because I killed a child. I smashed his head against a wall.
Gandhi again: “Why?
The man replied: “Because they killed my son! The Muslims killed my son!
And Gandhi replied:
“I know a way out of Hell. Find a child, a child whose mother and father were killed and raise him as your own. Only be sure that he is a Muslim and that you raise him as one.”
I know a way out of hell.
And that is to love your enemy and pray for your enemy and forgive your enemy instead of wanting his or head on a platter.
One time there was a big fight at a church meeting. The congregation was deeply divide over some issue and there was much wrangling and haranguing and a fair amount of ill feelings between the sides.
One person got up and demanded his rights and what he deserved.
After he sat down a quiet older lady stood up. She hasn’t said anything before. She quietly said: “If we all got what we deserved, wouldn’t we all be in hell. Isn’t the point of Jesus that we don’t get what we deserve?”
Today’s gospel is paired with an epistle text from Ephesians
3 Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! For in our union with Christ he has blessed us by giving us every spiritual blessing in the heavenly world. 4 Even before the world was made, God had already chosen us to be his through our union with Christ, so that we would be holy and without fault before him.
Because of his love 5 God had already decided that through Jesus Christ he would make us his children—this was his pleasure and purpose. 6 Let us praise God for his glorious grace, for the free gift he gave us in his dear Son! 7 For by the blood of Christ we are set free, that is, our sins are forgiven. How great is the grace of God, 8 which he gave to us in such large measure!
How great is the grace of God.
I, we live in a world that at times lacks a lot of grace. There are many people guilty and innocent who end up with their heads on a platter.
There are many lonely people and terrible injustices and sometimes I, we, barely notice.
But every once in a while you see humanity at its best and I think of the 12 boys and their coach rescued from the caves in Thailand, and how many people were involved in that rescue operation, and how people from all over the world co-operated together.
Somebody asked if it was a miracle that brought them out, or science…?
It was love and care of humans that brought them out. It was co-operation that brought them out.
In this broken world, it is good to see that there are those who truly love their neighbour and maybe many more than we even realize. There are many who understand that we are all one human family.
There is another way to be than that of accusation and blame and seeking someone’s head on a platter.
It is to love and forgive and work together. Amen.