8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)
July 15, 2018

8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10)

Passage: Amos 7:7-15

It’s King Herod’s birthday and – in honor of himself – he’s throwing a banquet for his courtiers, when in comes his step-daughter, Herodias (known elsewhere as Salome), and dances for him. The scriptures say that it “pleased Herod.”

It seems to have pleased Herod very much, so much so, in fact, that he offered to give her whatever she asked for, even as much as half of his kingdom. That must have been quite a dance. And if you think it’s just a little bit creepy that a step-father would be so affected by his step-daughter’s dancing, let’s just say that this is one messed up family. It’s filled with incest and fathers who kill their sons to preserve their own power and, in one case, a brother who married his own niece who was subsequently seduced by her brother-in-law whom she later married.

It was this wife, in fact, whose daughter by her first marriage was now dancing before Herod – the step-father who used to be her uncle…and is also probably a cousin of some sort.  (It’s okay if you’re confused by the family-tree here. It’s more of a “Family Hedge” that’s so dense with interlocking branches that all you can see is one solid mass.)

But while all this dancing and promise-making was happening in the banquet hall, elsewhere, in Herod’s prison, sat John the Baptist. John was in prison because he’d been publically denouncing Herod’s marriage to Herodias as unlawful by Jewish law. She had jettisoned her first marriage for one that was more politically prestigious and John the Baptist was disclaiming it before everyone, making a mockery of her position in society and court.

And now, what a nice turn of events is before her:

Her husband has made a rash and foolish promise in front of everyone to give his step-daughter whatever she asked for. And, flushed with excitement by the sensation she’s created, she runs straight away to her mother to ask for her advice. Surely she’s aware that there are unwritten codes of diplomacy when it comes to gift-giving, codes that she’s too inexperienced to understand, so she seeks her mother’s council.

A smile slowly etches itself across her face, like a fissure in plaster. “Tell him you want the head of John the Baptist.”

So – young and foolish, without a thought for her complicity in evil – she races back to the banquet hall and asks for John’s head. And, with a flourish of her own devising, she mockingly adds, “On a platter!”

Suddenly Herod sobers up, regretting his promise. But it’s too late. He’s made an oath in public that he can’t retract. And so, John, the prophet of God; John, the cousin of Jesus; John, the long-awaited Elijah, returned in the flesh; John, the vanguard of God’s redeeming of all creation; John the Baptist loses his head for the sake of a silly girl and her vindictive mother. The herald of God’s salvation is done in by a teenager who’s been swept away by the discovery of her budding sensuality and the power it has over drunken old men.

It’s one of the great, pathetic ironies of history.

It’s an irony that has been a frequent subject for artists over the centuries: a timeless story of the foolishness of youth and the festering bitterness of later years.

Whenever I read this story it fills me with a deep sadness. Salome is young and naïve, discovering the thrill of being at the center of men’s attention. But in reality, I doubt that she’s at all aware of anything beyond her own shallow vanity.

But the mother knows just what she’s doing. She’s murdering a righteous man, and she’s pleased with herself and the triumph of her scheming.

And therein lies my grief. For when Salome runs to her mother she’s given so much more than advice on what gift to ask for. Herodias is training her daughter in how to survive as member of court. And what lesson does she impart? but to let bitterness and revenge control the day – to use whatever opportunities come her way to destroy her enemies.

And though none of us hold positions of power in royal courts as this family did, all of us who are parents have the same influence over our children. God has given us our children to raise. We are the ones who first foster in them what it means to be a woman, to be a man, to be an image bearer of God. Everything we do: how we spend our money, how we talk about people, how we prioritize our lifestyle and values – everything is grooming them in one way or another. And, as in the case of Herodias, if we allow bitterness and vindictiveness to grow within us, it’s not only growing in us. It’s growing in our children as well.

Someone once told me the story of her grandmother. She was beautiful and sophisticated, with her silver hair piled high in an impressive beehive. She would lounge before dinner for cocktails, wearing bold jewelry and costumes she’d picked up in her travels around the world. And she had that kind of flare that was able to pull it off. She was mesmerized by her glamor. But then, at some point (she was probably seven or eight) her mother must have decided unconsciously that her daughter was old enough that she no longer needed to control her tongue around her. She heard her laughing with her aunt about what a snob her mother-in-law was. It was obvious to her how much she disliked her. And she was absolutely crestfallen. And worse, she remembers the clear transition that took place within her: she was no longer allowed to delight in Nana. She was supposed to make fun of her behind her back. And that’s what she began to do.

If we are followers of Jesus, what our children should witness in us is a legitimate intention to pattern our way of life on what Jesus has modeled for us. We won’t do it perfectly, but even in our failings, our children should observe in us remorse and repentance and a lived-intention to rectify the situation. They should see parents who apologize to one another, and to their children, for their mistakes. And parents who forgive. They should see parents buying food for the poor or cooking meals to deliver to families in need. It is how we actually prioritize the way we live that will charter the formative paths of our children.

And in each of us there are areas of deep woundedness and pain. It’s inevitable in this life.  So as followers of Jesus it becomes absolutely crucial that we learn to recognize the ways this hurt has taken root in us, manifesting itself in our personalities and behavior. And as we grow in our understanding and experience healing by the Holy Spirit, so we must learn how to forgive. What greater offering can we provide our children than the experience of our forgiveness?

Even if our children are already grown and have been out of the house for years, we can still care for them by modeling an ongoing commitment to our formation in Christ. If they see us releasing the bitterness we’ve held against people for years, if they see us becoming more charitable and understanding towards people we once mocked, if we actually apologize to our children for the ways we hurt them or failed them when they were young, then our growth and healing will open the door for their own hope for healing in their lives, and the life of their children.

Our formative influence on our children never ends. It is never too late to choose the way of Jesus for ourselves, and so witness to our children the pathway of love and grace and a humility that is ready to release the hostility we have clung to for so long.

A colleague told me the story of his dying father. The thing he craved most from him was simply the recognition of how traumatizing it was when he chose to divorce his mother for another woman and to leave the family behind. He was weary of justifications and excuses. He just wanted to hear from him that he understood how hard it was and that he was sorry. And by that point all my friend wanted to do was to forgive and for them to rest in God’s grace together.

How much better, though, for all of us, were we to choose the pattern of repentance and forgiveness while we still have years and years to share together – parents and children as true companions on the journey towards God and the way of God.

History shows us that Salome continued on the path her mother forged before her. In the years to come, she was married twice. Her first husband, Philip, was the half-brother of her step-father Herod Antipas. And so the family pattern prevailed for another incestuous generation.

May it not be so with us.

Our family trees may be less complex than Herod’s family’s was. But all of our families have their share of pain and shame. Divorce, mental illness, incest, and all manner of less dramatic, but more pervasive evils: various forms of dismissiveness, manipulation, and belittlement. Each child is formed by a peculiar blend of her parents’ love and her parents’ brokenness. And as that child ages, she becomes complicit in the family legacy.

Such is the way of this broken world. But Jesus offers us an alternative world. It’s not some idealized, super-humanity that we can never attain. It’s not a world where we need to become bigger and better and stronger. To the contrary, it’s a world where we need to become weaker and more vulnerable and more honest, a world where, “I’m sorry” and “I’m scared” and “I forgive you” have the power to change everything, for that is domain of the Holy Spirit, and that is the beginning of true healing.

May the legacy we choose for our children be an ongoing commitment to our own formation in the way of Jesus, where bitterness gives way to kindness and vindictiveness is overturned by grace. And when our days are ended and our children gather to remember us, may they say that in us “mercy and truth have met together; [that in us] righteousness and peace have kissed” (Psalm 85:10).