A reflection on Proper 10B: Amos 7:7-15, Psalm 24, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29 by Janine Goodwin
I love the Gospel stories that point to healing, that call us to hope and teach us to trust God. I have been taught by wise people to place myself in the Gospels, to imagine myself as the person healed or called by Jesus, and that has brought me much growth and joy. In this week’s scriptures, I am nurtured and strengthened by the Psalms and by the reading from Ephesians. After that, I’m out of my comfort zone and moving toward things I really don’t want to face. The calling of Amos has its disturbing notes, particularly when God tells Amos he will lose everything and his (nameless) wife will become a prostitute, a life women have always been blamed for “choosing” when the fact is that women turn to prostitution when they have been enslaved, tricked, coerced, or have no other choices available to them. Then comes the Gospel, and there seems to be no good news anywhere.
This passage from the Gospel of Mark is an ugly story, a story of unjust power used for destruction. How can it be part of the good news when its bad news is still so familiar, still playing out daily in different places under different names? Is my faith strong enough to face an ugly story and survive? Can I look not just at what is clearly being redeemed, but at what remains unhealed, at the injustices that call me to speak with a prophetic voice and risk the losses prophets face? Can we, as church, face the ways we have misused power and claim our calling to be a prophetic voice? Can we accept the task of calling our world to change?
I invite you to walk into this story with me. Let’s consider each character in turn and see what about her or him we may see in ourselves. It will not be easy or comfortable. It may not be reassuring. If we find Jesus is using this story to heal of our wounds and call us to repentance, it may become redemptive.
The one we’d most like to identify with is the obvious victim, John the baptizer. He is imprisoned because he speaks out against a ruler’s marriage and dies because the ruler dares not lose face in front of his guests. It is an ignoble and unnecessary death, but it is always easiest to imagine ourselves as the prophetic martyr than as the persecutor. John, like many other prophets before him and like Jesus after him, is killed because he presents a threat to the power structures and cultural assumptions of his time. While scholars disagree about whether the details of the story are historically correct, in this account John is imprisoned because he has told Herod it was not right for him to take his brother’s wife, Herodias.
Over the centuries, the story of Herod’s banquet has been shaped into a narrative with two female villains, the seductive Salome and the destructive Herodias. The seductive daughter, who may be either Herod’s daughter or his stepdaughter, exerts sexual power to cloud Herod’s judgment, and the destructive wife, who controls the daughter, uses her child to demand John’s death. We are used to seeing the daughter as Salome, a full-grown, though young, woman who does the “dance of the seven veils,” and conspires with her mother to destroy John. We are used to the idea that she is attracted to John, whom she cannot seduce, and that she chooses to have power over him by having him killed. None of these ideas or details are actually present in the Gospel stories, either here or in the account in Matthew (neither Luke nor John does not mention the circumstances of John the Baptist’s death).
There is one similarity between the daughter of Herodias and Mary Magdalene, and it is this: both of them have been persistently sexualized throughout the centuries. They have become objects for male sexual fantasy rather than characters in a story. The other aspects of Mary Magdalene’s life—her healing, her roles as friend and student of Jesus and first witness to the resurrection—are all replaced with the picture of the beautiful penitent who is still a sexual object, and lately with the hypothesis that she was the wife of Jesus. She is not seen as a person. The same process has taken place in this story.
We are used to seeing the Salome of legend, opera, painting, and film as a mature young woman using sexual power to manipulate powerful men, and it may be hard for us to see through that stereotype and understand that even such a young woman may have no other power, no real choices, and men may project their desires on her without ever knowing who she is or what she wants. She is blamed for using sexual power and denied her full humanity, while the men who use her need not repent; they can blame her for their actions. She may sin; if she does, she should repent, and she is not the only person who is to blame. Many women can recognize themselves in that situation. It is something our culture glorifies and mistakenly names as sexual liberation, though historically the seductive young woman has been a dangerous figure. Both sets of assumptions lose sight of this fact: when the only choice is to be a sexual object, the humanity and freedom of the person is always lost.
The daughter of Herodias has no name in either of the gospel accounts, though some read the Greek as saying that her name was also Herodias and the historian Josephus calls her Salome. Herodias did have a daughter named Salome, who lived out her adult life as the wife of her own grand-uncle, but it is uncertain whether she was the dancer in this story. The unnamed dancer is a girl: she is called a korasion. That word appears only one other place in this gospel. It is used as a translation for the Aramaic words Jesus uses it to call the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus back from the dead. In our English versions, korasion is translated as “little girl” in that passage. No translation I can find uses “little girl” when the daughter of Herodias is called a korasion. Some sources say the girl could be of marriageable age—which could be as young as twelve in the time and culture of this story.
When we see the dancing daughter as a girl who may be as young as twelve, as someone who might be called a “little girl,” another image may emerge for us. Though the dance is not the “dance of the seven veils,” a late addition to the legend, and although the verb for Herod’s being pleased with the dance is not one that necessarily carries sexual overtones, the possibility of sexual exploitation can’t be ruled out. It does not seem to have been usual to have the daughters of minor royalty in the first century Roman empire perform for their fathers’ guests. When we see a young girl summoned by her father or stepfather to perform at what appears to be an all-male party while her mother waits outside (the girl has to leave the banquet in order to consult her mother about what she should ask of Herod), the picture gets darker. It is entirely possible that the dancing daughter is as much a prisoner as John the baptizer. Since one in four women has been sexually abused before the age of 18, many of them in the homes where they grew up, some of us may recognize within ourselves what it is like to be a dependent girl with no good choices and no place to go. Many of us know what it is like to be a girl who is used either overtly or covertly by powerful men and men related to us, and to be controlled by women who do not protect us. This is not just feminine knowledge, either: boys, too, are abused in every way. Sexual abuse of boys may be less common, but it is still all too common, and boys, too, face emotional and physical abuse in a culture that tells them not to feel and not to go for help.
Whether or not she is being used as a sexual object, the girl is certainly being used as a political pawn by her mother. When Herod makes his surprising promise to grant her anything she wants up to half his kingdom, she doesn’t know what to ask for and she dares not ask for anything she might want. She cannot take the power Herod seems to offer. She runs to her mother, who tells her to ask for John’s head, and she runs back into the banquet to make her request. She has been used by her mother to manipulate her father, another situation many of us can remember, another way of using and abusing a child. When we take away the fantasies and projections of the ages and glimpse a young person caught in a sick family system and a power structure that offers no freedom or hope, how do we respond?
Herodias wants John dead; she probably wants it more because Herod respects John and listens to him. Herodias has little power in the system: she controls her daughter and manipulates Herod through him. She does so well that her daughter, given a chance at power, runs to her to ask what she should want rather than trying to gain power over her mother. Herodias is not a free adult in her society, but she does have choices. If we put ourselves in her place, we must confront the times we have responded to our feelings of powerlessness by acting destructively toward others. We may have been the instigator of destruction in indirect ways, the wife who chose manipulation over confrontation, the one who stood by in silence when someone less powerful was abused, the sabotaging employee, the spreader of rumors, the one who could not get into the group that had power but could make sure we kept down those who had even less than we. As adults, we need to face the Herodias in ourselves. What innocent parts of ourselves, what innocent others, are we using unjustly in our struggles for power? What kind of power do we want: the power that heals and makes right, or the power to destroy?
Herod is a powerful man and a complicated character. He respects John the baptizer despite John’s open opposition to his actions and he listens to John, though the listening makes Herod confused. Herod seems to have enough self-awareness and courage to hear himself criticized, but not enough to change. In an impulsive moment, he makes an oath that gives away his power. He cannot question the obligation to keep that oath, no matter how foolishly he made it; he cannot do the right thing if the right thing will threaten his power over the men he rules. He can see what is right, but he cannot risk. Like Pilate later on in the story, Herod will save face, but he dares not save a life. How many times have we made such choices? How many times have we refused to use our power for good because we feared losing it? How many times have we chosen to do what is expected rather than what is right? How do we substitute listening for action, and excuse ourselves for letting things slide? How do we kill the voice of the prophet within us, and how do we silence those around us if and when they call us to repentance?
Herod’s guests represent the society around us, the status quo, the group that both follows and limits its leaders. They uphold the assumptions and the rules they have been taught. Herod’s power is affected by their expectations. They are the voices that say, “But we’ve always done it this way,” and, “We can’t follow those crazy idealists, or listen to those wild prophets. It will threaten our security.” How do we perpetuate the stereotypes we have been taught, accept the rules without questioning whether they are right or just, assume the prophets are crazy? How often do we accept the sacrifice of others as a sad necessity and move on with our self-centered lives?
It is hard to see this story as part of the Good News. I hate watching it play out. I want it to be a different story. I want Jesus to break into the palace, rescue John, save the little girl, confront and heal Herod and Herodias, convert the people in power. Jesus does not do any of those things: he does not even appear in this story. He is somewhere else, healing another child, talking to other people. His time to meet the ruler has not yet come. He was not invited to the banquet. If we want to find Jesus, we must leave this story, taking what it teaches us about ourselves, and invite him into our own. When he comes to us, what will he find?