What To Want?
Mark 6:14-29 (NIV)
King Herod heard about this, for Jesus' name had become well known. Some were saying,"
John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him."
Others said, "He is Elijah." And still others claimed, "He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago."
But when Herod heard this, he said, "John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!"
For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you." And he promised her with an oath, "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom."
She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?"
"The head of John the Baptist," she answered.
At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.
So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John's disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
All the students in my seminary class on the Gospel of Mark had arranged our desks in a big circle around the classroom. It was my turn to do the class presentation, and I had done extensive study on this passage, all the research of esteemed Biblical scholars: historical, exegetical, linguistic, theological, contextual. I had read their scholarly musings about the significance of this passage for John the Baptist, for Herod, for the disciples. I sat there with my notes and books fanned out around me, and dutifully reported on all the exegesis I had done. Then I told my classmates that all the time I had been doing this research, the question I could not get out of my mind, which seemed so vivid to me, but which apparently had not occurred to any of these scholarly men, was: What was this experience like for Salome? What would it be like to actually get the big opportunity that other girls only dream of, to have an extravagant king say to you, in front of the most powerful leaders of society, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it…Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom”? And then to go through the rest of your life knowing that when your one big chance arrived, the opportunity of a lifetime, the one thing you asked for was….a severed head! Of all the things you could have gotten in your one big moment—gold, jewels, land, half a kingdom, anything—and instead you asked for a dead guy’s severed head bleeding on a platter!
This passage is a vivid one to imagine: what would the expression be on the face of this pretty young girl when she looks down at that head that is handed to her? It is also a passage that has a surprising number of lessons for our own lives.
The first important point is that the king says, “Ask for whatever you wish” and she does the exact opposite: she asks for what someone else thinks she should ask for. How often, when we are asked, “what do you wish for” do we answer with what someone else thinks we should ask for. It is a hard question: what do you wish for? It is hard to be an 18 year-old listening to a graduation speech about following your dream when you don’t really know what your dream is. It is hard to be awake late at night in midlife, standing in the kitchen asking yourself whether the life you are actually living is the life you want. It is hard at retirement to hear people congratulate you on being able to do what you want, and wondering, after you have set aside the identity of your career, what it is you do want?
So it is very understandable that when Salome faces that huge question, “Ask for whatever you wish” she does not take on the hard task of asking herself, “What do I truly want?” Instead, she turns to her mother and asks, “What should I ask for?” The pull of what our parents think we should do is so strong we are often unaware of it. Our spouses or partners, on the other hand, are often keenly aware of it. We know of people whose true love is music, but who go to law school because instead of asking, “What do I wish for” in life, they do what their father thinks they should do. Or the woman who would have loved being a lawyer, but who never applied to law school because her mother didn’t think she should. This process happens in a huge variety of the daily decisions of life, well into adulthood. If you don’t want to take my word for it, you can ask your spouse or partner at lunch today how much they think the way you spend money is related to how your parents thought people should spend money. The same is true for how our parents thought people should spend time. Even if we handle our parents’ “shoulds” by doing the exact opposite of what they said, our motivation is not simply from our own wishes, but it is a reaction against their “shoulds.”
Of course, of the advice we receive from our parents, either directly and indirectly, there is plenty of advice that is very helpful to us and makes our lives better. There is also advice that has been helpful to our parents in their circumstances and for their personalities, but which isn’t appropriate to our circumstances and our personalities. And then there’s just plain bad advice, such as, “Ask for the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.” It is hard to imagine a mother thinking that her young daughter would find joy and delight in receiving a gift like that.
I recently sent an e-mail to a friend in which I said that I am able to forgive a person for what he has done that hurt me, but I find it much harder to forgive someone for what he has done that hurt someone I care about. She wrote back, “Ah yes, the mama lion response….I used to get really upset with one of the immigration judges who was kind of crazy and used to make [my husband] Mark's work so much more difficult than it already was. It was hard to even think about being nice to him, much less forgive him. Of course, Mark felt sympathy for the guy and forgave him as easily as breathing. But then, that was Mark -- he was like that -- always willing to believe the best.” I realized that it was my business to forgive the people who had hurt me, and doing that was enough of a job for one lifetime. Forgiving the people who had hurt others was other people’s business, and God’s business. My holding onto anger for someone else’s injuries was no benefit to them; they didn’t even want me to hold onto my anger. It was bad enough for Salome’s mother to burden her daughter with her own anger; there is no good that comes from taking on extra anger when the other person doesn’t even want us to.
And why is Salome’s mother Herodias so focused on getting John the Baptist killed? It may be that her motivation is revenge, pure and simple. But it seems more likely that her true motive is her desire to silence John the Baptist. The reason Herodias holds a grudge against John the Baptist is that John has been saying it is not lawful for Herod to have his brother Philip’s wife as his own wife. Herodias is furious with John the Baptist for saying her new husband should not have married her. His decapitation would seem like it would solve that problem. Once John the Baptist was no longer around to bother her, the thinking goes, she would be just fine. Or would she?
People who are in favor of capital punishment sometimes say that the death penalty is a good thing because the death of the murderer provides closure for the families of the murder victims. Our hearts go out to those who are grieving for such an extreme tragedy, and we want to do what we can to help them. They sometimes tell reporters that they will feel better once the murderer is dead. And once the lethal injection is administered, they sometimes do feel better for an hour or two. They had thought that getting rid of the person would mean they would get rid of the emotions, but after the first hour or two the emotions well up again. And even when they work very hard to put a lot of distance between themselves and the things that remind them of the pain, the emotions remain right below the surface, ready to well up at any moment. It doesn’t take much. A sense of peace and closure continues to elude them.
An event that seems almost unforgivable would be an event in which an armed gunman entered an Amish schoolhouse among the farms and pastures of rural Pennsylvania and gunned down five little Amish girls. And yet the families of those little girls, and the Amish community as a whole, did forgive this immense evil. In their forgiveness they have found peace and closure.
There are a few people who, even while they are being killed, pray that God will forgive those who are killing them. Jesus does this, and so does St. Stephen, our own patron saint. Forgiveness is the ultimate destination for all of us. We do not know exactly what heaven will be like. But a place in which there are no tears and no pain is a place in which the heavenly souls no longer hold on to anger, and anger has no hold on them anymore. Those who are in heaven now have already forgiven everyone who has hurt them. They are free. Would they want us to be free too?
I expect that the true answer to the question, “what do you wish for?” is “freedom.” It is the freedom that comes when we look honestly and unflinchingly at the pain of the past, to determine how much the other person has actually harmed us, and how much of the pain we feel actually comes from our thoughts about that person, and whether our thoughts continue to cause us pain long after the other person has stopped doing anything. We can ask ourselves whether the things the other person has said are true. Sometimes our friends won’t tell us the truth about ourselves, but our enemies will. We can learn from Herodias’s example that if there is any truth about what another person has said about us, we can learn from that and make our lives better. We can learn from Salome’s example that even the people we think should love us, do not always say things that are true. And if we find that the things the other person has said about us are not true, we can consider whether the real problem is our own thoughts about the person, and how we would feel if we didn’t have those thoughts. We can recognize that we live in a fallen world in which not everyone approves of us or accepts us, or even loves us. And in the end, that is okay.
I have been strongly encouraging us to do the exercises in Byron Katie’s book Loving What Is because it is a simple method of going about the process of following the teachings of Jesus, especially the most difficult teachings of Jesus. Taking the log our of our own eye so we can see clearly to take the speck out of our neighbor’s eye. Loving your neighbor. Loving your enemies. Forgiving. We may feel resentful if someone tells us we should do these things. But my guess is that in the deepest part of our hearts, what we wish for is the freedom that comes from doing them.
God, the extravagant king of the universe, has said that in prayer we can ask him for whatever we want, and he will give it to us. One of my favorite prayers is the prayer attributed to St. Francis, a saint who endured more than his share of rejection and loss, and found even in the pain, the grace and joy of God. I invite you to pray that prayer with me.
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Note: If you are still confused about how a gay Christian can feel they are 'right' with God I encourage you to read the section of the web site entitled "Gay and Christian? YES!"