Lent 2C: The House That is Left to You

jesus_lament_04OLD TESTAMENT: Genesis 15: 1-12, 17-18

Read the Old Testament passage

This passage is made up of two parts: The first six verses are a dialogue between YHWH and Abram resulting in the promise of first a son and then of countless descendants. The last part has to do with the promise of land. This is the core of the promises to Abraham and set the stage for the Abrahamic covenant. Once again, we have the familiar admonition from God of “Do not be afraid.” God will take care of it. This covenant and passage, of course, make up the basis for ancient Hebrew theology. It is also evidence of God’s incredible (and often unimaginable) generosity for God’s people.

The word that is translated here as “believed” is probably better translated as “trust”—Abraham trusted in God and what God had said and what God would do. And yet, Abram did prove to be a little bit uncooperative and impatient. And he wants some more information as to how God was going to overcome the big obstacles that were apparent and work this all out. But, in Abram’s defense, remember what “barrenness” meant in that time. An absence of children was not just a discontinuation of one’s line. It was death. There would be no one to care for you, no one to work with you to provide. Barrenness or infertility was looked upon as failure. It meant that God had not blessed you or provided for you.

In the ancient Middle East, covenants were traditionally sealed by the custom of sacrificing animals and cutting them in half. This was the literal “cutting of the covenant”. The makers of the covenant would then pass between the two halves of the animals. But with this covenant, it was God and God, alone, who passed through the pieces. God is the one who reached out. It was God’s covenant.

And so Abram “trusted” God (with what he saw as a little help from himself). He also questioned God (which I don’t think is such a bad thing! It really just gives you room to grow.) After all, this really didn’t make any sense. Here Abraham has been waiting around and no kids have emerged. So, basically, Abraham had taken care of it. Isn’t that just like us? We like being showered with promises but when they don’t materialize in quite the way we envisioned, we try to take care of it a different way. But, God clarifies the promise a little bit more. This is not the heir that God had been talking about. The heir shall be a biological child of Abraham and Sarah rather than a surrogate birth. Well, I’m sure you can see Abraham rolling his eyes a bit. Are you kidding me? Because, you see, I’m really, really old. This is just not normal. This is not even rational. This is nuts!

But, it says, Abraham finally believed God. The truth is, Abraham, father of three of the world’s major religions, was not perfect. In fact, he wasn’t even all that trustworthy. He was human. He was just like us. And God, with infinite patience, kept promising and kept delivering. And Abraham? Well, that wasn’t some sort of blind faith like some would like to depict it. Part of him was probably a little angry and definitely impatient. Faith and trust and all those things are not laid out on some sort of straight path. They come with lots of bumps and valleys along the way. I think that’s the point. Faith is not about blind acceptance; it is about relationship.  So, the events surrounding the life of Abram are more than just ancestral tales; they become the voice of God to the people of God. “Do not be afraid.” In other words, just stick with me; I’ll ride it out with you!

But it should be noted that the land was given to Abram’s descendants rather than to Abraham himself. The realization of God’s promise was not immediate gratification. (I mean, did you think that you were the only one to which God was making promises?) Maybe that’s our whole problem. Maybe we want to see the fruits of our faith now, in our lifetime. Maybe faith is about realizing that we are part of a deep and abiding relationship between God and humanity as the holy and the sacred sort of dribbles into our world little by little. Our part is important but it is, oh, so much bigger than us. In fact, it’s really not even rational the way we think it should be. Maybe that’s what makes it faith. (In other words, just stick with me. I’ll ride it out with you!)


  • What is your response to this passage?
  • What does it mean to you to truly trust God? What stands in the way of our trusting God?
  • Do you think that you believe in God in such a way that it would constitute “righteousness”?
  • What does it mean to truly believe that God will make our future secure?
  • What does that say about how we view our own “barren” places?
  • How do we get past the innate need for immediate gratification?
  • What does that faithfulness in a future in which we may not see mean for us during this season of Lent?



NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 3: 17-4:1

Read the Lectionary Epistle passage

This passage, too, is in two parts: The first deals with the behavior of true believers. The second part is linked to the eschatological hope believers have in the coming Savior. It’s not really clear who the “enemies” are about which Paul is writing—perhaps it was those who were preaching a different kind of Gospel or those who did not live lives in accordance with the Gospel. But Paul is referring not to individual things that they do but to a pattern of life. He is essentially laying out two realities and asking the Philippian believers to choose the one that is authentic and by which they would live. Paul claims that the believers do not belong to the environment in which they now live but to a new “citizenship” in heaven.

Now we need to understand here that the people of Philippi were Roman citizens who took this very seriously. Philippi was a Roman, rather than a Greek, colony. But not everyone was a citizen. “Citizenship” was not a right. It was an honor that came with birthright. Their power came through their rights as citizens. But Paul is claiming to them that they have a much more significant citizenship waiting for them. It is essentially a redefinition of their very identity. There was no longer a class or birthright distinction.

This was indeed a new citizenship and one founded on the cross. It is a relationship based on others (as opposed to the self-centered “god in one’s belly” type of life). It is a citizenship that is not inherited but is rather lived. It is based on humility and self-sacrifice, just as Jesus Christ lived. It is a holy and sacred citizenship.

But holiness is an interesting thing. If one professes to be “holy”, then he or she has missed the mark. That was the problem with the alternative version of the Gospel about which Paul was warning his followers. Warning: If someone tells you that they have holiness or righteousness or godliness figured out, you should run. Holiness and righteousness are not quantifiable in the context of this world; rather, we are citizens of something that is both already and not yet. We are citizens of that which is beyond ourselves. It is not something that we have attained at this point. But, as Paul says, stand firm. It is just up ahead.

Jesus Christ showed us what it meant to leave this world, this citizenship behind. If not, then he surely would have saved himself from the Cross. But he understood that beyond what we know, beyond the rational, beyond the citizenship of this world in which we live, is something more—life. Our goal should not to be to become holy or righteous but to become alive in Christ. It is about relationship; it is about love; it is about caring and compassion. It is about life. And that is all the holiness and sacredness that you will ever need.


  • What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  • What does that redefinition of identity mean for us as 21st century Christians?
  • What does that change in the definition of “citizenship” mean for us?
  • What is difficult for us about that?
  • What is holiness to you?
  • How does this speak to our Lenten journey?


GOSPEL: Luke 13: 31-35

Read the Gospel passage

We need to remember that, with the exception of one boyhood trip with his parents, Jesus had not been to Jerusalem. Jesus’ ministry was in Galilee. In fact, most of his ministry sort of centered around a lake. (We actually call it the Sea of Galilee—sort of a misinterpretation. It’s really a large and very deep fresh water lake.) From the middle of this lake, you can look around to the cities that line its banks—Tiberias and Sephoris, the cities built by Herod Antipas, the ruins of the ancient city of Magdala under Mt. Arbor, Bethsaida, Capernaum—and between the lake and the Mediterranean Sea were the cities of Cana and Nazareth. This was the area in which Jesus’ ministry began. Jesus was not commuting to work in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was still a long way off, through the wilderness and beyond the fertile area of Galilee.

But even here, Jesus was probably perceived as a threat by Herod. It would have been much easier for Herod to get rid of Jesus. After all, this was the Herod that had already killed John the Baptist (and getting rid of Jesus would probably have elevated Herod’s somewhat meager ranking as a ruler.) And Herod had his own vision working as he tried to lead the Galilean people to a new world—a world where Rome was the center and where the values were totally opposed by the teachings of Jesus. So, yes, Jesus was a threat.

There are differing notions as to what Jesus meant when he referred to Herod as a “fox”. In the Old Testament writings, the fox was often associated with destruction and Jewish dietary laws classified the jackal as “unclean.” To the first century Greeks, the fox was seen as clever but unprincipled. Whatever Jesus’ intended meaning was, it was clear that Jesus dismissed Herod Antipas as powerless to stop his mission to establish the Kingdom of God. As Jesus responded, he was going to do what he came to do and then he would be on his way. The mission was set. So with this Scripture, we begin to get a sense that Jesus is looking toward and facing Jerusalem.

Jesus is no longer merely “preparing” to go to Jerusalem. He is headed there. He has set his face toward the holy city. To Jesus, the danger was not in the Herods of the world but, rather, those things that got in the way of his mission. But he turns toward the city with regrets and heartache. And Jesus laments for Jerusalem. In The Gospel According to Matthew, this lament is placed once Jesus is in Jerusalem. We have this image of Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem and lamenting for what could have been. But in the gospel by the writer known as Luke that we read today, the lament is part of Jesus’ Galilean experience. It is indeed a lament but rather than Jesus bemoaning what could have been, it is instead a challenge to the people to become a part of this mission, to “get their house in order”, so to speak, and to become a part of that new humanity that is of Jesus Christ.

Jesus does not want Jerusalem to become a symbol of a city that rejects and kills the messengers of God; Jesus wants it to be the Holy City of God that it proclaims to be. After all, this is not an ordinary city. This is the city that claims that the presence of God is in its midst, right there in the temple in the heart of the city near Mt. Zion. And yet, this city, too, has fallen into a different cadence, marching to the beat of prosperity and security and a positioning of power toward those around it. This holy city, the city of the temple, the city that should know better, would be the one that when the time came, would reject Jesus. Jesus knew this. So he turns his face toward Jerusalem and begins the journey toward the cross.

And, once again, lest we somehow lapse into an understanding of Jerusalem’s rejection of Jesus as only attributed to the 1st century Jewish believers, we need to realize that we are part of it. Jesus was not rejected by a religion; Jesus was rejected by a culture and a society that thought that they were so right and so comfortable that they did not want to or have a need to change. Jesus was rejected by a culture and a way of life that is very much like our own. But there’s another point to the Scripture. Even knowing the rejection waiting for him in Jerusalem, Jesus still expresses the wish to love and protect the people, gathering them together as a hen does her chicks. Jesus never stoops to their level. He never judges or rants and raves about what is right, or what is moral, or what is going to happen to them because they have rejected him. He is the perfect image of God—the loving parent, the mother hen, who more than anything else, just wants to love her children and desires for them that they feel that love.

God calls us and when we do not respond, God does not reject us; instead, God surely laments. And even through the Sacred Eyes now blurred by Divine Tears, God, with open arms, once again invites us home. Lent calls us to remember that, to remember that even when we make other plans, even when we lose our focus, and even when we completely reject what God is doing, God is always there, always calling us to return. But until we realize that, we’ll never find our way.

On the western slope of the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem, sits a small chapel called Dominus Flevit. The name comes from Luke’s Gospel, which contains not one but two accounts of Jesus’ grief over the loss of Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was here that Jesus wept over the city that had refused his ministrations.

Inside the chapel, the altar is centered before a high arched window that looks out over the city. Iron grillwork divides the view into sections, so that on a sunny day the effect is that of a stained-glass window. The difference is that this subject is alive. It is not some artist’s rendering of the holy city but the city itself, with the Dome of the Rock in the bottom left corner and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the middle. Two-thirds of the view is the cloudless sky above the city which the grillwork turns into a quilt of blue squares. Perhaps this is where the heavenly Jerusalem hovers over the earthly one, until the time comes for the two to meet?

Down below, on the front of the altar, is a picture of what never happened in that city. It is a mosaic medallion of a white hen with a golden halo around her head. Her red comb resembles a crown, and her wings are spread wide to shelter the pale yellow chicks that crowd around her feet. There are seven of them, with black dots for eyes and orange dots for beaks. They look happy to be there. The hen looks ready to spit fire if anyone comes near her babies.

But like I said, it never happened, and the picture does not pretend that it did. The medallion is rimmed with red words in Latin. Translated into English they read, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” The last phrase is set outside the circle, in a pool of red underneath the chicks’ feet: you were not willing…

If you have ever loved someone you could not protect, then you understand the depth of Jesus’ lament. All you can do is open your arms. You cannot make anyone walk into them. Meanwhile, this is the most vulnerable posture in the world –wings spread, breast exposed — but if you mean what you say, then this is how you stand. (From “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood, by Barbara Brown Taylor, The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=638, accessed 16 February, 2013.)


A thought experiment: read through the gospel text substituting the name of your town for “Jerusalem” wherever it appears. (You could try “Washington” too, but the US government feels so distant from most of us that it might not have the desired effect.) Does anything about that reading ring true?

In her commentary on Luke, Sharon Ringe writes, “When God’s gracious will is thwarted by human refusal to accept it, Jesus’ proclamation turns into lament” (192). True. We can see that lament in the story we’ll be tracing throughout Lent. Humans reject things like “casting out demons and performing cures” (Luke 13:32) as well as the rest of what Jesus has to do and say. And we misread the story if it only functions to blame someone else for that rejection (“those stubborn, corrupt Jewish leaders” or “that fox, Herod and all establishment power like him” or “those mindless crowds, fueled solely by emotion, who could say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ one day and ‘Crucify him!’ the next”).

This is one time when we are not hearing the story correctly if we hear in it only someone else’s problem. Biblical scholars usually want us all to remember that the scriptures are not just God’s word to us, but to all people across centuries. “It’s not always about you” is a good reminder for all sorts of things in our lives, Bible-reading included. Yet so-called critical distance with this text creates the problem of blaming someone else for the rejection of God’s own servant, Jesus. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces”. If this is true, then perhaps those ten thousand Christs are traveling to ten thousand Jerusalems and hoping to gather their inhabitants the way a hen gathers her chicks. (Mary Hinkle Shore, “Wide Open Are Your Arms”, from Pilgrim Preaching, 2 Lent C, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/03/wide_open_are_y.html, accessed 24 February 2010.)

(Here’s the whole poem):

As kingfishers catch fire; dragonflies draw flame; As tumbled over rim in roundy wells

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and do the same;

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; Selves—goes itself; Myself it speaks and spells. Crying What I do is me: for that I came. 

I say more: the just man justices; Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eyes what in God’s eye he is—Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his

To the father through the feature of men’s faces.

Gerard Manley Hopkins


  • What meaning does this hold for you?
  • What “Jerusalem” do we need to face this Lent?
  • What is it that stands in the way of your responding to God’s call?
  • What does it mean for us to take more responsibility for what happens in the world, for what happens in our Jerusalems?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


The Promised Land always lies on the other side of a wilderness.. (Havelock Ellis)


Lent is always a call to conversion. The problem is that we must remember that conversion is not a call to be something other than what we are. Conversion is a call to become more of what we are really meant to be. (Joan Chittister, Listen With the Heart, 28)


In wilderness is the preservation of the world. (Henry David Thoreau)




We are your people, mostly privileged, competent, entitled. Your people who make futures for ourselves, seize opportunities, get the job done and move on. In our self-confidence, we expect little beyond our productivity; we wait little for that which lies beyond us, and then settle with ourselves at the center. And you, you in the midst of privilege, our competence, our entitlement.


You utter large, deep oaths beyond our imagined futures.

You say—fear not, I am with you.

You say—nothing shall separate us.

You say—something of new heaven and new earth.

You say—you are mine; I have called you by name.

You say—my faithfulness will show concretely and will abide.

And we find our privilege eroded by your purpose, our competence shaken by your future, our entitlement unsettled by your other children.

Give us grace to hear your promises. Give us freedom to trust your promises.

Give us patience to wait and humility to yield our dreamed future to your large purpose.

We pray in the name of Jesus who is your deep “yes” to our lives. Amen.

(Walter Brueggemann, in Prayers for a Privileged People, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008), 45-46.)


Proper 10B: There’s Always Time for Dancing

Dancing-praiseOLD TESTAMENT: 2 Samuel 6: 1-5, 12b-19

Read the Old Testament Passage

In this passage, David moves the neglected ark to his new capital in order to place God back into the center of communal life. However, the same move is a shrewd consolidation of his own political power. David has conquered a city that was not part of any tribe; Jerusalem can literally be termed the “city of David.” Why does he want to move it? His initial motive is not given, but, positioned after the events narrated in chapter five, one can wonder whether David is adding to the luster of his city.  2 Samuel 6 begins with an impressive number of people (30,000 men).  This finalizes the move to kingship.  At this point this becomes a permanent, established dynasty.  The joining together of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms is magnified by the number of people present.  The allegiance to Saul is over and all are united around David.

David, of course, is never perfect but is God’s choice.  And so, he donned an ephod and he danced…they danced with all their might.  They placed the ark, the center of worship where it belonged, made offerings, distributed food, and celebrated.  The ark had been returned after being captured by the Philistines.  It was now the center of the community, the center of shared life.  The ark, the container for the commandments that had accompanied the people as they wandered in the wilderness, was a “visible symbol of God’s awesome and never-ending Presence.”  But under King Saul, the Ark was not in place.  It had been gone for about 30 years.  David brought it back.  And it was something to celebrate!  And the worship showed this—there was dancing with everything they had.  The ark was back.  God was here!  And then they shared a meal together before going to their homes.

You know, you can say what you want about David and about all of his shortcomings, but he knows how to worship!  There was nothing reserved.  This was a pure, unadulterated expression of joy in what God has done and what God is doing.  It’s hard for us to get there, but, when you think about it, isn’t that what worship should be?

Nineteenth century Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard developed an analogy called the “theater of worship”. Now I know that sends all kinds of red flags up for us. After all, we take real exception to anything in worship being deemed a performance. But Kierkegaard takes it a step further. So, think about your answer to three questions. First, when you think about worship, when you think about the place of worship, when you imagine sitting in the sanctuary, where is the stage? Second, who are the actors? And, third, who is the audience? Well, most people will say that the stage is the chancel—the altar, the pulpit, the cross. And most will then answer that the actors in the theater are the ministers, the musicians, the liturgists. So, of course, the audience is the congregation—all of those who came to worship. But, that’s not what Kierkegaard said at all. His answers? The stage is the whole house of worship. If you really think about what worship actually is, it is the whole house of God, so I would contend that the stage is everything beyond these walls too, the whole of Creation. And the actors are the ministers, and the musicians, and the liturgists. They are also the congregation. Every one of us, every child of God, is an actor in this theater of worship. So, then, who is left to be the audience? God…God is the audience. God is the one we worship.

I’ve always loved that. I think it puts it in real perspective. Our worship is not for us. It is not penitence or requirement. It is certainly not therapy or a way to get our lives back on track. The expectation for our worship is not limited to what we get out of it. Worship is the work of all the faithful who gather to praise, honor, and glorify God. It is reflection on what God has done and response to what God is doing. In worship, we somehow, some way, enter the mystery that is God. Worship, whether literally or figuratively, is a dance with the Divine. So, how passionate is our worship? How prepared for worship are we when we come before God? How filled are we with awe for the God of us all? How deep is our joy for what God has done and what God is doing? What expectations do we bring to our worship? Are we hoping to leave feeling good or comforted? Are we expecting to find God? Sure, sometimes we get that. But that’s not what it’s about. Worship is more than sitting in the pew and hoping that God will somehow visit us this day. Worship is transcendence. It is about opening ourselves up to something that is beyond our imaginations and certainly beyond our control. Worship is not the place where God comes to us. That is actually the rest of our life. Rather, worship is the place where we go to God, where we stand in awe of our Creator, of the things that God has done, and begin to move. With fear and trembling, we let our feet move to a different beat, and find ourselves in celebration and praise, dancing with all our might. Angela Monet said that “those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.” It sort of makes you look at David’s Ephod Dance differently, doesn’t it?


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this tell you about worship?
  3. How do most people in our world view worship?
  4. In what ways are we called to dance? What stands in our way?


NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 1: 3-14

Read the Epistle Passage

In the Greek, this is one sentence! Perhaps the writer (probably not Paul but rather a student or disciple of Paul) did not have Mrs. Roberts for Freshman English! The blessing speaks of Christ as an expanding sphere of influence or power, intent on filling the whole universe. This gives shape to its understanding of mission. The earth shall be filled with God’s goodness. But this Scripture can also lead to mistakenly understanding the church as an entity that is meant to take over everything – a kind of imperialism. Sometimes the focus appears to be on renewal and positive transformation which will be good for people. Sometimes one has the impression that it is all about subordination and absorption. But the heavenly and spiritual space appears not to be a far away place but a dimension of existence in the here and now as we participate in this life. The goal is relationship and is meant inclusively. It is meant for all.

The benefit appears as redemption, deliverance, and forgiveness of sins. But limiting it to that is really a narrowing of the idea. Here the mystery is about God’s plan to bring oneness. It is all encompassing with Christ filling all things. The author’s focus shifts immediately to ‘you’. He means his Gentile readers. What was once generally applied to those deemed as “chosen”, the religious, the “church”, this sense of being chosen, of being redeemed and forgiven, of being informed about the divine plan for the world, is now being applied to those once excluded. No one has a private claim on the Spirit.

This passage, then, can enable us to see ourselves, our world and our place in it in ways that are part of the whole tradition. We are adopted. We need to realize that there was no concept of “adoption” in the Old Testament. The word “adoption” wasn’t even used in the Old Testament because the Jews didn’t practice it; adoption wasn’t part of their mindset. Nor was the word or concept in the mind of Jesus who was a Jew. Nor is the concept of adoption found in the first four gospels. But for the Apostle Paul, adoption was part of his Roman world and adoption was used at least five times by Paul. You need to understand Roman law to understand adoption. For example, girls weren’t adopted under Roman law. It was part of Roman law that only sons inherited property. The Roman Caesars’ adopted sons frequently in order to give them their grand inheritance, and the focus was on the Caesar who chose a son to be adopted. In adoption, it was the will of the Caesar that was important; not the will of the son. The Romans practiced “patre potentus,” (the patre = father; potentus = potent). Adoption presupposed a potent father. All legal rights were with the father and none with the son. It was the father’s will which controlled everything. The concept of adoption was pleasureful, a source of happiness and joy as the Caesar designated his adopted son to be his designated heir and receive a grand inheritance. It is the pleasureful will of the Caesar that is important; not the will of the adopted person.

So, in similar terms, our adoption, then, is the will of God; it is sacramental. God has adopted us. It is already a part of us.

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does this image of “adoption” mean to you?
  3. What does the concept of inclusiveness mean as it relates to adoption?


GOSPEL: Mark 6: 14-29

Read the Gospel Passage

Now you will recall that back in Chapter 1 of The Gospel According to Mark that we read during Advent, we were told that John the Baptizer had been arrested. We then hear no more from or about John until this passage. Now most of this account is told as a flashback, which is actually a sort of rarity for Scripture. Here, the Gospel writer throws the announcement down in front of us: John the Baptist, that odd camel-hair wearing, locust-eating, wilderness-wanderer who preached repentance and change and pointed to the light of Christ was dead, viciously beheaded by the powers that be. And then we hear the account of how and why that came about.

It’s an odd story, almost fable-like. Herod Antipas has had John arrested because he had denounced Herod for putting aside his legitimate wife and marrying the wife of his brother. (Whoever told us that soap operas were a modern invention?) And yet, on some level, Herod found John fascinating, maybe even respected what he had to say and yearned to hear more, although he definitely thought it was disturbing and confusing. But he certainly did not wish him dead. But this was not the case with Herod’s wife. So, in order to accommodate his wife’s wrath, he has John arrested.

And then Herod throws himself a birthday party, a big to-do with lots of good food, good wine, and dancing. And the entertainment for the evening was provided by the young, beautiful, dancing daughter of Herod’s new (and John had contended illegitimate) wife. Well Herod was so pleased with her performance that he promises her anything. The world was hers.

So the young girl runs to her mother just outside the room. Here was Herodias’ chance. Her nemesis John would meet his demise and she would be rid of him. And so the young girl returns to the party and makes the fateful request for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod must have nearly choked. This was not what he wanted! His vengeful wife and this spoiled child had crossed the line. He knows that no matter who John is, he does not deserve death.

But, as the governor he was in what he construed as a tenuous position at best. After all, he had made a promise and had voiced it in front of numerous witnesses. If he didn’t follow through with it, no one would trust him again. So to save face and to secure the balance of power, he complied. After all, he was governor. Some things have to be done for the good of society and for the preservation of the way things are.

Our tendency is to more or less excuse poor, pitiful Herod. After all, he almost couldn’t help it, right? He was married to a spiteful wife with a spoiled daughter. And he had to be under a lot of pressure as governor. After all, things were really not going that well. He had to show people that he was still in control or the whole society would fall apart. We almost feel sorry for him, but, in the end, he still gives the order and takes the easy way out. He still has to take responsibility for what he’s done.

So what does this have to do with us?  Why is this passage even included in the Gospel in the first place?  What exactly are we supposed to glean from a story that is so violent and so gory and seemingly so totally out of time and place?  Commentators have always pointed out the parallels between John’s death and Jesus’ Crucifixion and thought that perhaps this was the writer’s way of foreshadowing what was to come later in the Gospel.  But if that was the only reason that this was included, it would be easy for us to remove ourselves from it altogether.

Perhaps we’re also meant to look on this as a reminder, a call to witness, if you will, of who we are and who Jesus calls us to be.  Because we can say what we want to say about Herod; we can point to his weakness, to his need to appear in control, and to his fear of who John the Baptist really was and what John’s words meant in his life.  The passage tells us that Herod feared John because he was righteous and holy.  In other words, he revered him enough to know that on some level John was right and that John’s words meant that Herod would have to change his life.

But this is not just an historical account about Herod.  I really do think that somewhere in this passage, we are meant to find and look at ourselves and our own lives.  Because we, too, make our own concessions—not to the point, obviously, of ordering someone’s death but in our own way we also bow to convenience and convention.  On some level we all live our lives wanting to be victorious and successful, wanting people to like us, and, like Herod, we sometimes miss the opportunity to do the right thing.  We close our ears and our minds and we leave, hoping the whole messy thing will just go away.  And we miss the opportunity to be who God is calling us to be.

Maybe that is the reason that this horrible story is here in the first place; otherwise, we’d all be tempted to start thinking that this Christian walk involves following some sort of miracle working-healing-rock star-Superman character.  Well, sign us all up for that!  But it’s not about that.  Jesus kept telling everyone not to say anything about all those miracles because following Christ does not mean going where the miracles are; it means becoming Christ-like.  It means becoming holy.

Think about it.  The disciples are riding high on the power of Jesus’ teaching and miracles.  And Jesus sends them out.  In last week’s Gospel passage, Jesus actually told them to expect rejection.  But just in case we missed that part, it is made much more explicit today…This is not easy.  But easy is not what we were promised.

This story of John the Baptist calls us to have the courage to be truth tellers, to tell the truth that is God to everyone around us and to stand up for what is right, to speak out against injustices, and to boldly and with all our might dance to the music that God is playing for us. We have a tendency, though, to play it safe, keep our mouths shut, and work hard to avoid offending anyone or doing anything that might disturb the peace of our carefully-choreographed lives and our cautiously thought-out religion.  And, yes, speaking out may sometimes be uncomfortable; it may not win us any popularity contests; it may even mean that we are in many ways rejected from what we think is a normal way of being.  If we take the Gospel seriously, it means that we may no longer relax in our comfortable cheap seats and look for God to show up on cue but rather that we will have the courage to become holiness.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does it mean for you to “stand up” for your beliefs, for the right thing?
  3. Do you have other ideas as to why this account is included?
  4. What does it mean for you to approach holiness?



Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God. (William Temple)

The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.  (William Sloane Coffin)


Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences. (Susan B. Anthony)




Dancing God, passionate leap of creative energy skipping among the stars, waltzing on rivers, birthing a universe.


Dancing God, tumbling from somewhere into Jewish territory, whirling Spirit seeding Mary’s womb with alluring divinity.


Dancing God, uncontainable grandeur, kicking and rolling in Mary’s flesh while untamed cousin echoes the dance in Aunt Elizabeth.


Dancing God, spark of angel’s song, shepherds hurrying like whirling dervishes gasping in awe at a surprising child.


Dancing God, still passionate today, dynamic movement of love wooing our hearts toward oneness and peace in a tear-stained world.


Dance on, Passionate God, we are your dance now. Teach us the tune, show us the steps. It is time to dance.


(Joyce Rupp, in Out of the Ordinary: Prayers, Poems, and Reflections for Every Season, P. 50-51)