Noel Coward once offered some particularly good advice; “Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington”. We don't know whether Mrs Worthngton took heed of his warning, but if Herodias had been given similar advice, John the Baptist might have kept his head a bit longer. Bringing on the dancing girls certainly wasn’t good news for him.
The stage has generally been considered something of a dodgy profession, especially for women. While Meghan Markle fever may break out all over the place these days, even 30 years ago can you really imagine a son of the Prince of Wales being allowed to marry an actress? I can see the ladies in waiting reaching for the smelling salts even now.
Mercifully things have changed, but then the stage was associated with somewhat lax morals, which is why it wasn't seen as a suitable occupation for a nicely brought up girl. She might fall under bad influences and be led astray. Well, Herod's step-daughter didn't need to look any further than her own mother to find a bad influence, but in fact the story is full of people making lousy decisions and for very bad reasons.
Herod's a weak-willed despot who's more interested in what people think of him than in what's right. He marries his brother's wife and has John arrested when he tells him it's a bad idea. Herodias herself is so incensed at being criticised that she has a grudge against John to the point of wanting him dead. So great is her fury that it overrides any maternal concerns. Asked by her daughter what she should claim as her reward, she tells her to ask for that most useful of all articles – the head of John the Baptist. Meanwhile, the said daughter, apparently well versed in erotic dancing but without two brain cells to rub together, does as her mother tells her and acquires a rather disgusting doorstop. The whole story is a catalogue of lust, vanity, cruelty and that lovely old-fashioned word, vice and we can learn quite a bit from it (although not if we're looking for a role model. In that case we should probably look elsewhere).
For a start we can learn about the need for making decisions based on good foundations. At SatNavs, the children's church at Barrow, we had a puppet show yesterday based around the story of the men who built their houses on sand or rock, and what the consequences were of their decisions, and in today's gospel we see in very stark terms where choices based on greed and self-interest can lead us. Everybody makes the odd bad decision, but when we base the most significant aspects of our lives on very weak foundations, we stand a real chance of coming to grief in a big way. The really sad thing is that it's usually self-defeating too. Like Herod, we often make bad decisions because we either want to look good or at the very least we don't want to lose face. But in this passage, who is it who seems the weaker character? Is it Herod, rich, powerful, but able to be manipulated by a few sinuous moves from his step-daughter, or John, living on the fringes of society, eccentric by anybody's standards, but prepared to speak out for truth and what we would come to see as Kingdom values, even in the face of likely execution? I think most of us would feel that John wins that particular battle.
However, before we get too critical of Herod, let's just remind ourselves how easy it is to make the same sort of bad decisions ourselves. Aren't we all susceptible to doing something we're not very comfortable with because somebody we love really, really wants us to? Aren't we all capable of stubbornly sticking to a lousy plan because we think we'd lose face if we backed down? Can we honestly say we're sure we'd have been in the dungeon and not enjoying the rich food and the entertainment if we'd been part of this episode. I'm none too sure I would've been and perhaps you're not either.
In this, as in so many episodes in the gospels, we're reminded of how following Christ means that we do the very thing the world sees as weak and in doing it show strength. If Herod had gone back on his word because he knew it was wrong to kill John he wouldn't have appeared weak, he'd have seemed to be a person with some vestiges of integrity. If Herodias had been able to rise above her injured pride at being criticised by this peculiar wandering preacher and listened to the message of repentance Jon preached she might paradoxically have been a marriage partner worth having. And if her daughter had left off her seven veils and put her vest on, Herod might not have been tempted to make such a dangerous promise in the first place.
It's another example of our needing to make up our minds where out loyalties lie – with the values of Christ or of the world. That can be particularly tough these days when any attempt to look beyond our own needs can be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness. All we're supposed to care about is our own fulfilment, our own happiness. We're constantly being encouraged to ask ourselves “Is the is right for me?”, not “Is this best for everybody” or “Will this spread the love of God?”, and that's hard. It's one thing to embrace being counter-cultural if that makes us feel a bit alternative and interesting, but another to be branded a loser or a pushover because we're not constantly fighting to grab as many of the good things in life for ourselves as we can, no matter how much that deprives others of their share.
Probably most people saw the moment during the London Marathon last year when Matthew Rees saw fellow runner David Wyeth on the verge of collapse just yards from the finish line. Rees was on course for a personal best and likely to finish in under 2 hours 50 minutes, something he'd trained for for months. There were other runners and marshals who could help David Wyeth, but Rees stopped and supported Wyeth to the finish line, preferring to sacrifice his personal satisfaction rather than see another runner fail at the very last minute. I think most of us would say that, whatever the results board tells us, it was Matthew Rees who won last year's marathon. Our life, our living out of the gospel, is a series of decisions like that one. We need to ask Is it all about me? Is all that matters what pleases me? Or is the Kingdom of God actually served by working for the good of our brothers and sisters and being prepared to concede the limelight on occasion?
Noel Coward advised Mrs Worthington not to put her daughter on the stage, but perhaps we could take his advice with regard to ourselves. Let's keep ourselves off our own stage and work to glorify God instead. It might not be in line with current attitudes but it is in line with the eternal values of the gospel and that's not a bad place to start – and indeed to finish.