More Than Sex (Had to Use the Word)

Mark 6:14-29 – The 7th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, July 12, 2015

“So Herodias had it in for John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t.” (Mark 6:19)

sex.1I worked on my high school newspaper for several semesters. Though my teenaged journalistic memories have faded like newsprint left in the sun, I recall the faculty advisor’s name—Mrs. Pepper—and the only time she complimented me.

Mrs. Pepper was impressed with my, er, sexual inventiveness.

Yeah, baby, sex.

When you read that three-letter, monosyllabic word, did anything bob to the surface of your mature mind about your high school experiences with . . . sex? Or, since you’re reading my words, what did you imagine about me and . . . Mrs. Pepper?

Alas, tuck away your lustful fantasies. Nothing happened! Well, at least nothing in a—wink-wink—“Biblical way.”

During the only assignment I remember from my stint as a high school newshound, I wrote a sparse (maybe ten sentences, one column) summary of a research project comparing men and women’s attitudes and actions. Maybe the research involved how men vs. women shopped, or watched television, or laced up their shoes. Regardless of the statistical conclusions, I suggested a headline for my modest journalistic endeavor:

Differences in Sex

Or the headline may have been “Sex Makes a Difference.” I’m not sure of the exact wording. But I’m sure sex—SEX—was prominent. Mrs. Pepper praised me in front of the other students for writing a story that would likely be read by our readers. She told us, nudging her tortoiseshell glasses up the bridge of her nose and then primly smoothing her ankle-length skirt . . .


Forget the glasses and the skirt. I can’t recall what Mrs. Pepper wore! But oh that compliment! Sex, baby! It sells!

Which—no surprise here if you’re even distantly familiar with John the Baptist’s garish end—leads me to wonder about Herod the King. This wasn’t the Herod who bloodied the Christmas manger stories of Jesus’ birth, but the next generation’s updated model of corruption. In Mark’s Gospel, notable for brevity, there was a surprisingly long, lurid account of Herod and John the Baptist. Herod feared the deceased John had been revived in the form of Jesus. Since Herod had given the orders to separate John’s head from his body, the king had been confident the Baptizer was dead. Now, he doubted his confidence.

How did John lose his head?

Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, National Gallery, London, c. 1607-10
Salome with the Head of John the Baptist by Caravaggio, National Gallery, London, c. 1607-10

Herod, for reasons that surely included sex, had married Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herodias, Mark pointed out, “had it in for John.” She apparently didn’t like John public and frequent condemnation of her brotherly bed hopping. Herod, for reasons that surely included sex, made outlandish promises to Herodias’ daughter—strangely, also named Herodias (or Salome, depending on your source and sensibilities)—after the younger woman wowed the king with her dancing abilities. Something tells me she wasn’t only showing off her ballroom skills when she performed for his royal pain in the butt.

Herodias the mother tells Herodias the daughter to have Herod fulfill his eager promises by slicing off John’s overly critical head.

Sex sells.

So does blood spilled at the king’s party.

With the Gospels’ various depictions of John’s macabre demise, aren’t they preparing us for Jesus’ grislier fate?

In this grim, overwrought scene, Mark, the earliest written of the Gospels, was the only one to mention Herod’s opinion about John the Baptizer. Though it’s not a “sexy” line, it’s a haunting, honest view of powerful people. And maybe of you and me . . .

Herod, Mark wrote,

. . . regarded [John] as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.

Apparently, when John spoke, Herod listened. John’s words charmed the royal ruler. John’s views impressed the man with the crown. John’s figures of speech or finger pointing or how he dramatically paused between accusations caused a smile to form on the king’s lips.

In other words, John was cheap entertainment . . . until he wasn’t. Because when kings—or you and me—are asked by the righteous and holy person to look at how we hurt others, how we hurt creation, how we ignore God, how we harm strangers, how we readily put ourselves first and others last, we are more than willing to chop off their head.

How many heads were “chopped off” until slavery ended?

How many heads were “chopped off” until child labor laws limited the cruelty?

How many heads were “chopped off” until women and minorities could vote?

How many heads were “chopped off” until gays could marry under civil law?

In Herod’s case, maybe it was a little (or a lot of) sex that prompted him to end John’s confusing words.

Sex does sell.

Violence too. If it bleeds, it leads.

And yet it is often resistance to changing our ways that causes us to ignore, belittle, or even kill the righteous and holy person.

In my reading and re-reading of the Biblical stories, I’m never truly shocked Herod—a decadent, dreary king—sliced and diced John because a young babe flaunted her assets and demanded that her favor was served on a platter. But I’m always shocked, and rightfully humbled, when I read (even the thousandth time) that Jesus’ own disciples abandoned him near the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Maybe they didn’t cut off his head—or hammer a nail into his flesh—but I think his righteous and holy words also confused them.

But Jesus’ holy, honest words weren’t merely a history lesson or a headline.

If I’d described the events between Herod and John in my high school newspaper, or on today’s Internet, I might slap SEX onto the headline. Mrs. Pepper would still be correct: it’ll get people to read! But it’s not the sex, or the violence, or even a daughter’s tawdry first century version of Dancing With The Stars, that troubles me.

With Jesus, how holy and righteous his words are and his way is.

Until they interfere with what I want to do.

And then . . .

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  1. Yes sex sells. The word captures our attention. Sometimes in a not so good way. But it makes us human. The Bible is full of the representations. Thanks for a thought provoking reading that made me smile. And think about things differently.

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