A sermon by Alison Sampson on Mark 6:14-29 with allusions to Ephesians 1:3-14
When you were a child, did you have to do stuff for adults which made you feel used? Do you remember being made to feel awkward or embarrassed, or even ashamed? Perhaps it was something little: having to laugh at the stupid jokes of an irritating uncle, or dressing up in hideous frilly clothes for grandma. Perhaps it was something bigger: being pushed to perform on stage, or to play on a sports team, or to do something else that wasn’t your love, and made you feel humiliated. Perhaps it was even worse: being made the subject of an adults’ predatory sexual desires, or just being constantly pushed and shoved to meet the needs of the adults around you.
I suspect that all of us experienced some of this to some extent while we were children. Tonight, we hear of another child being shaped by the desires of adults. Mark’s gospel tells us that Herod’s daughter is sent out like bait, to dance for the king and his guests. And her dancing is so charming, so seductive, perhaps, that she is promised whatever she wishes. With a drunken flourish, Herod says her: “Up to half my kingdom!”, even though he is nothing more than a tinpot dictator under Rome’s thumb, and has no power to give even an inch of his kingdom away.
The girl goes back to her mother to confer, and returns with a macabre request: the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. Poor Herod! The Scriptures tell us that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man, and that he protected him. But at the mercy of his scheming wife and daughter, Herod was compelled to execute John.
At least, this is how the passage is often interpreted. But as a feminist, I feel the need to exercise a hermeneutics of suspicion here. Whenever women are portrayed as scheming, manipulative, bloodthirsty and irredeemable, I think it’s worth looking a little more closely. What else is happening in this story?
This story is based in King Herod’s court. Herod, who ordered the slaughter of the innocents; Herod, who in utter contempt for the law married his brother’s wife; Herod, who locked up John in a stinking hellhole of a jail for speaking the truth about this marriage; Herod, who drank too much and promised too much and had to save face in front of his guests: well, is he really the victim here?
Let’s take a look at the daughter. The Greek word we translate as ‘daughter’ is κορασιον. It is the diminutive form, or the little form, of κορη. κορη means ‘girl’. κορασιον means ‘little girl’: she’s a little girl. When we hear this story, I think most of us picture a young woman, dancing for the king and the powers-that-be, and exercising her sexual power. But this story comes from an age when girls were married off before they hit puberty. What we should be imagining is a young, pre-pubescent, girl.
And that changes things.
This is not a girl who has had much opportunity to decide her own actions or to shape her own destiny. She has been groomed from birth. She has been trained in ways pleasing to men: she learns to dance, to wear nice clothes, to speak when spoken to, to compliment and to flatter. She is the keystone of her mother’s plan to silence a vocal critic. Her virginity will be sold off to the highest bidder, as her father arranges the most politically advantageous marriage he can negotiate. There is very little difference between her upbringing and that of a child raised for street prostitution; it’s just that the stakes are a lot higher.
This girl has learned to perform her role well. She may not even feel a twinge of resentment about her mother pushing her out there; she may not feel embarrassed by having to perform for her father and his guests; she even may feel proud. And yet, in every step of this story, she is being used by the adults around her to incredibly destructive effect.
It raises questions about the ways we all were used as children, and the ways that we all use the children around us now – because this is what most adults do.
As a parent, I’m certainly guilty. As much as I try not to, I feed off my daughters all the time. I take pride in their appearance, believing it reflects well on me. I take pride in their behaviour, believing it shows I’m a good mother. I take pride in their school reports, believing that it vindicates choices I’ve made about their upbringing. I take pride in their wild adventures, and cheeky rudeness, believing that they prove I’m not as staid as I’m afraid I am. In other words, many of the emotions I feel about my children are actually about how my children reflect well on me. And when my children do something which deeply challenges my sense of self, then I’m tempted to push them away, or to assign them to my husband’s side of the family. And they, being responsive children, often try to fulfil my expectations. This is not always a bad thing: we want and expect our children to be thoughtful and kind and loving. But what matters is when we become like Herodias, looking to our children to achieve our own goals, to feel good about ourselves, and to justify our choices.
There are other many ways that adults use children. Some kids I know are played off between their parents. Perhaps a mother is seeking attention, so she flatters her son to attract her husband. Perhaps a family has split up, and a father resents the level of child support that he is asked to pay. Rather than working out the best care arrangement for the child, he demands equal access to make sure he pays less, even although he works long hours and is not able to look after the child himself much, anyway. And in other families child support is never forthcoming; only expensive gifts, given to play off parent against parent.
As a nation, we sacrifice children all the time. Poorer children have been sacrificed in numerous ways by successive Federal budgets. Children are locked up in immigration detention for political gain. We can afford our clothes and coffee and chocolate because much of it is made by other people’s children; and it all seems too hard to find things made without child labour so we turn a blind eye. We live in the shadow of a Royal Commission that is uncovering just how many children were exploited in institutions that were supposed to protect them; and we live in a world where children’s bodies are widely available for adult gratification, whether for viewing online or for physical encounters, often in other, much poorer, countries.
And the ‘pornographication’ of the young is rampant. We see this expressed so many ways: in the sexy clothes available to children; in the ways children internalise the gaze of others, leading them to experience dissatisfaction with their bodies and their appearance; in the eating disorders, anxiety and depression that have erupted even among the very young. Two thousand years since this story was first told, and we are all still feeding on our children.
We can wring our hands in despair, but we can also make choices. We can place our trust in kings and petty despots, in Prime Ministers and Presidents and the powers-that-be: the sort of people who make their daughters dance for their dinner guests or who stand them in virginal white on a prime ministerial platform; people who will deny even the youngest undocumented migrants the privileges of residency and who keep children in immigration detention camps. We can place our trust in the advertisers who tell us that our value is rooted in our physical appearance and our high status possessions, and who focus enormous efforts on our children. We can place our trust in politicians and newspaper magnates and earthly kings, and believe the lies they tell us, and keep our heads down, and maintain the status quo.
Or we can place our trust in the heavenly king and claim our prophetic voice. This king condemns the ways we use children for our own ends. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to stumble, it would better,” says he, “that a heavy millstone be tied around his neck and he be thrown into the sea.” Whoever teaches Herod’s daughter to use her gifts and her beauty for murder, it would be better for them that they be drowned. Whoever teaches a child to hate, whoever leads a child to stumble, whoever locks a child in detention, whoever abuses or exploits a child for their own gain: well, Jesus has some pretty hard words for them, and for us, and it is our job, as the church, to preach these words over and over again.
But even as we exercise our prophetic voice, we also proclaim the good news. And the good news is that we, too, are children, and we have been adopted as the children of the king. Unlike an earthly king, this king does not withhold his love until we comply. This king does not ask us to sing for our supper, or smile for the cameras, or keep our mouths shut. This king does not use us or abuse us, but longs to bind up our wounds.
This king does not ask us to endure the status quo. In fact, if the status quo is damaging people, and damaging children, then we might even be called to question it, since this king has redeemed us to the praise of his glory. And in return he seeks our praise that his glory be made manifest in the world, not in hollow words, but in lives overflowing with love and justice and mercy and peace, especially towards our children.
So which powers will you place our trust in? Which king will you serve? One who wields power like a weapon, and uses little ones to build his earthly kingdom? Or the One who gets down on his knees and washes your feet? The One who heals all wounds? The One who has adopted you into his family? The One who reaches out his hand and says, You are loved. Come and join me at the feast. Ω