Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
If you stand with your back to the famous Trevi fountain and toss a coin over your left shoulder you are guaranteed a return trip to Rome. Or so, it is said. Thousands make their wish, and cast their coins every day. It takes an hour each day just to sweep them all up. I’m told $15,000 a week, or almost $1 million a year, is collected and distributed to the poor this way. Interestingly, Chicago’s Buckingham Fountain, one of the biggest in the world, makes only about $200 a year. I remember giving coins to my kids to make a wish. All the coins in all the fountains of the world now glisten with a hoped-for wish.
“What should I ask for?” was the question Salome put to her mother, Herodias after her seductive dance won so much drunken admiration from her father, the king, he promised her anything –whatever she asked for—even half his kingdom! (Mark 6:23).
What would you ask for? If someone very rich and powerful promised to grant whatever you wanted? An invitation to Herod’s place was what many aspiring people in Jesus’ time wished for. His palace, next to the Sea of Galilee, rivalled any in the Roman Empire. He demanded the best of everything. Extravagant appointments, exotic entertainment, incredible food, wine, and all the best sort of people.
Herod’s impulsive grandiosity was exceeded only by the murderous treachery of his wife, Herodias, who saw in her daughter’s question an opportunity to end her quarrel with John the Baptist. What should she ask for? John’s head. Which the young girl did—adding her own sordid twist to the tale by requesting that it be brought to her on a platter.
What would I wish for? It’s hard to say. Imagine if the very same invitation came from God. Does that change your answer? Amazingly in scripture, we hear over and over again that God does. Jesus said, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15.7). And again, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11.24). In the parable of the Prodigal Son, God reveals their own grandiose and reckless character—just like King Herod—is directed exactly opposite from Herod, toward loving all people as their own beloved children. God watches and waits for us to return from our wandering ways with a constant vigilance born of both hope and grief.
It is ironic and fateful that bad king Herod was a direct consequence of the people’s own answer to the question of what to ask God for –from a thousand years before. In the days of the prophet Samuel, “…all the elders of Israel gathered together and asked the prophet Samuel to appoint for them a king. They wanted what all the other nations had. They wanted an earthly king, a standing army, a fortified city, and all the other accompanying signs of their growing power and prestige. In other words, be careful what you wish for.
The all-too-familiar story of death and the exercise of capricious, immature, unilateral power is our gospel today. The execution of John the baptizer, opens a window through which to glimpse the stark contrast between the gospel of Christ and the ways of power that operate in the world. Mark insists that we see this. Mark’s gospel intertwines the story of John and Jesus almost from the very beginning. All the way back in chapter one, Mark told us it was “…after John was arrested, [that] Jesus came to Galilee, [following his baptism by John] proclaiming the good news of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near!” (Mark 1:14).
What should you ask for, wish for, strive for, pray for? The answer to life’s riddle is the secret message of Christ’s gospel hidden in plain sight: live and love as Jesus did. To open the path to your heart’s deepest desire do as Jesus does for Christ to live in you, and for your heart and mind to be changed so that things like infinity, mystery, and forgiveness can resound within you. Our small minds cannot see Great Things because the two are on two different frequencies or channels, as it were. “The Big Mind can know big things, but we must change channels. Like will know like” (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations, A Tree of Life, 7/11/21).
King Herod heard something like this from John the Baptist. It perplexed and fascinated him to hear the truth about his life from the voice of a wild and wooly man whom he had imprisoned from the deep desert rather than from the corridors of power. God’s saving Word rang in his ears and sang to his heart, but he couldn’t “go there.” Herod never crossed over from spectatorship to discipleship.
How often do we fall into the same trap that Herod did? How different would the story be if Herod passed this test? But he doesn’t. He fails. When push comes to shove, his casual fascination with the truth isn’t enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer” (Debi Thomas, Greatly Perplexed, Journey with Jesus, 7/04/21).
Bad King Herod’s extraordinary banquet for the rich and powerful became an occasion for bitterness and betrayal. It exposed his foolishness, his precarious grip on power and lack of control. By contrast, in the passage immediately following our gospel today, Jesus bid people from everywhere to sit on the grass and provided them a feast of abundance for 5,000 men and their families from five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus’ outdoor potluck picnic became an occasion for generosity and joy. It revealed the wisdom of Christ’s gospel and the power of grace to unlock human hearts.
The Lord said to the prophet Amos, “See I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel.” (Amos 7:7b). The gospel of Christ is such a plumb line against which to measure the thru line of our dreams. The plumb line of Christ’s gospel helps us to see the difference between Herod and John is the difference between success as the world measures it, and lasting significance. Let all the coins at the bottom of every fountain proclaim: the things worth wishing for, the things that last, the things that make our life’s striving shine in glory accrue to us as we strive for a better world and love one another. What should I ask for? Who can ask for anything more than this – to love one another as God has loved us? To love and be loved in return? Then justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).