Unintended consequences

Genesis 18:23-33
Acts 9:1-9
Mark 6:17-29

Members of the church ladies sewing circle some years ago were disturbed because a widowed church member and her three small daughters were staying away from services. Finding the reason to be a lack of suitable clothes, the ladies’ group corrected the situation in a generous manner. When the little girls still failed to appear at Sunday School, some of the ladies called to enquire about their absence. The mother thanked them sweetly for the clothing and explained, “the girls looked so nice, I sent them to the Baptist church!”

Today we’re thing about unintended consequences, and not being afraid to change your mind and risk losing face. We have three very different stories from the Bible all about this.

The first was from Mark’s gospel. There’s nothing like a bit of blood and gore to get you ready for Sunday lunch, and we have those in abundance in this story of the beheading of John the Baptist. You can see where Shakespeare got some of his ideas from – women plotting, bloody deaths, and men feeling guilty just about sums up Macbeth.

So, today, we have this story of the beheading of John the Baptist. It’s an all too human story, a story we can identify with on so many levels. A man whose eye was caught by a pretty woman, people getting drunk at a party and going too far, people making promises to impress and then regretting it. Greed and lust.

One of the less offensive things King Herod Antipas did was to run away with his brother’s wife. I won’t go into some of his more offensive things this close to lunch. It was this mix of adultery and incest that led John the Baptist to give Herod a hard time. Naturally Herodias, Herod’s new wife, was not a big fan, and she wanted to be rid of John the Baptist. But Herod, having at least a tiny bit of political nous, knew it would not be a vote winner. So he just kept the Baptist stewing in prison. Then Herod held a birthday party. He had to throw it himself, presumably because there was no one else who wanted to throw it for him, and one of the guests was Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage. So she was Herod’s step-daughter and his niece at the same time – not as uncommon today as we might think.

As it turned out, Salome, we know her name from the historian Josephus, was a fantastic dancer. Herod, rather drunk on the birthday booze, was so taken by her dancing that he offered her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. Since she already had every¬thing she wanted, she asked her mother what she thought. And Mother suggested the head of John the Baptist. Salome went back and told Herod, adding for good measure, and for memor¬able effect, that she would like it served on a plate. The Gospel tells us that a soldier did the deed, handed her the plate, and that she passed it on pretty fast to her mother, and it’s not hard to see why. And at that point Salome disappears from the record. We can only hope that she thought twice about taking her mother’s advice in future, and that she learned that even when you have cut the head off a prophet, that doesn’t mean you’ll never hear of him again.

It’s the not the sort of thing any of us would want to happen to our daughters, and Herodias would never have won Mother of the Year award. She used her daughter and got her mixed up in the most horrible and grisly vendetta. It’s a nasty story. But of course, the story has got worse as it has been retold, and retold it has been many, many times. In the Gospel account, Salome is an abused innocent. There is nothing in the text that tells us directly that her dance was deliberately provocative and we can see that it’s her mother who is the driv¬ing force. But as the story got retold down the years, poor Salome changes into a terrible femme fatale. By the Middle Ages, Salome had been turned into an erotic dancer. I’m told that you can find her on the doors of a church in Verona, her dancing body in a sinuous line, almost like a snake. And I’m also told that she is over the door of the great cathedral in Rouen, where the artist imagines her dancing on her hands and so inviting men’s looks. But Salome really came into the public gaze at the turn of the nineteenth century, where she cropped up almost everywhere. A play by Oscar Wilde, a novella by Flaubert, an opera all of her own by Strauss, and even a painting by Klimt. There she is, and becoming more and more sinister. Salome comes to be immoral, dangerous and anti-religion. Oscar Wilde even has it that she was only out for revenge because John the Baptist spurned her approaches.

In Mark’s Gospel she is just a girl, the apple of Herod’s eye. Let us not be misled by the evolution of the story down the years into concentrating on Salome, who is really the most innocent of all the players in this drama. What I want to suggest to you about this story is that it’s about a man who is afraid to change his mind for fear of losing face, and then finds all manner of unintended consequences to his ill thought out actions.

Our other readings can also shed some light on this all too human predicament. In our reading from Acts, we heard of Saul, who was the chief persecutor of Christians, and he was on the road Damascus when he encountered a blinding light and a voice which forced him to dramatically change his mind. Saul had been the most assiduous of Jews, and the deepest persecutor of Christians, and here he finds himself forced, in a dramatic turn of events, to change his mind completely, and begin a whole new way of being. As we learn from Mark’s gospel of how everything can go wrong if we fail to change our minds, this story surely tells us that we need never think ourselves too important to change our minds, whatever the consequences.

Our reading from Genesis took a rather different spin on things – what I want to draw your attention to is that it seems that Abraham has drawn God’s attention to an unintended consequence of God’s proposed action, and God changes his mind. God plans to destroy the city, and Abraham points out that god might unintentionally kill fifty good people, so God changes his mind and says he won’t destroy the city of there are fifty good people. The Abraham points out there might be only forty good people, and God agrees to forty. The conversation repeats itself until Abraham gets to ten good people. This passage, I suggest, tells us that even God is not above seeing unintended consequences and risking losing face.

What of the world around us? As a modern day Greek tragedy unfolds around us, we might ponder whether it is all an unintended consequence of a single currency, but countries pursuing different monetary policies, and we might be left wondering if both sides in the negotiations are too frightened to lose face?

When we look at what goes on in Syria and Iraq, under the name of Islamic State, we have only to look back over western nations intervention in that area over the last century, especially in the last fifteen years, and we might see some unintended consequences.

When we look at Israel and Palestine, unintended consequences abound on all sides, and our country’s actions under the co-called “British mandate” again leave other people bearing scars. And now, how will two irreconcilable sides ever admit anything is their fault, with the loss of face that will entail.

We cannot solve all these world problems, and they are not our personal fault. But how we respond to situations where we face unintended consequences, how we respond to consequences we never expected, and whether we are brave enough to admit when things have gone wrong and we need to change our minds, even if we lose face, does matter. And how we model this in our own lives matters, because person-by-person change is how we build the kingdom of God here on earth. We do not do this alone, but in the strength of the risen Christ, whose Spirit is at work in us.

Let us prayer for God’s strength to help us, as we remain seated to sing hymn 493, after which we’ll pause for a time of silence for reflection, Dear Master, in whose life I see all that I would but fail to be.

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