Reflection: Is this the stupidest promise ever?

And Herod solemnly swore: "Whatever you ask me, I will give you – even half of my kingdom." (Mark 7:23)

History is littered with the wreckage of foolish promises.

In the United States, many reckon that George HW Bush's famous line when he was running for President – "read my lips: no new taxes" – was one of the most spectacularly breached political pledges ever. In the UK, plenty of campaigners are waiting to see if David Cameron's 2009 "no ifs, no buts" vow not to expand Heathrow Airport will be broken, especially given recent recommendations by experts that the site should have an extra runway.

And now – as we continue our fortnightly pilgrimage through Mark's Gospel – here's King Herod in Mark chapter 6, making a spectacularly stupid promise.

It's Herod's birthday (v21). Family members and local civic dignitaries are in attendance. Presumably the wine is flowing freely, and the King is no doubt the worse for wear. Moreover, he's been much impressed by his daughter's dancing. As she comes up to him to receive his acclaim, Herod, in an expansive moment of alcohol-fuelled generosity, and no doubt hoping to impress his guests, announces to her: "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." So delighted with his own largesse is he that he even repeats the vow a second time, albeit with the modest qualifying condition of only "up to half my kingdom".

At this point Herod's wife, who had a longstanding grudge against Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist, steps forward to prompt the girl: "Ask for the head of John," she says. Immediately, the grisly gift is procured and brought in on a plate, presumably to a mix of drunken cheers, revulsion and fear from the assembled company – and to Herod's personal consternation as he realises what he has done (v26).

This is more than simply an episode of gruesome martyrdom, though it certainly is that. It's a story of choices – and how the choices we make affect not only us but others also.

Choosing to hear the truth – and duck the consequences

Herod is a complex person. He recognises that John was "a righteous and holy man" and for that reason has afforded him a measure of protection from his wife up until this point (v20). When he hears John preach, we are told he is "greatly perplexed – and yet he liked to listen to him".

But Herod never responds to the gospel. His marriage is unlawful, yet he is apparently unwilling to show any repentance in response to John's rebuke. And thus is set in motion a train of events that will lead him to make a stupid promise in a moment of drunken folly.

Likewise, when we or others hear the gospel and fail to respond our hearts may gradually harden, with potentially catastrophic (indeed eternal) consequences. Is it possible you are someone needing to face up to the implications of a gospel message you may have heard many times, and yet so far yet failed to respond to?

Choosing to speak the truth – and face the consequences

John, by contrast, chooses to speak the truth, challenging Herod about his lifestyle. Speaking truth against either power or immorality is never easy. Addressing both of them together is potentially highly dangerous, and yet John has no fear in speaking out.

Whether it's voicing the truth in a work setting, speaking out against immorality and injustice in the public sphere, or simply living out our faith as a Christian, being prepared to take a stand may very likely cost us a lot. And yet as those who have chosen to follow Jesus and promised to obey him, we also know suffering, and even death, is not the final word.

So what choices will you make? And what promises will flow from them?

The Rough Guide to Discipleship is a fortnightly devotional series. David Baker is a former daily newspaper journalist now working as an Anglican minister in Sussex

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