One of the challenges of being a priest in the Episcopal Church (and being clergy in the Roman Catholic and Lutheran traditions as well) is that we follow a very systematic way of reading the Scriptures in our worship. Between the three-year lectionary cycle we hear read on Sundays and the two-year daily office readings, one can encounter about 90% of the Bible within this three-year period. It surprises many of my more Protestant friends that the Catholics, Episcopalians and Lutherans actually encounter more Scripture on a Sunday morning than more evangelical Christian denominations.
This lectionary does bring a challenge to the preacher because it means we must confront and preach on difficult texts – like the execution of John the Baptist. Wise clergy, I suppose, choose their vacation times to be away this Sunday – and yes, there is a temptation to plan one’s absence from the pulpit around these sorts of readings (note to self for next summer …). And while Luther admonishes good preachers to squeeze every passage of Scripture until you can find the good news in it … well, it just doesn’t work today, does it? Today’s story is one of abusive power, corruption, intrigue, incest, death over dishonor, protecting the status quo – the sort of thing that would make the Desperate Housewives, Snooky and the Jersey Shore gang, and Tony Soprano blush! And, with the exception to Herod’s wondering whether Jesus is John the Baptizer resurrected, Jesus isn’t mentioned in this story at all. So why does Mark put this story right here in his narrative? And why, for a gospel known for being sparse on details, does Mark go into such gory detail in telling about John’s death?
This passage opens with King Herod (this would be Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great) hearing about healings and demons being cast out by Jesus’ disciples. There is a buzz about the identity of Jesus – “He’s John the Baptizer raised from the dead,” or “He’s Elijah,” or “one of the prophets of old” (the same buzz will appear later in our Gospel readings when Jesus asks the disciples who they think he really is). But Herod believes it is John the Baptizer, whom he beheaded, raised from the dead. Mark then tells the story of John’s execution in retrospective – the only time in his gospel when he uses the literary device of retrospection. When an author does something out of their literary character, we need to pay attention.
Mark begins the story of John being arrested on the count of Herodias, Herod’s wife who had been married to Herod’s brother Philip. Let's hold a moment there as you need to know a bit about the intrigue of the Herod family - a family who make the Borgias look like rank amateurs. The first Herod we encounter in scripture is Herod the Great – this is the King Herod of the birth narratives of Jesus. Herod the Great had nine sons total; however, he ordered three of them executed because of threats to his power. This left six sons to potentially inherit his kingdom upon his death. There had been a change of wills at the last minute naming Herod Antipas as successor and the sons all ended up going to Rome to plead the case of the inheritance of titles and land. During this trip, Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias who was the wife of his brother Philip. Philip was a mere Tetrarch who really was a third rank power, so Herodias divorced Philip in order to “marry up” to a better station by being the King’s wife rather than a Tetrarch’s wife. While wives divorcing husbands was perfectly legal in Roman law, it was not legal in Jewish law (of course, husbands could divorce wives under either system … yes, double-standard, but that’s the way things worked). Herodias, under Jewish law, was still married to Philip and her marriage to Herod was not lawful – and puts Herodias in a very precarious position. She could not return to Philip if Herod turned her out of the house. It also put in question the right of her children to inherit. I suppose you could say Herodias was one of the original Desperate Housewives! Now let’s add one more layer of intrigue, Herodias bore the feminized name of Herod for a reason: she was the granddaughter of Herod the Great and Marianme I thus she is Herod Antipas’ niece – a blood relation.
So now we get a glimpse into the grudge Herodias has against John who is repeatedly pointing out to her husband that her marriage is not lawful. It would be easy at this point to paint Herodias as the evil nemesis of John; however, I’d invite you to consider well how she saw John as a threat to her family – to her children’s rights of inheritance, to her security as a king’s wife. Rather than paint her in a one-dimensional villainous way, consider to what degree each of us would fight to protect our family’s security and reputation. We hear, however, that King Herod protected John out of fear because he knew John was a holy and righteous man even though his teachings perplexed Herod.
However, no amount of fear on Herod’s part could protect John once personal honor was on the line and an opportunity presented itself. Mark tells us that Herod had a birthday party – this would be where we queue Snooky and the Jersey Shore gang as well as the Kardashian sisters to show up (after all, the love a good party don’t they??). Royal birthday parties are a chance to see and be seen by the who’s who of Jerusalem. A king like Herod would invite all the A-listers to show up for this soiree. As the food and wine flowed freely, the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod and his guests. King Herod was so pleased, and I’m sure he was a bit in his cups, that he made a public oath in front of his guests: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it … even half of my kingdom!” The daughter runs outside the banquet hall and asks her mother what she should ask for. Herodias seizes upon the opportunity to eliminate her nemesis: “Ask for the head of John the baptizer.” The daughter then rushes back in, this time with Tony Soprano in tow, and in front of the very guests who heard Herod’s original oath, she makes her request: “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” (Doesn’t that silver platter thing sound like a Tony Soprano move?). Herod was “deeply grieved” – this word for “deeply grieved” in the Greek text only appears here and when Mark describes Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yet deep grief and fear are not as important as protecting one’s personal honor and Herod will not go back on his word and shame himself and his family in front of all these important guests. John is beheaded, his head given to the girl on a silver platter, and she then presents this gruesome gift to her mother. John’s immediate threat to the Herod family is neutralized.
While cutting off people’s heads in a literal way may not be how our modern Herod types operate, the sacrificing of reputations and livelihoods of people happens all the time. We’ve all heard the metaphor of being “thrown under the bus,” haven’t we? This is when someone or some group destroys another person or group in order to protect their situation. Look at how that plays out in our world today. Remember how Richard Armitage, Scooter Libby and Robert Novak revealed CIA operative Valerie Plame’s identity because her husband Joe Wilson had criticized the Bush administration? Or how about Director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover was doing everything he could to discredit Dr. Martin Luther King and destroy his personal reputation and discredit the civil rights movement prior to his assassination? Or how about all the people whose livelihoods were destroyed when they were blacklisted and labeled as Communists by Senator Joseph McCarthy? Yes, indeed, Herod is alive and well.
But where is the gospel in this? Well … it is not here … at least not in this short piece of our lectionary reading. This detailed story of John being thrown under the bus is our story – it is the story of what is and what the powers of this world are capable of doing to us. Mark intentionally sets this story after Jesus being rejected in the synagogue for a reason: we cannot lull ourselves into a false belief that following Christ will somehow make our lives easy. Following Christ means following the Way, the Truth, and the Life – and that means we will at some point find ourselves being thrown under the bus for speaking truth that powerful people just don’t want to hear. The placement of this story right after Jesus’ rejection in his hometown marks the end of innocence for Jesus and the disciples … and for us too.
The good news, and there is good news, is this is not the end of the story. We have a whole lot more ahead of us in Mark, including another gruesome death and burial in a tomb, but one which will be followed by an empty tomb and the proclamation of the resurrection of Christ. This is our hope in a world full of Herods and Herodiases, in a world where people who speak truth to power get thrown under the bus. The cross and the empty tomb proclaim that death, in whatever form we encounter it, will not have the last word. God will have the last word – and that word is one which gives life and gives it abundantly. This is our hope and promise. Thanks be to God.