King Herod heard of it [that is, the recent adventures of Jesus’ disciples, whom Jesus had sent out two by two to heal the sick and cast out demons], for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old."
But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom."
She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Today we hear of the events around the death of John the Baptist, according to Mark’s gospel. It is an uncharacteristic interruption in the gospel. Whereas Mark is typically interested in quickly jumping from one Jesus story to another, this story does not even include Jesus directly. The fact that this story is so unlike the rest of the gospel is our first clue to really pay attention. It is so unlike the rest of the gospel because it is laying out the counter-narrative to the good news of Jesus Christ. Today’s gospel text is a narrative warning depicting the dangers of seeking power in the wrong places.
First, let’s be clear about the title of “King” that is assigned to Herod in this story. The Herod mentioned here is not Herod the Great – the one who sought kill the infant Jesus by slaughtering the babies in the region around Bethlehem and forcing Mary, Joseph and Jesus to seek asylum in Egypt. That Herod is long gone. The Herod whom Mark mentions is Herod Antipas, the son of the Herod the Great; and Herod Antipas was not a King. He was more like a regional governor. The title “King” is most likely a tongue-in-cheek title meant to mock Herod; just as the title “Great” was a mocking title for his evil and destructive father. Far from a tidbit of knowledge useful only to history buffs, pastors, or trivia nerds; this fact is our second clue that Mark is up to something in this passage. Essentially, this is a work of political satire. It is revealing a universal truth by making a mockery of a well-known leader and system.
This counter-narrative to the good news about a man-child who wanted desperately to be powerful reveals that Herod made a drunken promise to his daughter in front of his cronies; his daughter was manipulated by his wife (actually his brother’s wife, but that’s a whole ‘nother story); and he ended up having to save face in front of his people by agreeing to his daughter’s demand of John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Following John’s gruesome beheading, Herod heard accounts of Jesus of Nazareth and was afraid that Jesus was the ghost of John the Baptist, back to haunt him into insanity. Herod was a man haunted by his mistakes who clung to an abusive relationship with power in order to numb himself from his own pain.
A story with severed heads and leaders looking over their shoulders afraid of the ghosts of their past victims is analogous to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and seems fit for the TV show Game of Thrones. It makes for an entertaining show but the question remains…so what? What possible meaning does such a story have for our own lives today?
The truth, sorry to say, is that our world is infested with people like “King” Herod — people who lord their power over others and perpetuate injustice because the disfigured desire for power fills them with something them that is lacking inside. Having power over another individual or group of people helps them forget about being picked on as a kid or for not feeling loved by their mother or father, just to name a few common motivations.
And once someone has a taste of power, they rarely pause and think, “You know, this power doesn’t actually fill that void in my soul.” Or, maybe this person deserves respect precisely because they are different from me.
Instead they seek out more power, assuming that the next bended knee, the next heap of praise, or the next nod of agreement will finally stop the pain of not being enough. They are blind to the needs of others in the same way that they are blind to their own needs. Such people can electrify huge crowds of people who feel a similar sense of dissatisfaction with life. A common enemy is labeled, dehumanized, taunted, and targeted. Such people know exactly who their enemies are – their enemies are anyone who doesn’t serve their own interests. Their enemies are anyone who dares to stand up and proclaim that there is another way. Their enemies are anyone who says the problem isn’t with those who are labeled as other, but rather a problem with the leader’s soul.
Mark dedicates considerable space in his story to depict a weak man who chased the whims of others and perpetuated injustice in an effort to hold onto his sense of power. That depiction makes me think of someone in particular: Me.
In my most unhealthy moments, I feel like the only way to ever be worthy enough, powerful enough, and loved enough, and the only way to fill the void in my soul, is by putting myself over and above those who are different from me.
I often speak to my therapist about all the things and people I use to fill the void in my life...and you are one of them, truth be told. I seek your affirmation in order to feel loved. I seek your praise in order to give my life meaning.
That’s terribly unhealthy. It puts you in an awful predicament of being responsible for my emotional well-being. It puts my needs above yours. And it puts you in a position that is only meant to be filled by the God of peace and love – a title that does not belong to you.
I am sorry. I am sorry for my “King” Herod-ness. I am sorry for putting you in a tough spot. And I am sorry that I so easily participate in a world that regularly tosses aside people who do not seem to serve our immediate needs.
This is not the good news, of course. As I said earlier, Mark tells the story of King Herod in order to highlight just how different John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth really were. And once I am able to see myself in the antagonist of the story and recognize just how dark and misleading that path is, only then my heart is open to the truth of the prophets as revealed by Jesus and John the Baptist.
Who were Jesus and John the Baptist? They were the ones who stood up and spoke about a better way. They were the ones who stood up in the best prophetic tradition and said, “Woe to you, oppressors of the poor and marginalized who seek to fill the void in your soul with violence instead of God’s love. Not only does your way create misery and destruction in others’ lives, but it is destroying your soul also. Repent from those ways and seek the love you desire solely from God’s presence, which has been a part of your soul from the very beginning.”
I came across the following words this week and found a beauty and necessity in them that I have to share with you. Rev. David Lose writes,
“We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus came to make possible for us more than mere survival, more than mere persistence, more even than mere success. Jesus came to help us to imagine that there is more to this life than we can perceive. Jesus came to offer us not just more life, but abundant life. Jesus came so that there could be a better ending to our stories and the story of the world than we can imagine or construct on our own. And when the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending, or you've lost your job, or you fear your child will never speak to you again, or you're pretty sure your friend has betrayed you, or you think you may just have screwed up the one relationship that meant something to you...then the possibility of another ending -- a good ending -- is, indeed, not just good news, but the best news you can imagine.” (http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1621)
Thanks be to God, today and always, for the unmerited gift of true grace, love, and truth. May our eyes be opened to the darkness of our paths and may we be inspired and equipped to seek fulfillment in Christ alone. And may we all be encouraged to be a part of a better story for all people.