What we do know about John the Baptist and Herod? Well, the Herod in this story is NOT the Herod in Matthew’s story of Jesus’s birth and immigration to Egypt. That one was Herod the Great, who was actually “King of the Jews.” This Herod is his son, Herod Antipas, and he ruled only 1/4th of what had been his father’s kingdom. He was a “tetrarch”, which literally means he ruled 1/4th of what would have been a kingdom if it was whole. He had other brothers who also had the first name Herod. Thus he was not a king, and it isn’t clear if Mark is unaware of that fact, or if he is rubbing it in with this story.
Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, who had been married off to Herod the II, son of Herod the Great, brother to Herod Antipas, and her half-uncle. Mark mis-states that her first husband had been Phillip, but got correct that it has been one of Herod Antipas’s brothers. Her second husband, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee was also her half uncle. Also her parents were cousins, but we’re now off topic. Both Herod Antipas and Herodias were each other’s second spouses, both of their first spouses were still alive and they’d each divorced them. The practicing Jews of the day would not have been chill about that. Herodias had a daughter from her first marriage, Salome. Mark also misnames her. To Salome, Herod Antipas would have been half-uncle, half-great uncle, cousin of some sort and stepfather. Observant Jews at the time would have found Salome and Herod Antipas’s familial ties too close for him to “appreciate her dance” quite so much. Of course, all of the marriages we have spoken about were intended for political gain.
Scholars are quite certain that Herod Antipas, the tetrarch whose area included Galilee had John the Baptist killed. John the Baptist had a ministry in Galilee, where he preached repentance of sins, and thus called people back to observant Judaism. Ched Myer’s in Binding Up the Strong Man points out that the story Mark tells about how John was killed was intended to teach important lessons about how the world works. Given the distance from the events, and how little Mark seems to know about the people involved, he took poetic license in telling a story that was true in essence, but not necessarily factual. The inaccurate names and roles seems to uphold this theory, Mark may not have known the right names, but it also seems like he doesn’t care that much. He’s telling a different kind of story than direct history.
Myers thinks that John the Baptist “here represents the view that to claim to rule over the Jewish people is legitimate only if Jewish law is recognized.”1 This is relevant not only because of divorce or incest, but also because “Herod Antipas, however, was a staunch Hellenist and was notorious among religious Jews for his contempt of their religious practices. Indeed, he built his capital city, Tiberias, on an ancient burial ground, rendering the city religiously unclean to observant Jews”.2So Herod Antipas was ruling over the Jews, but didn’t live according to Jewish laws, and John the Baptist was a reformer calling on the Jews to reclaim the depth of their faithfulness and laws.
The story says that Herod was having a party with his “courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee” (v. 21) for his birthday. Meyers says: “Mark accurately describes the inner circle of power as an incestuous relationship involving governmental, military, and commercial interests.” Yet among all these powerful men it is a dancing girl who determines the fate of the Baptist! At the center of the story is Herod’s ‘oath’ to Herodias’s daughter, stated twice for comic emphasis (6:22f.). This fiction is no more an attempt to excuse Herod from culpability in the death of John than is the fiction of Barabbas or the crowd’s demand an attempt to excuse Pilate from the death of Jesus. The dilemma created by the oath is a parody on the shameless methods of decision making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the ‘head’ (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath (6:24-28).
Mark’s account of the death of John is scarcely apolitical! A more sarcastic social caricature could not have been spun by the bitterest Galilean peasants.”3
So, Mark tells a story that clarifies how little the elite value the lives of the peasants, a story that the peasants already know based on every other part of their lives. Jesus told a lot of stories like that too, to clarify how things really worked and to make sure that the propaganda that said otherwise looked ridiculous. John the Baptist was killed by an order from Herod Antipas, likely because Herod thought he was either too popular or his message was too threatening. This story just takes it a little bit further, and makes parody, or maybe a parable, out of it.
Of course, this isn’t just a story of the Roman Empire in the first century though. John the Baptist was preaching repentance in the wilderness, he was calling on the people to recommit themselves to God, which meant recommitting themselves to God’s covenant. As was true of the prophets before him who has called for people to follow the covenant, he met resistance. The people in power don’t like God’s vision for how the world should be, because it involves shared power and equitable distribution of resources. God’s covenant doesn’t make space for consolidated power and wealth. Prophets get silenced or killed. This is a universal story.. Those who threaten the power structures take risks with their lives.
Mark’s version, which makes parody out of the choice to kill John, emphasizes the power differential and the lack of respect for human life that can happen at the top of the power pyramid. This isn’t a pleasant story. It isn’t uplifting. It doesn’t have a moral, or at least not one that you can feel good about. It serves to foreshadow Jesus’s death by reminding the audience of what happens when God’s dreams meet humans in power who have reason to maintain the status quo.
Sometimes these days I wish the Bible was an easier book, by which I mean a less honest one. I want the Bible I was taught about in Sunday School. From what I could figure then, that Bible was full of understandable stories of good people doing good things connected to the Holy One. I’m stuck with this really honest one that articulates the brokenness of humans, of families, of communities, and most especially of domination systems. The Bible we have doesn’t let me stick my head in the sand, sing Disney songs, and pretend everything is OK anymore than watching the news or talking with our breakfast guests does.
I have a long list of things I’m worried about in the country and the world (as well as the church) right now. I suspect you do too. I’m not going to name any part of that list today. Sometimes we need a rest, a respite, a chance to recover from the worries instead of just watching the piles grow larger. Recently, I’ve been feeling more and more moved to give us all that respite in worship. I hear the exhaustion among us, I hear the fears, I hear the sense of moral outrage, I hear sadness and anger, disbelief and grief.
I hear a yearning for good news, and within that a yearning for better news than that John the Baptist was killed because domination systems don’t like God’s prophets 😉
So, let’s look at the Psalm for a moment 😉 The lectionary had us skip the beginning of the Psalm, which could lead us to miss how relevant it is. The beginning of the Psalm reminds God of what God has previously done for the people, and then begins to BEG of God that the Divine step in again. Things are all going wrong, and the Psalmist requests forgiveness, restoration, salvation, revival, and love. Everything is wrong and the Psalmist wants God to intervene. I think I can resonate with that.
Then we get to the part we read out-loud today. The Psalmist asks for God’s words, particularly for words of blessing and hope: that “shalom” might be spoken to the people. “Shalom is the comprehensive concept of well-being, peace, and welfare which includes love, faithfulness, righteousness, prosperity, and glory.”4 – and it’s corporate. “’If there is to be well-being, it will not be just for isolated, insulated individuals; it is rather security and prosperity granted to a whole community – young and old, rich and poor, powerful and dependent. Always we are all in it together.’”5 The Psalmist asks God to speak shalom to the people.
The last stanza of the Psalm is presented as that speaking of shalom. “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.” (v. 10-11) I’m going to give you a two tiny parts of the nuance of “righteousness” because like “shalom” it has a community emphasis that I don’t think we’re used to hearing. Righteousness “denotes not so much the abstract idea of justice or virtue, as right standing and consequent right behaviour, within a community.”6 Put another way, “Righteousness is about our accepting and living into the mutual, vulnerable, and interdependent reality of all relationships. It is about accepting the fact that from this reality, this righteous relationship, the life of God is experienced.”7
So, steadfast love and being in right standing with each other will meet; and treating each other mutuality will kiss with communal holistic well being. Faithfulness will spring up out of the earth itself without effort, and interdependence will fall from the sky like a gentle rain. It is a beautiful vision!
The Psalm puts together four of the most common qualities of the Divine: steadfast love, faithfulness (which is related to truth), righteousness, and shalom. Interestingly, they are also qualities of people who are working together to build the kindom of God. It doesn’t work without steadfast love, without honesty with each other, without being in good relationship, without an awareness that none of us can be truly well unless all of us are well!
Said a whole lot less poetically, the kindom of God is build on loving relationships. Good loving relationships are good in and of themselves and are the building blocks of the kindom. I’m not talking only about romantic relationships nor familial ones, although those count! I mean that loving each other – including loving our enemies (even the WCA) – is the way we reflect God’s nature in the world and build the kindom of God.
The work of advocacy, protest, and resistance is mean to be built on love and built through loving relationships, too. That’s actually where the hope is! When we can love each other, and when we are able to allow God to help us expand our hearts to love and be in relationship with a wider circle of people, the kindom of God is build.
Right now, it feels like a lot of things are going backward, and we can’t control all of them. It is scary and sad and frustrating and terrible at times! BUT, the key to it all is love: love God, love ourselves, love each other, and let the love expand. The kindom is build on loving relationships, and those are life giving in every way. May we go, and love. Amen
1 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 1988, 2008), 216.
2 Robert A. Bryant, “Exegetical Perspective on Mark 6:14-29” in Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett editors of Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009), 239.
3 Myers, 216.
4 Marvin E Tate, Psalms 51-100 Volume 20; David A. Hubbard and Gleen W Barker, editors, World Bible Commentary series, (Zonderan, 1991), 372.
5 Tate quoting Walter Bruggemann from Living Towards a Vision: Biblical Reflections on Shalom, 1982.
6 N.T. Wright “Righteousness” from NTWrightPagehttp://ntwrightpage.com/2016/07/12/righteousness/ accessed on July 12, 2018.
7 Todd M. Donatelli “Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 85:8-13” in Barbara Brown Taylor and David Bartlett editors of Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 3 (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville Kentucky, 2009), 227