“And Along Came John”

Proper Eleven, Year B
Mark 6:14-29

This is an enormously complicated passage. I could spend all of my time this morning just listing the back story and never get around to the sermon itself. It is also a highly unusual passage, for two reasons. First because this is the rare story in the Gospels that has almost nothing to do with Jesus. He never shows up in the entire tale. At the very beginning he is mentioned once, when Herod thinks that Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the grave, and then the story goes off to tell about how it was that Herod came to kill John, and Jesus is never mentioned again. The second reason is that it is unrelentingly dark. There is no good news in this story. It starts off talking about death and then ends in death. It’s an awful story, and it’s strangely out of place. The whole story is a memory of something that had happened years earlier, and it is sandwiched in between two parts of another story that are, oddly, nothing but good news…but I’ll get to that in a moment.

I’ll try to go through the entire story, piece-by-bloody-piece, with enough back story that you know what is going on, but not so much that you doze off, and then I’ll TRY very hard at the end to bring all of this to a conclusion that feels at least a little bit like a real sermon. You let me know when I’m done if I succeeded in that.

So the first thing I need to say to you about all of this is about this guy, “King” Herod, who is at the center of the story. If most of us think of someone named “King Herod,” the first thing that comes to mind is the guy the three wise men went to visit, with the big star in the sky, who killed off all the little babies under the age of four to keep Jesus, “the king of the Jews” from growing up. Well, that guy is not this guy. That was this Herod’s father. Herod had four sons (from a variety of wives, which I won’t go into now) and at least one daughter (though historians are notoriously silent about daughters). When he died, Rome (which pretty much owned Israel back in those days) split up the “Kingdom” of Israel into four sections and placed each of King Herod’s sons over one of the sections (there seems also have been one section given to the daughter, but there is almost nothing written about her, so we can’t be certain). So, the man called “Herod” (sometimes Herod Antipas) in today’s passage was not a real King; he was a “Tetrarch,” a term that simply means someone who rules over a quarter of the land. And the land he got to rule over was “Galilee,” which most of us have heard of, and a place called “Perea,” which most of us have not.

Incidentally, though he was not really a King, he always wanted to be one and called himself king and tried to act like one. He had all of the pomp and vanity of a King without any of the power and influence or property. In fact, it may well be that the reason why Mark called him a King was out of irony, that he always called himself by that title, and Mark was maybe poking a little fun at him. More on that later.

However, even though he never quite made it to being a real King, he did come very close to being like his father in one way. He wanted to be just as much of a scumbag as his father had been and in that, by all accounts, he may have succeeded. So, to start with this morning, I’m going to share with you the four (and maybe five) biggest sins of “King-Wannabe Herod Antipas.”

Sin one: His first wife was named Phasaelis, and she was the daughter of King Aretas IV, of neighboring Nabatea.[1] He acquired her by cutting a deal with her daddy, King Aretas, to settle a border dispute. The deal was something like, “You give me your daughter and I’ll give you about three hundred miles of good farmland along our common border.”
Now, I know that was not unheard of in those days, but it has always seemed to me that if you are a king and you think that that is a good trade, then she has got to be a real prize or you have to be real, real ugly, but that’s just my opinion.) At the very least it shows that his heart wasn’t in his wife.

The second sin was a little more serious. It seems that one day this Herod was on his way to Rome for a meeting and he stopped off along the way to visit his brother, Philip and his wife, Herodias. Incidentally, Herodias was the real King Herod’s granddaughter, and was named after him, and if you think about it, that made her also Philip’s niece, which was not exactly illegal, but at least a little complicated. So, as it happened, while this Herod there, he and Herodias became (shall we say) “friends,” and she decided to accompany him on the long and boring buggy ride up to Rome. Probably just to keep him company, of course, because it was a long trip. But you know how things happen, and after about a month or so, they sort of stopped checking into the motels each night and asking for two rooms…if you know what I mean… And then after they finally got back home again, she filed for divorce and married Herod.

By the way, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Philip, was the poorest of all of King Herod the Great’s sons. He had been cut out of the will when his father died (long story for another time) and received the tiniest piece of the kingdom to rule over. It was kind of like son Herod Antipas received Wisconsin and son Philip got Rhode Island. So, when she met Herod, who actually ruled over the center of the old Kingdom, she jumped at the chance to move up in the world.

The only requirement that Herodias put on Herod was that he divorce his own wife, Phasaelis. However, when they got back to Jerusalem, they found out that when she had gotten wind of the scandal, she snuck out and ran back home to Nabatea, which meant that Herod married Herodias without being able to get a proper divorce first. So, in addition to being an adulterer, and a wife-stealer (is that a word?) Pasaelis’ action also made him also a bigamist. (That may be the only piece of justice in the whole story.)   

Now in addition to all of this being just a bit immoral, it was also patently illegal. Adultery, divorce, remarriage, and then bigamy, were all illegal in those days, and these two people hit the quadruple crown. But, as you know, Herod thought he was a king and kings can do anything, so he got away with it. They actually claimed that by virtue of their being employed by Rome (and Herod was educated in Rome), they, therefore, were Roman citizens (though it’s not clear historically that that was true), therefore they could play by Roman divorce laws. And by Roman law, you could do pretty much anything you wanted as long as it didn’t block trade routes or scare the horses…

By the way, their little sin also nearly lost him his entire country, because after Phasaelis’ father got wind that his daughter had been thrown under the bus (so to speak), he declared war on Perea, one of the two provinces that Herod ruled over. And Hot Shot Herod, who always thought he was a king, sent forces to the border to fight back but was vastly outnumbered (Aretas, was, after all, a real king and had a real army) and Herod’s forces got knocked on their pit-tooey.[2] Which means, more seriously, that his vanity and lack of sexual boundaries made him willing to risk and lose the lives of hundreds of innocent people so that he could have an affair, and break the rules, and show off how tough he was (or how tough he thought he was).[3] Pheme Perkins, who teaches New Testament up at Boston College, used to say that “Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority.”[4] And she’s right.

Sin number three. Herod Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had several massive building programs in his lifetime as ways of showing off his “greatness” to the power people back in Rome. Herod, the younger, who always wanted to be a king, tried the same thing. He built up, almost from scratch, two cities. One was Sepphorus, a major city that you’ve probably never heard of, that was just about four miles west of Nazareth (hometown of Jesus) and the other was on the Sea of Galilee. You can tell he built it in part to suck up to Rome, because he called it “Tiberias,” which was the name of the new Emperor. Think of them as vanity cities. Never mind that they both cost a gazillion dollars and that he broke the backs of the citizens of Israel, forcing them to build for him for near-starvation wages, or that he skimmed money off of the building appropriations to pad his own bank accounts, for him, all that was important was that he looked good to the important people back in Italy where his real audience was. He built and built and built, and at the end of decades, hundreds of local people had died in the projects and thousands impoverished, but Herod got his fancy new cities. Incidentally, in Tiberias, he had a terrible time even getting anyone to move there because he built it over a cemetery, and NO ONE wanted to move into a home over the bodies of their ancestors. So he had to populate the city with foreigners or pay lapsed, non-religious opportunistic Jews, willing to move there for a fee.[5] Tiberias, which we will see again in two weeks with the story of the feeding of the multitude in John 6, became the most hated place in all of Galilee after that.

So, sin number three, is massive, heartless vanity and greed.   

To get to sin number four, I’m going to have to step back and say a few words about John the Baptist. We all know who John is: Cousin of Jesus, born about the same time, mother was Elizabeth. He had his own ministry and followers, and Jesus may even have been in John’s community for a while. He was baptized by John and never started his own traveling itinerant ministry until after John was killed.

John’s ministry was seen by both the religious and political authorities as a major threat. To the Religious leaders, he offered a way into a relationship with God that bypassed the strict rules and regulations of the “Church” (I actually mean the Temple and Synagogue, but for our purposes, it functioned about the same back then as what we might think of as a “church” today). The Priests and Pharisees prescribed extremely stringent rules for worship that were so harsh that only a very small number of people could obey them sufficiently or even afford them. The “kosher” laws that Jews try to follow today are a distant descendent of those rules but are nowhere near as lengthy and cumbersome. The result was that people stayed out of “church” in droves. People would come to Jerusalem three or four times a year to one of the festivals, like Passover or Yom Kippor, but mainly to sell their crops in the market, and while there they might go and sacrifice a dove in the Temple, but that was about the extent of their religious involvement.

But along comes John, who stood out in the desert by the Jordan river and says, “what you believe and what orthodox rules you obey are not as important as your behavior and your relationship to the Kingdom of God. Just go into the water, wash away your old life and take on a new one and welcome into the kingdom.” That totally cut him off from the “church.” They hated him. For one thing that kind of teaching cut into the profits they made from selling the sacrifices. For another it threatened their leadership and authority. So, as important as he was as a religious leader at the time (and he is mentioned in some detail by the historians of his day), not one religious leader came to his defense when he was arrested.

He also angered Herod and his cronies by his dabbling in politics, both personal and public. For one thing, according to Luke, John was preaching that if anyone had too many clothes, they should give some of them away. And if they had too much money, they should give some of that away too. If they worked in the IRS, they shouldn’t gouge their customers; if they worked in National Defense, they shouldn’t take bribes. None of these things endeared him to people in authority. There is also some evidence that he got wind of Herod Antipas’ building-program money-skimming scam and threw that into his critique on occasion. So, imagine that you were Herod and you were trying to be the BMOC in Galilee and your people were restless and angry already, and here comes this odd prophet guy who holds mass rallies of thousands and thousands of poor people (many of them are poor because of you), and preaches sermons about how rich folk ought to give away their money and how you, Herod, shouldn’t have scammed that money from the poor schleps who you forced off of their farms to come build for you. What would you do?

What he did was to send out the National Guard one night and haul old John to jail.

To make matters worse, John had also been blathering, to anyone who could listen, about all of the unseemly details of the Herod/Herodias marriage scandal. And that shot down any chance he ever had of being Facebook friends with Herodias. In fact, she hated him, because it was undermining her own pyramid climbing by hanging out with Herod, the King Wannabe. She really hated him. She had wanted to send out a couple of goons of her own long before this to pick him up and give him the old concrete shoes routine in the bottom of the Jordan River.

Interestingly, the nrsv and most other translations say simply that she had a “grudge” against him. That’s relatively accurate, but the Greek word that they are translating there, enéchō, can also be translated “to be intertwined with.” Isn’t that interesting? Isn’t it true that sometimes you can hate someone so much that your very being becomes intertwined with the one that you hate? Your life begins to be determined by the life of the one you hate. You can’t let go of the person because you can’t let go of your hate. I think a little bit of that was what was going on with Herodias over John. Her hatred so possessed her that her life became intertwined with his in a demented, hurtful, murderous way.  

But before she got a chance to do something herself, husband Herod beat her to it. He put John in the basement dungeon of a palace out in Machaerus, up in the northeast part of Galilee and Perea. Verse 20 says that by keeping John in jail, Herod was “protecting him.” It’s an odd word to use here because it doesn’t say who he was protecting John from, but I don’t think it’s wildly off the mark to say that it might have been Herodias.

As it turns out, though, that wasn’t the end of the story. Actually, in spite of John’s sharp tongue, Herod seemed to actually like him. He liked the way that John talked about religion and theology and politics. So, every now and then, late at night, Mark says that Herod would sneak down to the dungeon when the wife and kids were getting ready to turn in and were watching “dancing with the Stars,” and the two of them would have these long talks. Mark says that Herod couldn’t always understand what John was talking about—it was a little over his head—but he was still fascinated by it all and enjoyed their little chats.

Herodias, on the other hand, still hated John and just bided her time waiting for when she could finally get to him.

One day—nobody knows for certain how many months or years later—Herod held a big party, interestingly, up in Machaerus, for the mayors, governors and military brass of Galilee. Mark called it a “Birthday Party,” but Jews didn’t have birthday parties in those days, so, given the guest list, it was most likely a big feast to buy favors with all of the other dignitaries in his realm. It went on for days with truckloads of wine and food. Finally after several days of this, the drunken men said to him, “You got any entertainment up here, or just more liquor?” So, Herod sent out and asked Herodias’ daughter, Salome, to come in and dance for them. I don’t know if I’m now on sin four or five, but any way you look at it, this has got to be a sin too. Salome was about twelve or thirteen at the time, and her step-father was asking her to come in and do the nearly-nude “Seven Veils” thing for a bunch of depraved, drunken politicians. I don’t know what she did for them or what they did to her afterwards (and I don’t really want to know), but at the end of it all, Mark says that Herod and the men had been “pleasured” (aréskō) by her performance. That’s not a term usually reserved for just complimenting the ice scream. In fact he was so pleased that he offered her up to half of his kingdom as a reward. Of course that was a stupid offer by any standard, but he was drunk, so what would you expect?

Now, Salome didn’t have a clue about what to ask for—she was just a kid—so she ran next door to where her mother had been waiting for her and said, “my step-daddy just offered me anything I wanted up to half of his kingdom. What should I ask for?” And her mother, who had been waiting patiently for months now to avenge the person who she hated so much that her entire life had been intertwined in the hatred, said, “I have just the thing. Go tell your step-father to give you the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

(Incidentally, have you ever wondered where the expression, “to have your head handed to you on a platter” came from? This is it. It came from this story. )

So, that’s the end of the story. Herod sent a guard out to John, the guard cut off John’s head and brought it back to the girl, who gave it to her mother. She was pleased because she finally got her way; Herod was grieved because he wasn’t strong enough to go back on his stupid pledge and save the life of his friend; and John the Baptist was dead. 

So, what’s the moral of this story? Well, it’s not much because this is one of the most unrelentingly dark and evil stories of the New Testament. Almost totally bereft of good news.

However, there is one thing. It’s small, and it’s subtle, but I think it’s important and I want to share it.

Remember what I said at the beginning about this story being sandwiched in between the pieces of another story? Just before this one Jesus sends out the twelve Apostles on a teaching/preaching mission. And after it the Apostles come back and tell wonderful stories about how well it went. But in between that is this dark and grizzly murder of John.

Ever wonder why that is? Have you ever wondered why this sweet story of a successful preaching mission that ended nicely is interrupted by a story of a very unsuccessful preaching mission that ended very, very badly? Maybe that is it. Many Bible scholars believe that this was just the point: that Mark wanted his readers, who were going through uncertain times and trials, to know that both can happen. Sometimes you will be called by God to proclaim the good news of love and acceptance, you will be called to challenge our nation’s leaders and stand up for the weak and the powerless, and it will all go well. Sometimes the people will change, the leaders will repent and the Kingdom of God will be moved one inch closer. But then on other occasions, you will be called to do exactly the same thing to the same people, and for the same people and you’ll have your head handed to you on a platter.

I think that that is the message that Mark wants us to hear. Sometimes the call to mission and teaching and justice is a success and sometimes it is not. Sometimes you will prevail and good will happen, and sometimes you will fail and stumble back. That’s the way life is. Sometimes the magic works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think that Mark intentionally jammed these two very deeply contrasting stories together on purpose to say that failure is just as much a part of life as success is. Take it in stride. We are called by God to be faithful to the very, very end. We are not called to be successful. Sometimes we will be and sometimes we will not, but in the end, never give up. Never give up. Never give up.


[1] More commonly known today by historians as “Arabia,” but “Nabetea” by the Jews, Greeks and Romans of the time.
[2] “Pit-tooey,” from petomai/πέτομαι, v. masc. passive participle, genitive, sing. 1) To fly, or flying, as in spit flung from mouth, “Ach, pit-tooey.” 2) lower part of human back anatomy from which waste might “fly” when running too hard without taking precautions. (See Rev 12:14; Rev 14:6; Rev 19:17). Frequently used as pejorative for something one falls on in a failed attempt to overpower one’s ex-wife’s father.
Actually, the emperor of Rome had to send in troops to bail Herod Antipas out, but before they could engage in battle the Emperor passed away and the general in command pulled back to wait for instructions from the next Emperor, who then called the whole war off. Aretas won.
[3] K.C. Hanson and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the time of Jesus (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress, 1998), p. 45.
[4] Pheme Perkins, Mark, New Interpreter's Bible, p. 599.
[5] Jonathan Reid, “Excavating Jesus,” in Religion Today: www.bibleinterp.com/articles/excavating_Jesus.shtml (accessed 2012).