Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
The story of the execution of John the Baptist has every ingredient needed to land it on the front cover of the supermarket tabloids: a controversial religious figure, political violence and intrigue, an illicit relationship, and hints that between a lot of wine and the arrival of a seductive dancing girl a royal birthday party got so out of control that it ended in a bloody execution. Strong stuff for a warm July evening…
As Mark presents this story, it seems at first to come out of nowhere; almost like an interesting sidebar to fill in some historical details as to what happened to John the Baptist, but not centrally important to the gospel narrative. Maybe you came to church today, assuming you’d hear a lovely parable or some edifying good news, and are now wondering “so, where did this one come from?” But Mark hasn’t just randomly pasted the story in here; not at all. Just prior to this account, Jesus has sent out the twelve disciples in pairs on a kind of mission trip in his name. It is while the twelve are on their trip that Mark tells the story of the execution of John, and the effect is to say, “this is what it can look like when you speak truth to power.” Mark tell us that Peter, James, John and the others are preaching a message of repentance—which means literally to “turn around one’s mind”—and such a message is not particularly welcomed by those who have deep investments in the way things currently are. Their message might be wildly good news for people who recognize their needs and hungers, but not so much for the Herods of the world who are confidently and ruthlessly charting their own success.
Herod, you see, had decided he needed to silence the Baptist, who was the loudest and clearest voice crying for repentance. He’d sent his soldiers out to arrest John and toss him in the royal prison, because John had been unrelenting in telling the truth about the source of Herod’s power. As Mark tells the story, Herod “put [the Baptist] 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.’” The issue is not simply that Herod had married his sister-in-law while his brother was still alive, but that it was all part of his attempt to solidify his political clout. On paper, Herod was the king of the Jews, but for the most part it was a paper fiction. The Romans were in charge, and it served their purposes to have a puppet king on the throne. This puppet king—like his father before him—had grand designs to build a temple to rival that of King Solomon, and so to be recognized as the anointed, promised, and true king of the Jews. And he would do what it took to attain that status, including marrying his sister-in-law.
Apparently this sister-in-law and now wife, Herodias, was equally ambitious. Herodias, Mark tells us, “had a grudge against [John], and wanted to kill him.” That’s the risk of speaking out against tyrants, of daring to call those in power to account; that you will court the fierce opposition of those you dare to criticize. Yet she couldn’t have him killed, as Herod evidently “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” He kept him locked up out of sight in the prison, where his irritating condemnations of the illicit royal marriage were muted. And yet Herod didn’t just fear John, but seems to have also been intrigued by him. “When he heard [John], he was greatly perplexed,” Mark writes, “and yet he liked to listen to him.” Herod liked to listen to him, and so you wonder if he’d have him hauled into the royal court to perform his prophetic rants. Or did the king slip down to John’s cell, to see if maybe this time the prophet’s strong words might move him in some new say? Whatever the case, Herod’s investment in keeping John alive trumped his wife’s desire to see the man dead.
“But [her] opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.” You heard how it played out from there… Herod’s daughter dances for Herod and his guests, and she’s apparently such a hit that he makes one of those rash promises that only someone able to arbitrarily wield power can make: “‘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.’”
It is often assumed that this dance was sexually charged; the “dance of the seven veils” as it was described in later elaborations on the scene. Yet as the biblical scholar Emerson Powery observes, Marks description of the event is very plain, saying only that, “she came in and danced, (and) she pleased Herod and his guests.” The Greek word Mark uses to describe her is korasion (6:22), which literally means “little girl.” The only other time the word is used by Mark is for the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, who Jesus raises from death in chapter 5. Then there is the observation of Dennis Nineham, who says that from a historical perspective it is not particularly credible to imagine a king’s daughter sexually demeaning herself for a group of men. It is entirely possible, in other words, that this was not a super-charged erotic performance by Herod’s teenaged step-daughter, but instead something more like a child’s innocent dance performance for her father and his friends.
We’ll never know for sure, of course, though the girl does immediately run to her mother to get her advice as to what she should ask for, which seems in keeping with this picture of her being a younger child. Regardless of her age and of the nature of the dance, this gives Herodias her opportunity: “Ask for the head of John the baptizer.” Though it grieves him to have John executed, Herod complies—“out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her”—and it is done.
Herodias might come across as being ruthless, almost a “femme fatale” who will use the success of her daughter’s dancing—whether it was childlike and innocent or seductive and sexually charged—to finally have her way. But what is really unveiled here is the foolishness of Herod, who makes his outrageous promise— “Ask me for whatever you wish”—from which the conventions of his world made it all but impossible to back down. “Even half my kingdom,” he’d said to her, but because the Romans were in charge he actually had no real estate to give away. Ultimately, what he gave away was the last thin vestige of whatever integrity he’d might have had, and so the man who both intrigued and frightened him is sent to his grave. For all the gold in his treasury and wine in his cellars; for his courting of the local power brokers with banquets in his sumptuous palace; for all of grand scheme of finishing a temple to rival Solomon’s, and so to secure for himself an all but messianic status as the true king, Herod is here exposed as a lie and a fraud.
When Mark resumes the narrative about Jesus, he takes us to a wilderness place far from the city with its palace and temple. The disciples have returned from their mission trip, bringing reports of all they’ve seen and done, and Jesus does his best to provide them with a space of respite and reflection, saying, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” It turns out that just isn’t going to be possible anymore, because so hungry are the people to hear his words that he is followed by a great crowd. Mark tells us that Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (6:34) They stay so long listening to him teach, that night began to fall. Yet rather than being sent away to fend for themselves (as the disciples suggested….) the crowd finds itself filled by a mere five loaves and two fish. A better feast by far than the one at which Herod presided.
More than just telling of the potential cost of speaking truth to power—a cost which the Baptist paid, and which in time Jesus will also pay—the story of Herod and John unveils the lie of Herod’s kind of power, and sets the stage for an encounter with a power that is deeper and more true than Herod and his ilk could even begin to imagine. Not in a grand temple, but in a wilderness place. Not at palace tables laden with rich food and drink, but on a hillside with a basket of five loaves and two fish. Not a kingdom tied to a palace, or a religion tied to a temple. Instead God-with-us, and God’s kingdom in our midst and ever on the move.
It is before this King, and not to the Herods of this world, that we go to our knees.