Mark 6. 14-29 All the way up…
King Herod heard of it, 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 (miserable with guilt—Peterson); 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.
In this account of the death of John the Baptist, Mark describes King Herod in terms that are, to say the least, less than flattering. Yet, among all the characters in this story, Herod is one for whom I almost feel a twinge of sympathy.
I say “almost” because I really don’t, but I think I probably should. Sympathy for someone who is in pain is a Christian virtue, isn’t it? An obligation, maybe? Remember the Good Samaritan story from last week? Shouldn’t we feel sympathy toward anyone who is hurting—even when the object of that sympathy is king who is an incompetent, depraved, greedy, power-hungry fool who thinks the world is his to do with as he pleases?
I did a little reading this week on the Herod family; but only a little because their story is hard to stomach. They were a murderous lot who cared only for their power and position in the Empire. Any one of them would have as soon murdered a child or a wife or a husband as look at them, if they perceived the slightest inkling of a threat to their power. And they did just that.
Caesar himself once said it was better to be Herod’s pig than his son—his pigs lived longer. Herod the Great—the father of Herod, Jr. in today’s story, was intensely hated by his fellow Jews. He knew that when he died they would turn his funeral into a party. So from his deathbed, to make sure there would be some real mourning when he died, Herod had the stadium in Jericho filled with beloved and respected Jewish leaders from all over Israel. And he gave the order that on the moment of his death everyone in that stadium was to be killed. The Jews might not mourn for him, he thought, but they were going to mourn for somebody. (Josephus, The Jewish War, ch 33)
So what do we do with this? Should the fact that someone—Herod for instance, gives every evidence of being evil beyond redemption, remove him from our concern? When every word from a person’s mouth and every act of his hand is clearly meant to serve himself and harm his neighbor, do we owe him (or her) any degree of sympathy? Pity, at least?
I think we do.
I’m not very good at it, I can tell you that. But I can also tell you why I think a note of sympathy is always, or almost always, in order.
Consider this first: Herod, Jr. was not a self-made man. There are, in fact, no self-made men or women. Junior’s character was formed in the cradle of his toxic, family and under the influence of his mad, malicious father; who was himself formed by his own family under the toxic iron boot of the Roman Empire.
Evil doesn’t come out of thin air, you see. It lives within families and systems of human culture and government. Evil supports those cultures and governments. It is nurtured and strengthened there by broken people who see evil as a tool for gaining wealth and power.
This is what we mean by the word “sin”. To a large degree, I suspect Herod inherited his evil. That doesn’t excuse what he did with it, but it might give us a bit of understanding—and perhaps a little sympathy.
Second, take another look at who, according to Mark, Herod really was. Look at some of the words Mark uses to describe this guy: “I beheaded John”, is the first thing Herod has to say for himself. He “arrested” John, “bound” him, “put him in prison”. He knew, Mark says, that John was “righteous and holy”; he was “greatly perplexed” by John—“miserable with guilt” is how Eugene Peterson translates that word. And then note that all of this discomfort and dis-ease circles around the central truth about Herod. Mark says he was “afraid”.
He was afraid because John was righteous and he was not.
Because John was right and he was not, he knew he should listen to him, and he liked listening to him—but he couldn’t do what John said. To him the cost of doing the right thing was just too high. So he lived in fear.
I know, a little at least, how poor Herod felt. Maybe you do, too.
He buried his fear, or tried to anyway, beneath power, wealth and pleasure. It was pleasure that led to his stupid birthday party; and his even stupider promise to his daughter—rewarding her for the pleasure her dancing gave to him and his guests. It was his attempt to cover his fear with pleasure that resulted in John losing his head.
What a pitiable, wretched, stupid creature Herod was. What a waste of humanity; a waste of the image of God that, despite all his efforts to quench it, still resided in his fearful soul.
Now, it won’t do to support people like Herod. In fact, we have an obligation to resist them. We must speak out against them and do everything we can to undo their evil. We must bring justice to witness against their fear.
But we shouldn’t hate them. People like Herod feed on hate. Hate strengthens them and makes them appear legitimate.
Besides, hate cannot alter the course of evil, fear or stupidity. Only love can do that.
Which is where God enters this story.
And where we hear a smidgen of the gospel in this otherwise dark and sad tale. The third reason for sounding a note of sympathy before a broken man like Herod is this: because that is what God does.
Herod was “greatly perplexed” by John but, Mark tells us, he “liked listening to him”. John accuses the most powerful politician in town of hypocrisy and immoral behavior. His brashness lands him in jail. Speaking truth to power is never easy; sometimes it’s deadly. But by speaking up John opens the door to more conversation with Herod. And you can bet he has a lot to say.
Herod knows John is right. Maybe he thinks about acting on what John tells him, too. Maybe, in listening to John something pivots in Herod and his darkened heart turns ever so slightly to the light. Maybe he almost makes it.
In the end of course, he lacks the strength of character to follow through. In the end his weakness triumphs and he is duped, in a drunken stupor, into giving his conniving wife the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
But the point, one point anyway, is that even Herod is given a chance—multiple chances, to turn to the light.
He’s given this chance because John speaks up.
John speaks up because God sent him.
And God sent him because God had not given up on Herod; or on Caesar; or, for that matter, on the whole dank, dark, evil Roman Empire.
This, you see, is the gospel—This story of the astounding reach of God’s love.
You may think grace is amazing when it reaches down to pull a drunk out of the gutter. And it is. But that pales in comparison to the grace that reaches into the halls of power and wealth; into the places where evil is most deeply rooted. Into the dark hearts of men and women poisoned by greed and anger and hatred; who are driven by a gnawing hunger for ever greater power and wealth.
Grace goes there. This is the gospel.
John is sent to Herod, you see, because God cares about Herod; because God is gracious toward Herod, and everyone like him; and because, for evil to be defeated in the world, it will have to be removed from those hearts and minds; from the Herods of the world who, without grace, will always live to serve themselves, harm their neighbors and destroy the Creation.
John is sent into the heart of darkness because grace must take hold in the halls of power or there is little hope for the rest of Creation.
In today’s story, Herod ends up wracked with paranoid grief and Herodias, his wife, is left with a bloody head on a platter (http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/7/10). Blood and grief. These are the fruits of lives lived without grace, kindness and generosity.
God has a better idea, Mark is telling us. Another way to be in the world.
And this is where we come in—where the church comes in.
John the Baptist was set down in the middle of Herod’s realm and charged with telling him the truth he needed to hear. Just so we, the Body of Christ in Mt Vernon, have been set down here in our place and given the same charge. We are here to tell the truth. We are here to resist our leaders when they act in ways that harm our neighbors. That was John’s responsibility and it is ours as well.
But we are also here to invite those we resist into a new community—the kind of community being built in this place; one shaped by kindness, flavored with God’s grace and abundant in mercy.
We might, and should, be more intentional in our speaking up—that would be good. We might find ways to join our voices in a louder call for justice. And if our invitation to our neighbors to share this space were given with greater volume, that would be good, too. But those are topics for another Sunday.
Today I am happy to proclaim just this smidgen of the gospel; this little note on the abundance of grace that you can take home with you:
Grace reaches down to bottom, to the neediest among our neighbors. And grace reaches out to the top, to the wealthy and powerful who, as Herod shows us, can be much needier than the poorest of the poor.
This is the good news you came to hear this morning.
So whoever you are, where ever you come from, whatever brought you here, whatever you believe or don’t believe, know this:
God is with you. God is for you. Grace is enough. This will always be true.
on summer hiatus