Power Struggle

Mark 6:14-29

14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”

26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

What are you going to say about a passage like that? This one sounds a lot more like a daytime soap opera than a selection from the Bible. We have a “king” who stole his brother’s wife and finds himself so intrigued by her daughter’s dance that he makes a promise to give her anything, up to 50% of his kingdom. And of course, what do young girls want more than anything else in this world? A new American Girl doll? No, think bigger. A pony? Come on, be creative. The head of a prophet served on a platter? Now we’re talking! Things just got interesting, people.

I want to spend some time talking about today’s passage, but not just these fifteen verses. I think that to understand what’s going on here we really need to look at what comes before and after this passage as well. Context is important. But let’s just start today by trying to clarify what is happening in these verses and then we will step back and look at the bigger picture.

We start today with a name that we are familiar with, though it is probably also a bit confusing and maybe misleading. Our scripture starts with King Herod. When we read Jesus’ birth narratives found in the Bible we hear the name of Herod quite a bit. Herod is the one who meets the Wise Men and tells them to come inform him where the Christ child can be found. Herod is also the one who then orders that the babies are to be slaughtered. We are told that Herod is scared; scared of a little baby. He is afraid that the one born “king of the Jews” will interfere with his rule and his ability to pass on his leadership role to his sons.

The Herod in our story today is not the same Herod from the birth narratives, but his son. The Herod in the birth narratives is Herod the Great; this is Herod Antipas. It is Herod Antipas that is in conversation with the Jewish High Priest, each condemning Jesus before sending him on to Pilate for his final trial. Herod Antipas was not technically a king, he was a tetrarch, which means that he led a quadrant of a kingdom or territory. The Herods were of Jewish ancestry, so they were in a way the “kings of the Jews,” but they had little power. They were really puppet leaders, led by the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, and at a higher level, by the Roman Caesar.

Obviously, Herod Antipas and Herod the Great shared a number of qualities. Herod the Great is probably best known by Christians today for the slaughter of the innocents. Herod Antipas is probably best known for his role in the killing of both John the Baptist and Jesus. They were both fearful men, worried about their position as leader over the Jews. And their fear led them to take extreme measures to protect what power they had.

We don’t have all of the details, but somehow Herod Antipas ended up married to the wife of his brother Philip. This would have been against the Hebrew Law. As a Jew, Herod Antipas would not be permitted to marry his brother’s ex-wife. One day a prophet named John comes along and tells Herod that his actions are not lawful. What does Herod do? He puts John in prison. Yeah, you can keep saying this is wrong, but you’ll be saying it from within a jail cell.

Herod’s new wife, Herodias, is said to have held a bit of a grudge against John. This makes sense, because Herodias had a pretty sweet deal going on for her there, married to the tetrarch, living in his palace, waited on hand and foot by the staff. But if she was made to leave Herod’s palace, she wouldn’t have very many options. She would be a woman twice divorced with a young child in the first century.

Mark tells us that on Herod’s birthday, Herod throws himself a party and invites “high officials,” “military leaders,” and the “leading men of Galilee.” This is a who’s who, black tie event. The paparazzi are snapping photos as these men get off their donkeys and camel and walk through the front door.

The text then gets a little bit confusing, and there is a good chance that your Bible has a footnote explaining this verse. A young girl dances for the group. She is either Herod’s daughter or Herodias’ daughter, which means that the girl is likely either Herod’s niece – daughter of Philip and Herodias – or the daughter of Herod and Herodias. The word that is used to describe the girl in the Greek is the same word used earlier in the Mark to describe a little girl that Jesus brought back to life, and she was said to be 12-years-old. So we can assume that this dancing daughter was probably about 12 as well.

This girl’s dancing pleased Herod and his group of powerful friends. I tend to think of this passage as saying that they found some sort of erotic pleasure from the dance, which may be Mark’s intention. Remember that if she was 12, she was probably about the age when women got married in the 1st century. As gross as that is to us today, it would have been normal in their day. But it is also possible that they appreciated her dance for its artistic movement or something like that.

Regardless, Herod makes a promise to the young girl: she can name anything she wants, up to half his kingdom, and it will be hers.

The young girl asks her mother, and dear old mom says that she should ask for John the Baptist to be beheaded. And according to Mark, when the young girl asks Herod for John’s head, she adds “on a platter.” Nice touch for a twelve-year-old, don’t you think?

Now check out verse 26: “The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.” Herod didn’t want to kill John. But because of his oath made in front of his guests he went through with it. Herod had John beheaded and then he took the platter holding John’s head and passed it to the young girl, who then delivered it to her mother.

That’s a complicated and strange series of events, for sure. But let me ask you an easy question. Who was the most powerful person in that story? It was Herodias. Herod didn’t want to kill John, and I can’t imagine that the little girl really did either.

NT scholar Daniel Kirk points out that in this story Herod Antipas is depicted as weak. A number of times he is called the king, but clearly he was not a king. When Mark calls him king, it is almost like he places the title in air quotes. Herod is the “king.” Not only that, Herod is manipulated by his wife and a little girl. And ultimately what seems to lead to John’s death is Herod’s pride. He is worried about what the powerful leaders gathered around him might think if he didn’t chop off John’s head right then and there. Herod is always trying to prove himself.

I feel like Herod is driven by two primary motivators: the desire for more power and the fear of losing what power he already has. His entire identity is tied up in being powerful.

When we step back from this passage and look at how it is situated within Mark’s Gospel, we quickly notice that just before today’s lesson on the beheading of John, Mark tells us about Jesus being rejected in his home town. Mark even says that Jesus was not able to perform many miracles there because of their lack of faith. Mark then moves to tell the story of Jesus sending his twelve disciples into the villages to teach and drive out unclean spirits. Mark seems to intentionally be going back and forth, from one story to the next, telling a story about being rejected, but Jesus and the disciples keep going. The people don’t like the message, but Jesus keeps preaching and sending more disciples. John the Baptist is rejected, and what comes next? They keep preaching, teaching, and healing.

It may seem to some that Herod has the ultimate power. He is surrounded by these powerful leaders and he is chopping off the head of a person that dares to speak against him. Jesus is surrounded by fishermen and peasants, the poor, the hungry, and the outcasts. You dare not stand in Herod’s way, or he will go to any length to remove you! But Jesus is rejected, John is rejected. But they keep going.

I want you to take a few seconds to think about the most beautiful person that you know. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. Perhaps some of you are thinking about a super model that has her picture photoshopped on a magazine cover or a man whose abs are drawn own with a pencil. But I bet that most of us are thinking about people who don’t put a lot of effort into their appearance. You know the kind, they are probably someone that we all love to hate just a little bit because it all seems so effortless. They roll out of bed looking amazing. They put on a simple t-shirt or pull their hair back in a ponytail to go to the supermarket and everyone stares and they have no idea why.

Or when you think of the smartest person that you know, do you think of the person who shows off on Facebook by trying to use words with five syllables and a Latin origin. Or do you think of someone who doesn’t try to show off, but seems to be well-read, someone who pays attention to world events, and has a clearly thought-out perspective on these things. You can ask him or her what they think about bailing out Greece financially or the Women’s World Cup Championship or growing tomatoes in their backyard and they just know what they are talking about.

When you think about the best athlete that you know, do you think of the person who is always telling you how good that they are, how badly they are going to defeat you, and how much you fail to play at their level? Or do you think of someone who is like poetry in motion, when you see them playing a game you simply realize that you are in the presence of a gifted person.

The point that I am trying to make is that when I think of a beautiful person, I think of someone who is confident in their appearance and doesn’t need to put on a bunch of makeup or their best suit to go out of their home. The most intelligent and the best athletes don’t feel like they need to prove it to you all of the time. And the most powerful people in the world don’t have to forcefully exercise their superiority to show their power. Sometimes they wash feet.

There’s a certain freedom in not having to always prove yourself to the world. Unfortunately, this goes against human nature. I feel that I need to show you how good I am, to prove that I’m good looking, smart, athletic, or a hard worker. I think that a large part of it comes down to where you find your significance and how you develop your identity.

Herod believed that he needed to retain his role as the tetrarch to remain significant. His entire identity was tied up in this position of traditional power. I guarantee you would never find Herod stooping to wash the feet of another. That looks weak! You wouldn’t find Herod hanging out with the scum of the society. He’d be guilty by association. No, the identity that Herod wanted to put forward depended on people respecting him and perhaps even fearing him. This is why Herod the Great slaughtered innocent babies and why Herod Antipas killed John the Baptist and contributed to the killing of Jesus.

We get so caught up in how others perceive us that we fail to do what we are called to do in Jesus. When Jesus was rejected in his hometown, he kept going. At one point he gave his disciples a little Taylor Swift advice. He said a haters gonna hate. If the disciples are rejected they are to just shake the dust off their sandals and go on. Shake it off, shake it off. Why? Because their identity and their value as a human being did not depend on people liking them or agreeing with them or even fearing them. Their identity was wrapped up in knowing that they were the beloved children of God.

One of a parent’s favorite thing to talk about is their child. Every parent thinks that their child is the most beautiful child in the world. They are the smartest, the most physically-gifted person to ever be strapped into a Johnny Jump Up. But how many times have you heard a parent talking about how beautiful their child is and you ask to see a picture and you have to fake a polite response? “That sure is a special little fellow you have there!” Some people say that all babies are cute. We call those people liars.

I talk about my children as much as anyone else. And I’ll admit, I brag on them a bit. But it isn’t because I think that they are perfect. Believe me, I know that my children aren’t perfect. But they are loved with a perfect love.

I’m pretty sure that our all-knowing God is aware that we are not perfect. But we are perfectly loved by God. Nothing else should define us more than that single piece of information. Who are you? You are God’s beloved child. And to God you are the most beautiful, most intelligent, and most athletic person on the face of the earth. And we don’t need to battle for the love of God. There is more than enough to go around!

There are things that exist in limited quantity in this world. Power and money are the first two to come to my mind. Herod tried to define himself by the amount of power he could attain and maintain. But we cannot allow the world to define us and decide our worth. We are loved with an unending love. A love that says it doesn’t matter if you fail, I’m proud of you for trying. A love that says win or lose, I still love you just the same. A love that says in my kingdom you don’t have to prove yourself. You are loved.

Jesus began his ministry proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom of God knowing that his identity wasn’t tied up in getting people to fear him or even to like him. His identity was proclaimed from the heavens at his baptism: “This is my son, my beloved. With him I am well please.”

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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