A Horror Story

July 15, 2018/Mark 6:14-29


What a party!

Mark doesn’t tell us how old Herod Antipas was on this particular birthday.  It may have been one of those “special” birthdays – you know, one that ends in a “zero.”  Forty, perhaps.  Or fifty.  More like two, if you think about the birthday boy’s behavior.

He is, by all descriptions, a puppet king of gargantuan ego and unlimited pomposity.  Herod is the sort of person who doesn’t wait to see if his friends will put together a little gathering to celebrate his birthday.  He doesn’t check with his wife – the woman who was married to his brother before he stole her away – to see if she’s having a few people over.  He makes his own plans and throws a big party for himself.  He may be only a figurehead in the eyes of the Roman Empire, but he is the only “king” these people have.  So he will celebrate, by God, and in fine form.

He invites all of the important people – those who serve under him in the Roman court, the military officers, anyone around Galilee who is anyone.  He makes sure there is plenty to eat and plenty to drink.  As the night moves along and the wine flows, he relishes his place in the spotlight and his power and his stature.  And when his daughter – well, really, his wife’s daughter – arrives to dance for the men gathered there, he can hardly contain his pride or his excitement.  She dances, and Herod is pleased.  All of the men are pleased.

And so, in his largesse, in his no-doubt inebriated state, he throws out a reckless promise.  “Ask me for anything,” he tells the girl, “and it is yours.”

Only someone whose brain wasn’t engaged would offer such a gesture.  It is grand.  It is overly generous.  And it is dangerous.  But Herod is in no condition to exercise self-control, and his daughter realizes it.  More to the point, his wife realizes it.  That loud-mouthed preacher, John the Baptizer, has been locked away in Herod’s jail where she couldn’t get to him.  But now she sees her chance.  Now she’ll see him pay for his criticism of their “adulterous” marriage.  She tells the girl, “Ask for John’s head.”

Now Herod finds himself in a fine spot.  If he refuses her request, it will look like he cannot be trusted.  His word will mean nothing.  His power will diminish.  He’ll look like a fool!  But he really doesn’t want to do this.  He doesn’t want to kill John.  He finds him fascinating and intriguing.  He likes to listen to his funny teaching.  And he is afraid.  If John really is a holy man, a prophet of sorts, then what will happen to him if he has him killed?

But his ego is greater than his fear.  He orders the guard to behead John and bring his head on a platter to the girl.

Herod tried to balance the demands of those closest to him along with the expectations of society, but he discovered “that it is quite difficult to please everyone around him and still uphold his own personal standards.”[1]  Yes, he is held captive by his own ambition and lust, but he also recognizes what is good and right and true.[2]  “Herod is forced to choose between the innocent and the politically expedient.  His moment of choice is a palatable moment of grace, waiting to be accepted or rejected.”[3]  John’s preaching offers grace, but “like Pilate [Herod] is unable to act righteously.”[4]  Such is Herod’s guilt over putting John to death that he now imagines Jesus must be John raised from his gruesome death.

When we read this strange story in Mark, we recoil from the evil and bloodiness of the martyrdom of John the Baptizer.  We find it easy to criticize Herod for his ego and ambition, his wife for her bitterness and desire for revenge, her daughter for her thirst for power and recognition.  We cannot imagine ourselves behaving in such ways.  We cannot even picture ourselves as guests at this party.

But if we step back and look at ourselves more honestly, can’t we see in Herod our own concern with what other people think, our own desire to please the people around us, our own need to do whatever is required to keep the peace?

“In the critical test of his soul, Herod must decide between saving face and saving John’s head; between the good opinion of his noble guests, who expect their royal patron to fulfill his promises no matter what, and his awe of John; between gaining the world and gaining his soul. … Herod could refuse the horrible request.  [But] he is afraid to refuse it. … Herod … shows himself to be among those in whom, despite their attraction to God’s dominion, the concerns of this age end up choking the word.”[5]

Mark’s telling of the beheading of John foreshadows the fate that awaits Jesus.  Herod protected John by imprisoning him; Pilate would try to save Jesus’ life from the mob that clamored for his crucifixion.  But in the end, “both [Herod and Pilate] care more about pleasing their constituencies than exercising justice.  Both act against their ‘better judgment’ and condemn to death innocent men.”[6]

Perhaps that is Mark’s message for us, his reason for inserting this troubling story about John in the midst of a gospel story about Jesus.  Our good intentions and best hopes are not enough, Mark seems to be saying.  They accomplished nothing for Herod or Pilate.  Good intentions are not enough to remove the weight of guilt when our ultimate decisions are bad or self-centered or designed only to make ourselves look good.  “In these moments the presence of grace can be felt – waiting to be accepted or rejected.”[7]

There’s another lesson buried in the gruesome details of this story.  In Matthew’s telling, after John’s disciples bury his body, they go and tell Jesus.  “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself,” Matthew writes.  “He didn’t preach.  He didn’t turn the horror into a morality tale.  He withdrew into silence.  He sought solitude.  He lingered over his pain and created space for it to spend itself.  And then?  He fed people.”[8]  Five thousand people.

Lord knows, we face horrors in our world.  “Maybe the point of this Gospel lectionary is to indict [those forms] of Christianity that promise us comfort, prosperity, and blessing in exchange for our good behavior.”  God does not shield us from pain or sorrow – bad things happen.  Perhaps we can learn from Jesus’ example.  “Some things are too terrible for words.  Some hurts can’t be salvaged with a neat story.  So honor the silence.  Create space for grief.  And when you’re ready, feed the people around you whatever you’ve got.  Somehow it will be enough.”[9]

[1] Karen Marie Yust, Feasting on the Word B/3, 236

[2] Douglas John Hall, Feasting on the Word B/3, 238

[3] Cheryl Bridges Johns, Feasting on the Word B/3, 239

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joel Marcus, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1-8, 403

[6] Robert A. Bryant, Feasting on the Word B/3, 241

[7] Johns, 241

[8] Debie Thomas, “Bearable Stories,” 8 July 2018, journeywithjesus.net

[9] Ibid.

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