This morning, in our readings from Mark, our author appears to take a surprising, lengthy, graphic and rather un-Mark like detour in the middle of his stories about Jesus, or is he? Mark has been talking about authority and has commented on those who did not accept Jesus’ authority. Now he gives us glimpse into the world that Jesus lives in by looking at a scene between Herod Antipas and John the Baptist, a scene that perhaps tells us more about Jesus’ world than anything else he has told us.
On one side stands John the Baptist. John was one of those persons, chosen by God before his birth for an unusual occupation for his time, that of prophet. Like Isaac, in the Old Testament, John’s birth is miraculous because his parents are elderly and had long since given up on having children when an angel appeared to his father and announced both the news that Elizabeth would bear a son and a description of the life John was to live. Like Sampson, he was to be a Nazarite from birth and for his entire life and he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit from his birth. Unlike, post Pentecost, being filled with the Spirit was not gifted freely. Luke writes, “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him [Jesus, the Messiah] to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:17). We are told John leaps for joy while still in his mother’s womb at the appearance of Mary, the mother of Jesus, being the first to recognize Jesus who is himself has barely been conceived.
After John’s birth, the next we hear of him is at the open of Mark. Mark tells us, that in a fulfillment of prophecy from Exodus, Isaiah, and Malachi “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)
John’s authority comes from God as the fulfillment of prophecy, in great signs and wonders, and John has been obedient to that call, so much so that he looks like the prophet Elijah standing in the middle of the Jordon river – a wild man dressed in rough camel’s hair and leather, eating honey and locusts – humbly proclaiming “The one who is more powerful that I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8)
On the other side, is Herod Antipas. We known very little of him from the scriptures, but history has left us a detailed account of his misguided life and his dysfunctional family. His father was Herod the Great, King of Judea who was the Herod that helped restore the magnificence of the Jerusalem Temple and the Herod to whom the magi consulted concerning the birth of Jesus. He had many wives and many children. Two of his sons he had executed out of jealousy and legend states that he had one of his own sons killed in the slaughter of the innocents when he was seeking to destroy Jesus. Antipas’ mother was a Samaritan, another reason he was disliked and distrusted by the Jews. Herod the Great changed his will shortly before his death and rather than name one heir, he divided his kingdom between three of his sons causing animosity between his sons. Herod Antipas received the area of Galilee and Perea, an area on the other side of the Jordan River near the Dead Sea.
Herod Antipas, though ethnarch – ruler over a particular ethnic group in a given area was never proclaimed king by Rome. Antipas was considered of mixed blood and a Hellenist by the people he ruled. Antipas, like his father, was a great builder, but not a great keeper of tradition. He built his capital of Tiberias over a cemetery which meant devout Jews believed the whole town to be defiled and ritually unclean. Antipas first married Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, probably for political reasons, but according to Josephus, he fell in love with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Herod II and granddaughter of Herod the Great. Antipas divorced his wife, and presumably Herodias did the same as it appears Herod II was still alive, and they married. In the eyes of Jewish law, Antipas was now guilty of both adultery and incest.
Here is where Herod Antipas and John the Baptist came into conflict. John’s call from God was to call the historical nation of Israel to repentance in preparation for the of coming of the Messiah. Herod Antipas was one of the major political figures of these people at this time and he was opening defying Jewish law. John the Baptist called him out on it and Herod Antipas had him incarcerated at Machaerus to shut him up and his is believed to have remained there for two years. Incarceration was not a sentence at this time; it was simple a way of holding a prisoner until their trial. Herod Antipas did not seem to be in a hurry to have John tried and either acquitted or sentenced.
Our reading today in Mark is a flash back. Herod Antipas is hearing stories of Jesus and rumors have started that he is either Elijah or John the Baptist returned from the dead. Reincarnation was a widely held belief by the Hellenist and Herod is more Greco-Roman than Jewish in his life-style and probably his beliefs. Herod believes Jesus to be John the Baptist returned from the dead. Herod does not seem to have any trouble believing that John returned the same age that he left. Herod is probably very conflicted, both a bit afraid of him and enchanted by him, and this may account for his later attraction toward, yet refusal to acquit, Jesus. Mark now tells us why Herod is so obsessed by John even after his death.
There is tension in Herod’s house over John during his imprisonment. Herodias hates him, probably for denouncing the relationship between her and Herod Antipas because anything said about Herod, equally applies to her. Herod, on the other hand, recognizes John as a “holy and righteous” man. Herod is both attracted to and perplexed by John’s preaching and despite keeping him incarcerated, he protects him from further harm. Herod is a weak ruler. He does not trust his brothers. He made an enemy out of his first father-in-law. It was a Roman custom for community leaders to sponsor fun activities for members of the community as an act of goodwill and to build political alliances. Herod Antipas uses the occasion of his birthday to through a lavish party and to invite important community members to help him celebrate. We have an ancient misprint in Mark as he names Herod’s daughter as Herodias. It was corrected in some ancient manuscripts but has come down to us as is. Herodias is his wife. Mark is probably referring to his stepdaughter Salome II, who has been entertaining the guests by dancing for them. Herod is probably drunk and is so pleased that he tells the girl, swearing an oath in front of all his guests, that she may asked for any gift, up to one half of his kingdom and he will give it to her. (This is a little bit of bragging about what one does not have since he is not officially a king though it seems he was called that by many and may have referred to himself in that way.) The girl askes her mother Herodias what to ask for and Herodias sees this as her chance to get rid of John once and for all. She tells Salome to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Herod Antipas is now what we would call between a rock and a hard place. He likes John, but he does not dare go back on an oath in front of people he is trying to impress. He is using this party to influence powerful community leader trying to demonstrate his power and authority which is not much in reality. Rather than lose face he orders that the girl’s request be granted. We are told a soldier beheaded John, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl, who gave it to her mother.
Mark is a literary craftsman. He is building tension and foreshadowing Jesus’ encounter with Herod Antipas during his arrest and trial. Mark makes one more statement about John that anticipates Jesus’ fate, “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”
This story does not end the way we want it to. Sometimes in life, we do not understand why God allows things to happen the way they do. Often it is only looking back that we can make sense of things and sometimes not even then. In this case, justice was not long in coming. Shortly after the death of Jesus, everything began to fall apart for Herod Antipas. His former father-in-law declared war against him. He had a falling out with his brother-in-law/nephew Agrippa and when Tiberias died and was replaced with Caligula, Agrippa charged him with treason and got him exiled to Spain. Herodias joined him in exile and they appear to have died there.
The passing of time and the memory of history often sort things out for us. John the Baptist is remembered and honored as a prophet and a saint. John is remembered as a man having the authority and power of being in right relationship with God. Antipas, when not confused with one of the other Herods, is remembered as a weak and cruel man, hated by his own people, a killer of John the Baptist and an accomplice in the killing of Jesus. Antipas is remembered as grasping at authority and power that was always just beyond his reach.
Authority and power can be tools for good when they are used to bring about God’s kingdom. Jesus says that faith can move mountains. Authority and power can become tools for evil when they are used for building up our own egos leaving waves of destruction that can be seen for generations. Be careful how you use them and careful to whom you give them.