“A Season Cliffhanger of Biblical Proportion”

July 11, 2021

Mark 6:14–29

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.’ (earlier this happened…)

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; 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 the early years of television, daytime dramas were a programming staple. The nickname “soap opera” was coined for them because soap companies were chief advertisers. Over time, soap operas became associated with improbable, but enticing story lines involving long-lost relatives, secret affairs, amnesia, and family estrangements.

In 1964 the genre arrived in primetime with “Peyton Place.” By the 70’s primetime soap operas were all the rage and became some of the longest running shows in the history of TV drama. “Dallas” ran for 13 seasons and managed to hook male viewers with two dominant characters working in the Texas oil business, the scheming J.R. Ewing and his do-gooder brother, Bobby.

“Dynasty” set in Denver, copied the oil scion theme. The women of “Dynasty” set the fashion standards for 1980s and their catfights were legendary. “They were probably a little over the top, but that’s what made it ‘Dynasty,’” said Joan Collins who was the leading star of the series.

No matter the success and longevity of these evening soap operas, they have nothing on the Bible. Today’s reading is a prime example. This account of a royal party is filled with political intrigue, seduction, religious zeal, and enough behind-the-scenes plotting in the story of John’s death to satisfy the most avid mystery fan.

The story, which rivals anything in Dallas or Dynasty, begins with Herod, who has heard of Jesus’ deeds of power. From an earlier scene, we know Herod had a guilty conscience and now we are going to learn more about where his guilt came from.

This drama has so much going on it is easy to get confused. First, Herod in this story is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who would play a big part in the execution of Jesus. The name Herod was shared among eight different rulers of the Herodian dynasty around the time of Jesus.

Herodias is one of the Bible’s most famous villainesses. She was a Jewish princess and a ruler of Galilee.

She had married her half-uncle and given birth to a daughter.

It was not long before Herod and Herodias fell in love. They were both still married. Her husband was Herod’s brother. They divorced their spouses and married. This caused outrage among the people, who saw it as a violation of the Jewish law because it was forbidden for a man to marry his brother’s divorced wife. John the Baptist was the leader of the opposition who was speaking publicly about this infraction so Herod had him imprisoned. Remember, that John the Baptist was a prophet, the cousin and forerunner of Jesus. But then a funny thing happens. Herod came to admire John for his honesty and goodness and thus he was reluctant to have him killed.

Herodias, however, shares neither fear of nor affinity for John. An opportunity for Herodias to act arises when Herod throws himself a birthday party and invites the important and powerful people of the region. Her daughter (also named Herodias — I told you this gets confusing!) dances for and entertains the partygoers. Herod swooned over the girl’s dancing and while caught up in a moment of exuberance, offers to give her anything, up to half his kingdom. The girl does not know what to ask for so she seeks her mother’s counsel. Promptly Herodias tells her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter and Herod, afraid to break a promise made before all these important guests, consents. Before the birthday party is over, the girl receives John’s head on a platter.

This would be a season cliffhanger if it was a primetime soap opera. But this is the Bible. So where is the good news in this story? What is our takeaway?

I wonder if Mark writes this hard story not to reveal good news, but to show us what is at stake when the good news is rejected. Maybe Herod has something to teach us by way of negative example. Maybe his is the story of what happens when we treat truth of the Divine too casually. Or neutrally. When we approach this good news of Jesus with curiosity, perplexity, and maybe even fascination — but then get stuck, never crossing over from spectatorship to discipleship. After all, Jesus does not want audience members; he wants followers.

Marks tells us that Herod “enjoys listening” to John. This is an interesting tidbit. Herod enjoys listening to a man who has called him out as an adulterer. Why? I think it is because the truth, which often hurts, compels us. In a world overrun with blatant lies, exaggerated claims, and misleading headlines, truth is precious. It captures our attention and suggests that coherence and alignment are possible. Something in us hungers for the truth. We fear it and need it, all at once.

The Bible story does not tell us about what Herod liked in listening to John while he sat in jail. But I imagine he realized the predicament of his life, breaking marital boundaries, lusting for power and yet unhappy with what power and his choices has made of him.

But from John, Herod heard good news about Jesus. About God, forgiveness, salvation. I want to believe that Herod left those jailhouse sessions comparing the integrity and clarity of John’s mission and message to his own compromised life. Maybe Herod began to yearn for something better and wholesome, something truth-based in his life.

But then comes the birthday party and like the soap opera cliffhanger, Herod is presented with the time to decide. Right over wrong. Humility over power. Integrity over compromise. Truth over lies. The time comes to test his character, his loyalties. To care more about saving a life than saving face. To move from a perplexed fascination with truth to a faithful stewardship of truth.

The outcome of the story could have been so different if Herod had passed the test. But we know that when push came to shove, his casual fascination with the truth he heard from John in the jailhouse is not enough to transform him. He remains a hearer of the good news — not a doer.

I know it is natural for us to look for the moral of the story. But when that is tried with biblical accounts, it usually comes up short. The Bible was not compiled to set forth a parenting book for teaching kids good behavioral skills. It was not written as a guide for getting ahead in life. It is a book that tells the truth about this life, about the human condition full of goodness and shame. But ultimately, the Bible tells the greater truth of God’s love for humanity and unending commitment to redeem us and save us from ourselves.

But if you are still looking for moral to this story, as in the TV soap operas, it is that the rich and powerful are used to getting what they want; are willing to do most anything to keep or advance what they have; and those who stand up to them, advocate for the oppressed, or dare to inspire people to imagine that life can be different usually get trampled. That is what happens to John. And, as we will see, Jesus’ clash with this same Herod is not all that far off.

Alas, that is not much of a moral, I realize. But it is true. And, more importantly, it is not the end of the story.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.