Herod's birthday

You could be watching the soccer world cup final now. Instead you’re listening to the preacher who is wondering what you might make of the gloomy story you just heard. You were hoping for a little something to feed your soul, weren’t you? Good news of great joy. Glad cries of deliverance. Gospel. You’re wondering what the preacher was thinking to have you listen to this tale of a ghastly birthday banquet like something straight out of Game of Thrones. Intrigue. Seduction. Fear. Ambition. Brutal violence.

It was Herod’s birthday. This was Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. He loved it when people called him king, because that’s what he dreamed of being someday: somebody with enough power to make the truth whatever he wanted it to be. The title the Romans had given him after the death of his father, Herod the Great, was Tetrarch, “ruler of a quarter” in English, because rather than trusting one with the whole realm, they divided it between him and his brothers. Antipas got Galilee.

So this was his birthday, and he had invited government officials, business leaders and dignitaries to a banquet at the palace. There was plenty to eat, and before, during, and after dinner, plenty to drink. This wasn’t the kind of dinner party we imagine Queen Elizabeth II would host. Speaking of the queen, it was common for the women had they been at the banquet at all to leave the room after the meal, and then there would be more drinking and after-dinner entertainment. Herod was in a splendid mood the wine, the food, the lavish praise of flattering toasts and he asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for his guests.

Herodias was his wife, his second wife, to be exact, but she used to be his brother Philip’s wife, and she wasn’t a widow. No big deal in Roman law, particularly among the leading families, but in Jewish law this kind of marriage was forbidden. John the Baptist, the wilderness prophet, was very clear about it: “It is not lawful for you to have her.”[1] The fact that Herodias was also Herod’s niece apparently was no cause of concern. Anyway, Herod, not known in his realm and the empire as a proud supporter of free speech, had John arrested, bound, and put in prison. Mark presents this as some kind of compromise, protective custody, as it were, because Herodias wanted the Baptist killed. ‘Let him tell his truth to the dungeon walls,’ Herod may have suggested to his vengeful wife.

So, after dinner Herod asked the daughter of Herodias to dance for him and his guests. Feel free to imagine a young princess dressed in a pink tutu, delighting the guests with a sequence from Swan Lake, but this was not that kind of dance. Let’s just say this was something typically done by professionals, and not the kind of dance the average dad would want his daughter to perform in front of a bunch of drunk men. But Herod wasn’t your average dad and so he did ask and he watched and he was pleased and he promised on oath to grant her a wish.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”

“Kingdom” was a big word, of course, too big, really, but he did dream of becoming king one day, and he may have had a few drinks too many, and he wanted to impress not just the girl with his wealth and generosity, but his guests.

“Whatever you ask me, I will give you.”

She didn’t ask for a pony. She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” Herodias replied.

And the girl rushed back to Herod, “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The platter was the girl’s idea, and the dish was brought in like it was the last course at the banquet.

Herod did not really want to grant the request, but he couldn’t afford to lose face in front of his VIP guests, who had heard him make the foolish promise. Not if he wanted to continue to be the empire’s man in Galilee and Peraea; not if he wanted to hold on to his kingdom dreams. So he sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. Death was the final course at the palace, and the closing line of this terrible story speaks of John’s disciples who came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

What do you do with a terrible story like that? What do you do with a story that ends in a tomb like that? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in that horrifying tale of fear dressed up as power and producing only death? Do you find anything resembling life and hope in the daily stories of fear and greed and dreams of domination?

Mark tells us a larger story, one that helps us see beyond the tomb. Mark inserts this tale right after telling us about the rejection Jesus experienced in his hometown and how he responded by sending out the twelve two by two. Be prepared for rejection when you proclaim the nearness of God’s reign! And they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. And they cast out all kinds of evils that bind and oppress people and they brought hope and healing to many communities. Proclaiming repentance, they did what John had done before he was arrested. Driving out demons, they did what Jesus did, with awesome power, and when Herod heard of it, he was afraid, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” He thought the fearless truthteller was on the loose again. He himself had sent men who arrested and bound John and put him in prison, and he himself had sent a soldier of the guard to bring him John’s head …

Mark tells us how Jesus sent the twelve to liberate and heal, and in the next scene he tells us about Herod who sent men under his authority to bind and lock up and kill. It’s the clash between the empire of death and the kingdom of life. The story is a flashback to what Herod did to John, and a flashforward to what Pilate will do to Jesus. The world, Mark wants us to recognize, does not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather sees it as a threat to its own dreams of domination and greatness. And so Mark tells those who follow Jesus as servants of God’s kingdom, to be prepared not only for rejection and ridicule, but also for violent resistance from the servants of empire.

And like the world, we do not gladly receive the reign of God as a gift of liberation and new life, but rather see it as a threat to our own dreams of power and control, our own dreams of being masters, kings and queens. We would be fools to believe that the line between the servants of God’s kingdom and the servants of empire can be drawn as clearly between us and others as it was between Herod’s banquet hall and the dungeon down below; the line runs through us. The real struggle is not against the servants of empire, regardless of where we see them or how we label them. The real struggle for us as followers of Jesus is to live as servants of God’s kingdom, to hear again and again the call to repentance and to discipleship and to mission, and to follow that call, again and again, with trust in the faithfulness of God, and to resist the whispers of fear and greed and despair.

The larger story Mark tells us, helps us see beyond the tomb and beyond all that buries our hope: The killing of the prophet does not stop the truth of God. The crucifixion does not stop God’s desire to bring wholeness to creation. And persecution will not stop the church’s participation in God’s mission in the world.

In verse 30, not part of today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, but very much part of the context that sheds light on this gloomy story, Mark tells us the apostles gathered around Jesus, and they told him all that they had done and taught. They told him about their struggle to live as servants of God’s  kingdom in the world, and even then, they were surrounded by a great crowd of people, men and women longing for life, for healing and forgiveness so many, they had no leisure even to eat. And that’s when we hear about the other banquet, the birthday banquet of the world to come where thousands eat, and the leftovers from five loaves and two fish fill twelve baskets.

You came here hoping for a little something to feed your soul, didn’t you? At Herod’s party of bending tables and overflowing bowls you’d be hard-pressed to find even a morsel that won’t leave a bitter taste in your mouth. You’d eat and drink ambition, intrigue, seduction, fear, and brutal violence. But outside the palace, Jesus is hosting the feast of life. Where do you go with your hunger?

I don’t want to be at Herod’s party any more and I don’t want a piece of his cake. I want to go where there’s bread for all. I want to go where Jesus is leading us. I want to live in the kingdom of God.



[1] Leviticus 18:13-16; 20:21

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