Lectionary 15 B
July 12, 2015
Behind today’s gruesome story of the death of John the Baptist is the story of political and family intrigue that could fill up years of soap opera plots. There are struggles for power and for the patronage of the Roman Emperor that entwine the descendants of Herod the Great in constant conflict. And it’s hard to keep track of all the Herods in the gospels. Herod the Great was the King who ordered the deaths of the children of Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Herodias, is his grand-daughter and her grandmother was a descendant of the royal priestly family that had ruled Judea for a hundred years before Pompeii conquered it and made it a Roman province. As a teenager, Herodias married her uncle, Herod Philip, who was then in line to succeed his father, Herod the Great. (Herodias’s father would have succeeded Herod, but when Herod discovers an assassination plot, he kills those of his sons who have plotted against him.) Just before Herod the Great’s death, her husband Philip also falls out of favor with his father, and the kingdom is divided among four other sons of Herod. This leaves Herodias far from the position of power she had imagined for herself. Herod Antipas—the Herod in our gospel today—is one of the four sons who inherits dominion of the Jewish kingdom. He rules over Galilee and the province that is east of the Jordan River—a territory on the border between the Roman Empire and Arab kingdom of the Nabateans. To secure that border for Rome, Antipas marries the Nabatean princess to form of alliance with the kingdom of her father. But both Herodias and Herod Antipas want more power for themselves. So Herodias divorces her powerless husband in order to offer her unique ancestry to one of the four ruling tetrarchs of Judea. Herod Antipas sees such a marriage as a way to increase his own power. And so, he divorces his Arabian wife and marries Herodias. For the Nabatean king, this breaks of the treaty and it eventually results in a war on the Roman frontier. This war goes badly and Herod requests assistance from the Roman Emperor, Tiberius. Two years later, Herod falls even farther out of favor when the new Emperor, Calagula, sides with his childhood friend Herod Agrippa (a nephew of Antipas) and exiles Herod Antipas and Herodias to Gaul where they both die within a year. It’s a complicated story and could make quite an extended soap opera.
It is the story of the rise and fall of the politically ambitious – and we still hear these stories today – and they are maybe not all that different. They maybe don’t involve murder, marriage and divorce, but manipulation for power still goes on.
John the Baptist objects to the marriage between Herod and Herodias. On the one hand Herodia’s husband, Philip, is still alive, and there are prohibitions against such a marriage in Jewish Law. But there is more than personal morality at stake in John’s confrontation with the King Herod and his wife. This royal couple is manipulating political power for their own gain, and they are doing so without any regard to the consequences for the people over whom they rule. On his birthday, Herod has a banquet for his courtiers and officers, and for the leaders of Galilee. It is a group that plays the same political games that Herod and Herodias play. And John speaks against the injustices of these power-building alliances. John holds up honest living over against the power-grasping lives of the rulers and the wealthy. During his ministry, when the crowds ask him what they should do, he says, “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do the same.” He tells tax collectors to “collect no more than the amount prescribed,” and he tells soldiers not “to extort money … by threats or false accusation.” But that focus on honest living and caring for your neighbor, is finally a threat to those who focus so much energy on gaining power and wealth for themselves – those that want to get what they can get by any means necessary.
Mark inserts the story of the death of John the Baptist, into the middle of the story of how Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim God’s message. The verses before this story are the sending out, the verses following it are the return of the disciples. In between the sending and the return is the story of how, for John, being a faithful messenger of God’s word resulted in his death. The point, in telling the story this way, is so we do not forget that discipleship is not always easy, and that being a faithful disciple sometimes means confronting the injustices of those who are powerful in this world. Amos is sent by God to confront the injustices of politics and religion that trample the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land. He asks that justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Moses is sent to confront Pharaoh and free those who have been made slaves in Egypt. Esther risks her life to speak on behalf of her people. And down through history, many of the martyrs of the Church are those who spoke out against injustice and confronted those with power. In 12th century England, Thomas Becket confronts the power of King Henry II, and soon after Henry’s henchmen come to Canterbury Cathedral and kill the archbishop. In 20th El Salvador, Oscar Romero is appointed bishop – he is a scholar and it is hoped that he will keep the church out of the revolutionary politics of that country. But as Bishop, he pays attention to what is happening to the people and he confronts the rulers with the injustices they work against the peasants. And soon after the henchmen of the powerful come and assassinate Bishop Romero as he celebrates communion with his people.
The mission of Jesus’ disciples to call people to repent – to call them to turn around and embrace the rule of God’s justice – to call them to live honestly and with compassion for their neighbors – is not without its dangers. And sometimes, when you think you are making progress, things suddenly turn. Herod liked to listen to John, but the powerful often get caught in their own power-games. He takes an oath in the presence of the political-military-business establishment gathered for his birthday. That power system ties his hands, and he does what is evil in spite of himself. Those who invest themselves in political and economic power-games find it hard to turn and embrace to rule of God’s justice. But as disciples, we are sent to confront the powers of injustice in the world, and to envision what God’s justice means for our time.
And the promise for us in the midst of our discipleship is that we are claimed forever through Christ. “Just as God chose us in Christ … and destined us for adoption as God’s own children through Jesus Christ.” And yes, it is Christ who finally accomplishes all things. And he frees us from getting caught up in the deadly power games that only destroy, so that we can experience the loving presence of Christ, holding us in his love. For then, it is no longer out of fear, but with joy that we seek with the prophets and all the martyrs of the church, “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.” Amen.