This continues on from the Plumb Lines sermon.
Reading: Mark 6:14-29 New International Version
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
There are three Herods in the Bible, and they all get confused with one another. The first Herod was Herod the Great. He is the Herod who was around at the Nativity of Christ. Herod the Great got his power from Emperor Augustus. He was a builder and built many great things, but he was evil. He had, we believe, nine wives and many concubines, but then when someone has as much power as Herod the Great, they can do anything. Israel was ruled by the Romans, so Herod had to be friends with Augustus, who gave him the kingship.
Herod Antipas was never king but he is the Herod in this story from Mark. He was full of ambition, paranoia and took after his father, Herod the Great. His father killed three of his sons, one of his wives, and his brother. He was just ruthless because he believed they were taking power from him. Interestingly enough, Herodias, the wife of Antipas, was the granddaughter of Herod the Great, who had killed her mother. Herodias was used to living in a situation where family members were killed and I wonder whether or not that in some way influences her behaviour. The third Herod, who we hear about in Acts, is Herod Agrippa who kills James.
There are stacks of things that we can learn by reading this passage in Mark 6. All the time, the Bible is teaching us and trying to make us better people. When we read this passage, remember that Herod was not a real King. He never actually had the title King. This passage is the longest passage within the Gospel that does not have Jesus as its central point. So, why does Mark include it? Instead of Jesus, it relates to John the Baptist, but it must have been very important for Mark.
A lot of history confirms much of what Mark says. The main author is Josephus (Joseph Ben Mathias), a Jewish historian who records these events outside of the Bible. Josephus tells us that Herod murdered John the Baptist. There is no mention of Herodias or Salome, who the Bible does not name but Josephus does, actually having anything to do with the murder of John the Baptist. But Mark is of a different opinion and Herod, whilst a bad man does not come out of it too badly. Mark has put the total blame onto the women. Mark is not anti-women, and we have had two powerful women in Mark 5 and 7 to prove this, but in this story, whilst Herod’s pride destroys things, he does not come over as being a very, very bad person. And this is where the plumb line in Amos 7 comes in. God's plumb line probably says Herod is bad, whereas other people may disagree.
John is imprisoned in the same place as Herod’s banquet. At the banquet, the women are on one side and the men are on the other. This is a bit like the 18th and 19th century where the men withdraw to drink port and the girls and the women talk about knitting patterns or whatever affairs they are interested in. So, we have this separation at this banquet. Herod sat with the people he wanted to impress, and how Herod impressed people was by having risque parties while the women were somewhere else. To impress his court, Herod asked a young woman, who Josephus names Salome, to do a dance. She danced to seduce the men, and she was probably only 12 or 13 years old. So pleased was Herod with her performance, he offered the girl anything she wanted. He even offered half his kingdom, which was not his to give as he was not actually a king.
The girl, who was Herodias’ daughter, asked her mother what she should request. Herodias really hated John the Baptist, because he told everybody that her relationship with Herod was wrong. Not only was she Herod’s niece, she was also married to his brother, Philip I. As far as the Jewish were concerned, this was incest and adultery, which John told her. Although this was the truth, Herodias was very upset. What do people do with the truth? Remember the reading in Amos? Do we ignore the truth or do we get rid of the messenger? Herodias did the latter, saying to her daughter, ask for John's head on a platter.
So, the daughter went to Herod, and said she wanted John the Baptist’s head on a platter. According to Mark, but not necessarily in history, Herod is crestfallen. The word Mark uses is the same word Jesus used when praying in Gethseme. His soul was heartbroken. Pride stopped Herod from going back on his word, so he delivered. John was an innocent victim of a power game.
I want to conclude by asking, if we were part of this gathering, who are we? Are we Herod, full of pride, not wanting to go back on our word for fear of losing face. Are we Herodias, a victim of their upbringing and of murderous intent? Are we like the girl, being manipulated? Or are we the other party-goers, who see this happening, but do nothing to stop it. I think we would be like the party-goers, not doing anything to stop it but still thinking it is wrong.
This passage is challenging us today in a similar way. Whenever we see something that is not right, are we going to be like the party-goers, and not do anything about it, or are we going to stand up for what is true? But standing up for what is true got Amos condemned, got John the Baptist condemned, and got Jesus condemned. Eleven of the Twelve Disciples, or twelve of the thirteen if you include Matthias, died horrible deaths because they spoke the truth. The cost of discipleship is high, but Mark challenges us to take our place in the party and think about what role we play. Are we going to be perpetrators of violence or observers of violence? There are lots of good people out there, but they have not stopped many of the world’s atrocities. There were lots of good Germans, but they never stopped Hitler. There were lots of good Chinese people out there but they never stopped Mao Zedong. There are lots of wonderful Russians, but they never stopped Stalin. There are lots of good people out there today, but they do not stop the violence by speaking out.
A question I always ask myself is what scars have I got to show because of my Christian faith? Have I spoken out when I have seen an injustice? Is my moral plumbline askew from God’s? Perhaps we should all ask those questions.
This sermon was first preached at Wanstead URC by Reverend Martin Wheadon on 11th July 2021
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon