Today’s reading is Mark 6:14-29:
And King Herod heard of it, for his name had become well known; and people were saying, “John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” But others were saying, “He is Elijah.” And others were saying, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he kept saying, “John, whom I beheaded, has risen!” For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death and could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.
A strategic day came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” And he swore to her, “Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.” And she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” And although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back his head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.
A king once killed the young men in his court who refused to have sex with him. Mwanga, the king of Buganda (the largest of the traditional kingdoms now part of Uganda) was a relatively young man who felt that Christianity was a foreign influence; he felt threatened by colonial powers, Islam, and other African kings. But one of the major factors in his hatred for Christian faith was that he was a pedophile. The king coerced young men sexually. But the young men refused to consent to him after they gave their lives to Christ. So Mwanga, instead of yielding to the word of God, or receiving Jesus’ invitation to be transformed, lashed out at this challenge to his power. Between 1885–87, he killed these young men by burning, dismembering (including castration), beheading, spearing, and in one case, being torn apart by wild dogs. Uganda now observes June 3rd, the day most of the early Christian martyrs were killed, as a national holiday: Uganda Martyrs Day.
Jesus had just sent out the twelve disciples to preach and heal (Mk 6:1–13), making Jesus’ claim on Israel felt afresh. Rumors were afoot and talk was rampant. A fresh word of God was troubling the corridors of power.
Today’s reading shows us another story of a powerful ruler refusing to be transformed by the word of God which he so desperately needs. Meet Herod Antipas, a client king under Rome. He was a son of Herod the Great, who tried to murder the infant Jesus (Mt 2). Herod the Great divided his kingdom upon his death in 4 BC. His son Herod Antipas (Mk 6:14) ruled as tetrarch (ruler of “a fourth”) the region called Perea (northeast of the Dead Sea) and the Galilee area under the Roman Empire. Early in his reign, Herod Antipas married his first wife Phasaelis, the daughter of the King of Nabatea, his neighbor to the east. However, on a visit to Rome he stayed with his half-brother Herod Philip I. There, he fell in love with his sister-in-law, Philip’s wife Herodias, who was also granddaughter of Herod the Great, and therefore also Herod Antipas’ own niece. (Need to read that again? So do I!) The two agreed to marry each other after they divorced their respective spouses. The prophet John the Baptist, Jesus’ herald and forerunner, condemned the marriage. It was both incestuous and adulterous, and therefore against Jewish law (Lev 18:16; 20:21), which, we will later see, comes not just from Sinai but reaches back to God’s vision for humanity from the creation (Mk 10:1 – 12).
Why does Mark include this long aside here? Partly because King Herod typifies resistance to Jesus. Herod wants to be a king himself, exerting power in all the ways he pleases. What kind of person is Herod? (1) Fearful and superstitious, because he had kept John the Baptist “safe” out of fear, and now thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist version 2.0; he fears divine vengeance (6:14). (2) Sensual and driven by his desires, because he broke his first marriage even though it was politically important and later cost his people a war; he also chose an unlawful, incestuous marriage with his own niece, and he was “pleased” by the dancing of his stepdaughter which was probably erotic (6:22). (3) Spontaneous and unthinking, because he made a very rash vow to give “whatever” his stepdaughter wanted (6:22). (4) Cowardly, because he never confronted his vindictive wife Herodias (6:19, 24). (5) People-pleasing, because he wanted to keep his vow (really a kind of dare) in front of all his guests (6:23-26).
Partly, however, Mark shows us that Herod has another chance to respond to the word of God. While there is deep resistance in Herod, if only Herod is willing, Jesus can liberate him from his sin. After all, Jesus had cast out another representation of Rome, the “Legion” of demons – not coincidentally named after a Roman Legion – into the sea like God had drowned the Egyptians in the Exodus long ago (5:1-20). Jesus can expel the other voices dominating King Herod, if Herod lets him.
Partly, Mark shows us what the proclamation of the kingdom means, even in the face of hostile people with power. For instance, what would John the Baptist or Jesus say to Newt Gingrich? The former Speaker of the House began his relationship with his wife Callista adulterously, while he was still married to his previous wife Marianne Ginther. In fact, he began his relationship with Marianne adulterously, too, while he was still married to his first wife Jackie Battley. Both Newt and Callista say they were and are followers of Jesus. Or imagine being one of the Ugandan young men in the court of King Mwanga. Dare we say, out of love for that person, a word that challenges their delusions of power? “You are not the true king here. It is not lawful for you to…”
Partly, Mark’s inclusion of Herod’s story is a premonition of coming conflict. If Herod imprisoned and beheaded John the Baptist, how will the other rulers, both Jewish and Roman, treat Jesus? The powers that be will not sit idly by when threatened.
Finally, Mark also calls attention to the general Jewish expectation for resurrection. Though these particular crowds and especially King Herod are not terribly clear about how it would happen, they call our attention to a deeply Jewish hope. Hope in resurrection came from the conviction that God’s original creation is good, and that God is still committed to it. Hence, the Jewish prophets looked ahead to a time when God would raise His people from death (Isa 25:6-8; 26:19; Ezk 36:26-37:14; Hos 6:1-2; Ps 16:8-11, 49:14-15; Job 19:25; Dan 12:2-3; cf. 2 Maccabees 7:5-23 to see how militant Jews thought of resurrection as a reward for militancy). However muddled, these characters point to a real Jewish hope: a hope for God to resurrect His faithful people into new life. It is the hope that the body of someone laid by his disciples in a tomb will not stay there, and not stay dead.
Mako Nagasawa is Director of the New Humanity Institute. He, his wife Ming, and their two children live in a Christian intentional community involved with urban ministry in Dorchester.