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.” 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.
From Dallas to Mad Men, TV evening soap operas have nothing on the Bible. There’s 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 scene begins with Herod getting word of Jesus’ deeds of power. Interestingly, we don’t quite know what it was that Herod heard (v. 14), only that Jesus’ fame is spreading. We looked at Herod’s guilty conscience earlier; now we learn more about where his guilt came from. All in all, it’s actually a minor twist in tightly woven story of dynastic struggle that rivals anything in Game of Thrones.
But it can get confusing. Herod, you see, is the name used by eight different rulers of the Herodian dynasty who live in the generations just before, during, and after Jesus’ ministry. Today’s story revolves around Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great. He has married Herodias, the former wife of his younger brother (also named Herod), because this marriage gives him a stronger claim to his father’s throne.
But the form of Herodias’ divorce from her former husband and her marriage to Herod Antipas was criticized by many, including John the Baptist. This is embarrassing and politically dangerous to both Herod and Herodias, and so Herod has John arrested and locks him up. But then a funny thing happens. Herod can’t bring himself to eliminate this threat to his power. He is afraid of John, Mark reports, because he knows John is righteous and holy and, as it turns out, he likes listening to John.
Herodias, however, shares neither her new husband’s fear of, nor affinity for, John. An opportunity for Herodias to act arises when Herod throws a banquet for some of his courtiers and local leaders, and her daughter (also named Herodias – I told you this gets confusing!) dances for and entrances her stepfather. Herod, caught up in a moment of exuberance, promises to give her anything, up to half his kingdom. When Herodias’ daughter asks her counsel, she prompts her daughter to ask for John’s head on a platter and Herod, afraid to renege on a promise made before all these VIPs, consents.
While it’s always tempting to look for “the moral of the story” in biblical accounts, it’s rarely satisfying. The Bible wasn’t written to teach children to behave or help you get ahead in business. It’s a book that tells the truth, the truth about humanity in all of it’s glory and shame, and the even greater truth of God’s love for humanity and passionate commitment to redeem and save us, even from ourselves.
So if you want to find a moral it’s probably this: as in the soap operas today, so also in the political dramas of years gone by – 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’s what happens to John. And, as we’ll see, Jesus’ clash with this same Herod isn’t all that far off.
It’s not much of a moral, I know. But at least it’s true.
And, more importantly, it’s not the end of the story.
Prayer: Dear God, inspire us to work for justice and care for those who have been left behind or hurt by those in power. And remind us that whatever our failings and setbacks, you have promised in Jesus to be both with us and for us forever. Amen.