This story starts with “King Herod heard it . . .” So we will start there, too.
First, a bit of context. For many of us, we know that we’ve experienced two men named George Bush as President of the United States. In the same manner, those during the 30-ish years of Jesus’ life experienced two King Herods. Matthew’s Gospel tells us about King Herod being visited by the “wise men”, who told him about following the star to the King of the Jews, recently born. That King Herod then decreed that all male children age two and younger should be killed—he was seeking to eliminate the newborn “King of the Jews” that the wise men had told him about. Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary and the newborn Jesus fled to Egypt until it was safe for them to return—which was when THIS King Herod died, probably that same year. The King Herod of Jesus’ adult years was the son of this first one, and was in power for pretty much Jesus’ entire lifetime. He, like his father, was a vassal of the Roman empire, instructed to keep the peace in Israel while Rome was the overseeing nation of its far-flung empire. So much of what each of these Herods did was to keep the natives down and stop them from causing trouble. That was their job, and this second Herod had been on the job for a long time, and knew how to do it—which gave him some latitude in how he did it.
So here, we have him torn between his job, his family, his extracurricular activities, and his own preferences (it would seem that positions of power have a number of challenges when all of these realities are involved). John the Baptist, forerunner of Jesus (and Jesus’ “cousin” somehow) had called out Herod for “stealing” his brother’s wife Herodias to make her his own wife. Herodias hated John because of that, and insisted that Herod arrest and imprison him. She wanted him dead, but the Scripture tells us that “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” (Mark 6:20). He wasn’t happy with what he heard, and yet somehow he grasped the integrity of it, so he liked to hear John, and for fear of John’s holiness he didn’t allow him to be harmed. Until he did, when as this story tells us, that to please his daughter (also named Herodias), who in a moment of emotional overreach he promised “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom” (Mark 6:23b) she, prompted by her mother, said “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mark 6:25b). Herod had promised this in front of a bunch of people, and so now he is stuck on the horns of a dilemma.
He has promised, in front of a bunch of witnesses. He can’t back off on it without losing respect. Most of them would agree with killing John—after all, John has been running Herod down—and certainly Herod doesn’t want to upset his wife, much less her daughter. And yet, he liked to listen to John, even though it disturbed him (guilty conscience, anyone?) and respected him as a holy man. But how can he explain that to anyone there, who would not only see him as looking weak by backing down but would see him as crazy for liking a guy who is tearing him down for his behavior. He’s kind of stuck. Nothing that he does will somehow be quite the right thing, depending on whose perspective is considered.
Most of us aren’t in this exact situation. I think that’s a pretty fair statement. But most of us have probably been caught between conflicting loyalties, and in circumstances where we need to save face, even if it might go against our instincts. Sometimes it seems as if there is no right answer.
In this story, I suspect our sympathies are not with Herod. I suspect our sympathies are with John the Baptist, and we of course see Herod’s behavior as cruel and weak, insisting that John be beheaded at the whim of someone else, in a situation where Herod has unwittingly set himself up for this impossible decision, and not having the backbone to stand up for his own convictions. It is easy for us to call HIM out on this.
But do we ever find ourselves in situations where we feel ourselves in the kind of trap he’s in?
GOSPEL Mark 6:14-29
14 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.’ 15 But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
17 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. 18 For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 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. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 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.’ 23 And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ 24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25 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.’ 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.