So, if any of you think you come from a dysfunctional family, think again. The reality is that yours most likely has nothing on the Herod Antipas family. In fact one might say that Herod and his kin put the “D” in dysfunctional.
We have just heard the lurid story of the murder of John the Baptist by Herod as a result of a ridiculous offer of reward for a little party dance. John’s beheading is actually one of the more gruesome events in the Bible, with the capricious manner of his beheading evoking images of current day ISIS murders of hostages. Between this beheading and Salome’s little seductive dance, this passage is a favorite theme in Western dance, art and literature. Because of that, it’s a pretty well-known story well beyond the Church and her scripture. But try as it might, the art fails to capture the depravity of Herod’s family and his court in Galilee.
It’s a little convoluted to wrap one’s mind around, but let’s try. Herod Antipas was one of three sons of Herod the Great; he of the slaughter of the innocents fame at Jesus’ nativity.
The three sons inherit portions of their father’s kingdom at his death, with Herod Antipas becoming the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. This Herod lusted after his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who also happened to be his niece, a daughter of a half-brother Aristobulus who pre-deceased him. Aristobulus, by the way, was murdered by his own father. Herod finally seduces Herodias to the point that she divorces Philip and become his wife. This was illegal according to the Levitical law, which states that a man “shall not uncover the nakedness of [his] brother’s wife.” (Leviticus 18:16). This was the law that John the Baptist referenced as he railed against this marriage. For the religious people of the time, this marriage was an outrage against morality and decency.
Herodias’ daughter, who danced for Herod at his birthday banquet, is commonly known as Salome. She is not so named in any of the Gospels, but we have her name on good authority from the great Jewish historian, Josephus in his book Antiquities. So, if you are following this, Salome is the daughter of Herodias and Philip. Herodias is Herod’s niece, so by extension Salome is also his niece through his niece. Josephus also reports that Salome eventually married Herod’s son, another Philip. Talk about keeping things in the family!
Herod Antipas’ kept a very decadent and debauched court. The solo dance that Salome performed, and which pleased Herod so much, would have been an erotic and licentious pantomime. That a princess of royal blood should be so encouraged to dance this way is commentary itself about the moral state of the court, her mother and Herod.
This debauchery is exacerbated when the drunk Herod offers Salome anything she wants as a reward, anything up to half his kingdom. This was the opening that the mean-spirited, spiteful and plotting Herodias – who was humiliated by John the Baptist’s condemnation of her –-was looking for. Not knowing how to respond to Herod’s excessive offer, Salome runs off to Herodias to ask what she should ask for. To gratify Herodias spleen, John is immediately executed.
Many people wonder why Mark’s Gospel includes this lurid story – which is a flashback — about John’s murder. On first reading it seems oddly out of context to the surrounding narrative. But Mark is intentional about reporting on John’s depraved death. When taken with its companion piece about the feeding of the 5,000, which immediately follows this story, Mark is making a powerful statement about power.
Both stories are set in the context of banquets. One is in a royal court rife with decadence and corruption. This story is all about power misused for one’s selfish purposes. It speaks to the wielding of power for the purpose of destruction. This kind of power, as theologian Karoline Lewis states, is “damaging, demoralizing, debilitating, demeaning, desecrating and discriminating.” I would add, dysfunctional. The story of John’s death is power at its worst.
This kind of power is referred to by Walter Bruggemann as the extraction system; an abusive system of wealth and power that looks to sap all the resources and life out of the less powerful, to meet its own lusts and greed.
This is the power of ISIS; power that subjugates people to terror to comply with their twisted theology and callously murders those who hold religious beliefs other than their own. It is the power of racial hatred that induces people to burn down Black houses of worship. It is the power of a government that gives tax breaks to corporations and the wealthiest 1% in our nation, but will not legislate a decent minimum wage for the neediest people among us. It is the power of an Israeli government that subjugates Palestinians to deprivation and humiliation. It is the power of a Bishop in our Church who has padlocked the doors of St. James the Great church in Newport Beach, California, locking out a vibrant congregation from their spiritual home, because he wants to sell the property for $15 million to a developer of luxury condominiums. This is the power of the extraction system. This is the power of empire.
Here is Karoline Lewis again: “Friends, I am tired of the kind of power that has no regard, none at all, for the other. The power that seems to act as if disregard for the other is acceptable. The power that dismisses the loyal for the sake of the new. The kind of power that is reckless and relentless and ruthless.”
Mark then compares this power displayed at Herod’s banquet with the banquet at the feeding of the 5,000, which represents another kind of power entirely. This is about the power of good news of Jesus who brings the message of the power of God’s reign; of God’s embracing love. This power is rooted in humility, sacrifice and compassion and has as its end the hope of approach, the hope of relationship with all people. God’s power is outside of itself and is not turned inward. It is not about greed or self-gain, it is about generosity and abundance. It is about the taking of what appears to be so very little and discovering that it is not only more than enough, but that there is more than enough left over. This power is all about love, all the time and in all circumstances.
This is Mark’s intention: to draw in sharp contrast the depraved, self-serving power represented at Herod’s court and John’s brutal death and the life-giving power represented in the feeding of the 5,000 by the compassionate and loving Jesus.
These two forms of power are set before us by Mark to choose from; one is death and one is life. Which one we select becomes a litmus test for what kind of power we will live by as individuals, as congregations, as business owners and employees, as institutions, as a society. Mark compels us to do a self-inventory and ask ourselves about our beliefs and behaviors. What is power for us: money, the bottom line, rules, control, competition, manipulation, fear, lust, greed? That’s not power, Mark says, that’s abuse. That’s nothing more than looking to get one’s way, regardless of the cost. That’s force. That’s intimidation. That’s narcissism. That kind of power only leads to a head on a platter.
Or is our belief in power incarnated in the abundance of the feeding of the multitude, where Jesus takes away our fears of scarcity which only fuels our desire for more, more, more and the philosophy of “I got mine, too bad for you.”
Do we trust in his power of compassion, of equality, of trust in God’s providence, of God’s mercy and grace to each and every one of us?
Mark calls us to make a choice and he clearly indicates which one we are called too. We are to choose power rooted not in ourselves but in God’s love. This power is rooted in mercy and truth. It is overflows with abundant grace and dignity. It exhibits regard and respect for all. It is the power that will change our lives. It is the power that will save the world.