Herod and the Prophets (February 16, 2020)
Herod and the Prophets
We are continuing today our trip through the story of the New Testament. If you remember back three or four weeks ago, we were talking about Jesus‘s ministry within the Galilee, the northern region of the area that the Jews were occupying around the holy land. This is around the Sea of Galilee, in the north of the modern state of Israel. And we were talking about what Jesus was doing: that he got into the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan, he came out of that and preached a sermon that didn’t go overly well, and now he was hanging out in town called Capernaum and he was healing, teaching, and casting out demons. He was making a name for himself.
Right before our reading today we see that Jesus sends out his disciples in pairs with nothing. They just took the sandals on their feet and the cloak on their back to go and do ministry; to do the things that he had been doing. Mark tells us that Jesus sent them out, and then he gives us a little interlude to give us some time to allow them to do their stuff, and then after our reading they come back and announce their success at doing that. But I want to take a look at what the interlude is saying, because it shows us what is going on around Jesus in the Galilee outside of Jesus’s sphere of influence. And what we find there is actually very informative to the decisions that Jesus is about to make as he prepares to turn his face toward Jerusalem and get ready to head ultimately for his betrayal, death, and resurrection.
So first, I need to introduce you to a guy named Herod. Now you probably have heard of this Herod’s father. The father was Herod the Great. Herod the Great ruled over pretty much all of the land that is the modern state of Israel, and probably a little bit more. When he died his kingdom was split up amongst his three sons: Herod, Herod, and Herod. He also had a daughter named Herodias. It’s confusing. But the Herod we’re focusing on, I’m going to call the Herod of Galilee, because I don’t really know how to pronounce his descriptive name. He took over the region of the Galilee and a little bit of Samaria. There’s another Herod with a descriptive name of Philip that took over what is up in Syria. His capital is a town called Caesarea Philippi, which is where Jesus will be in a couple of chapters to have a very important discussion with his disciples.
Mark catches us up on what has been happening around Galilee during this time. Jesus has been making a name for himself, and he has been getting into the radar of King Herod of the Galilee. And all the people around here are asking the question. The question. The most important question of anybody’s life: who is this Jesus? Who do you say Jesus is? This is the question, the most important question that anyone has to answer in their life, including us today. And here we see how Herod and the people around him are answering. But Mark gives us a little bit more of a backstory as to understanding Herod’s answer to this question.
So what we have to remember is that Herod the Great’s daughter Herodias is married to Herod Philip up in Syria. At some point Herod of Galilee went up into the court of his brother Phillip, and he and Herodias, his half sister, fell in love. And he divorces his current wife and marries the wife of his brother Philip who happens to be his half sister.. This is all sorts of wrong on so many levels, not only in Roman times but Scripturelly as well. And there is a prophet in Israel named John. And this is the same John that baptized Jesus. But he was a prophet by trade, and he doesn’t stop being a prophet just because he’s finally baptized Jesus and done the most important work of his career, right. He continues to be a prophet. And one of the things prophets do is they get political: they speak the truth to the politicians. That’s what they do, throughout all of Scripture. And John continues to do that here: he walks up to the king and begins preaching around Galilee saying “this is wrong. The king needs to repent and turn away. The king needs to get out of this particular anti-scriptural, anti-godly marriage and get back on track.” And Herod doesn’t like this, and has him arrested for “causing trouble.”
But, we’re told that Herod doesn’t actually act against John. Because John is not a Roman citizen John has no rights and Herod can keep him in prison for the rest of John’s life if he wanted to. And it seems he intends on doing just that: to hold John for 25 years and never charge him with anything more than causing trouble or ever holding a trial. This will come up later when we get to Paul, because Paul is a citizen and he invokes his rights multiple times to get out of some of the same situations.
But John is stuck in prison. Herod though doesn’t do anything else to him. He holds him in a quality prison, a kind of house arrest. And we’re told he likes listening to John. Some other sources say that Herod is afraid that if he kills John there will be rebellion, and Rome can take away his kingdom if there’s a rebellion. But whatever it is, whether he’s afraid to lay a hand on a person he believes to be a prophet of God or he just is entertained by John or afraid of rebellion; whatever it is Herod doesn’t damage John. He just gets him out of the public eye. And he brings John in often because he enjoys listening to him; which is interesting because all John seems to ever do is preach against Herod. But he enjoys hearing John. So maybe he’s just hearing not listening.
And then we arrive at the fateful banquet. Herod holds a birthday party for himself, and he invites all the dignitaries from all around to come and party with him for his birthday. And they get drunk. And as part of this this birthday party he brings his stepdaughter, the daughter of Herodias and maybe even this is the daughter of Philip?? We don’t know. But the stepdaughter comes out and dances for the party.
Now you listen to a lot of the commentaries give sexual overtones to this dance. That is because they’re reading into “Herod was pleased.” There’s no explicit indication that this has to be something sexual. It could be an older stepdaughter giving some sort of seductive dance, but it could also be a younger stepdaughter just dancing. And Herod could be pleased with her dance because she entertained these guests of honor and therefore raised his standing in the area. So there’s not necessarily sexual underpinnings here, but there is drunkenness and impulsive decisions. And Herod pulls her over and says “I will give you anything you want, even upwards of half the kingdom. What do you want my daughter?”
And she leaves.
And you can feel Herod’s face draining of color. Because he knows where she’s going. She goes to her mother; her mother who is still very angry at John for preaching against her marriage. And she tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. And she returns and she says “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Herod, face white as snow, looks at her, and looks around and knows he can’t say no. He’s offered this girl whatever she wants in front of all of these dignitaries of the surrounding area. He can’t say no. And so this person who’s been afraid to harm, John the Baptist, he now orders to kill. The guard goes and he gets John’s head, and he put it on a platter, and he hands it, Scripture says, to the girl. Herod has exited stage right. This is a king who has put to death countless people, countless noncitizens, but this one seems to stay with him. His conscience doesn’t seem to get rid of or forget this particular exchange.
Much of what Mark does here in telling the story is to begin to foreshadow the rest of the Gospel. For starters, in two chapters Jesus will have pulled away from Galilee, perhaps running away from Herod himself after hearing of John’s death, and he winds up in Caesarea Philippi, the capital of Herod’s brother Philip. There’s a bit of a rivalry here; he feels safe there. And he asked the question of his disciples: who do you say that I am? And they will answer with what all of the rest of the people answer: which are all foreshadowed here with the people around Herod. He’s a prophet, he’s a teacher, he’s a guru, he’s a rabbi; he is John come back to life, or Elijah come to prepare the way. And then of course Jesus will ask who they say that he is. And of course the disciples, who during this Interlude are out two by two doing the work of Jesus and seeing demons run from the very name of Jesus, so they have the right answer: you are the Messiah. But Herod seems to latch onto this idea that Jesus is John come back to life, which indicates to me that Herod hasn’t forgiven himself for what happened to John, and he hasn’t forgiven himself for becoming too drunk that particular night.
It also foreshadows what will happen at the end of the Gospel, when Jesus goes to Jerusalem and enters into his passion. When he is betrayed and arrested, one of the things that happens is that Pilate hears that he is Galilean, and says that Herod can deal with a Galilean! And so Herod faces down this man who he believes is John come back to life in handcuffs again in front of him, with the crowd around him again saying you have to kill this man. He has to relive this moment. And we see that, again, he does not have the strength to release him. He manages this time to find a way to not kill him himself, he hands him back over to Pilate, but he doesn’t have the strength to release him. Even with recalling what is happening, even with brewing over this for however much time he has had to believe that Jesus is John come back to life, he can’t make the right decision the second time either. Also, we see that this is going to happen again. And we see what happens when a prophet gets arrested by Rome, all the way through until the disciples come get his body and put it in a tomb. We’re going to see that played out again at the passion week as well.
Scripture tells us that Herod enjoyed listening to John, but as I mentioned John liked to preach against Herod, and Herod never turned from his behavior or repents. In fact he repeats the same thing just a few months later with Jesus. And so I wonder if Herod actually enjoyed listening to John, or if he enjoyed hearing John but never actually listened to him. I wonder if Herod would’ve enjoyed hearing Jesus, who seemed to be talking about the same things. I wonder if Herod would’ve enjoyed hearing Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa, or Francis of Assisi, or any of the prophets that have come over the last 2000 years. Hearing, but never listening. And I also wonder how many of us enjoy hearing Jesus but don’t listen.
The most important question of your life is who do you say Jesus is. If you listen to Jesus, you’re likely to be with the disciples declaring that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior of the world. If all you do is hear Jesus though, you might well wind up with Herod, saying he must be a prophet or John come back to life; a good teacher but nothing more. So as you leave this place, I want you to know that what you have to do is to take what you hear here and actually listen. Apply it in the world.
Who do you say Jesus is?