Beheading John

West Side Moravian Church
July 16, 2006

The Characters

Family Histories

James Duane Doty was the first federal judge in the Wisconsin territory, covering a circuit from Green Bay to Mineral Point. He built a reputation for fairness and respect toward French descendents, miners, settlers, and Native Americans. Doty laid out the Astor neighborhood of Green Bay's east side (on behalf of John Jacob Astor's Astor Company), and later developed Fond du Lac and Neenah. He served as Wisconsin's second territorial governor, founded Madison and Dane County – naming them for his American heroes – and he convinced the legislature to establish Wisconsin's capital there. Judge Doty retired to Doty Island in Neenah, but was called to take over the governorship of the Utah territory and to quiet the conflicts among Mormons, Americans, and Indians.

James Duane Doty is also my first cousin, umpteen times removed.

I mention this because Judge Doty is one of the few relatives outside of my immediate family that I make any attempt to keep track of. Some people seem to have no problem remembering vast numbers of ancestors, siblings, cousins, in-laws, and second half-cousins in-law, whereas I, who have no siblings and only 3 cousins, usually lose track at first cousin once removed.

I think it's even worse when it is someone else's family. A hundred years from now, how easily will President Bush be confused with President Bush? George Bush, I mean, the one who fought a war against Iraq.

Herodian Dynasty

Now then consider the family of Herod, the man who was king at the time Jesus was born. This Herod is called the Great, not because he was a great human being (which he wasn't) but because he was remarkably successful as a king and politician. For example, he was an Idumean, not a Jew, but he managed to make himself undisputed ruler of the Jewish nation. He was a client ruler under the Romans but largely kept the Roman bureaucrats out of his territory. And, most famously, he rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple to a grandeur not seen since the days of Solomon.

But as for Herod's family, I don't know how anyone can keep them straight. Herod had a wife, one of 10 in total, named Mariamne and another wife also named Mariamne. Now Mariamne, the second, had a son named Herod. (There may have been yet aother son named Herod, whose mother, named Cleopatra, was yet another wife of Herod, but neither of them figure in this story except that Cleopatra was also the mother of Philip.)

Herod, the son, married a wife named Herodias, who was the grandaughter of Herod, the father. This Herod and Herodias had a daughter Salome (not to be confused with the Salome who was the sister of Herod, the father) – at least according to the virtual religion website, which relies on the records of such notable historians as Josephus and Livy. But the gospel says it was a different half-brother, Philip, who married his half-niece Herodias. That is, unless we've mistranslated the Gospel, which is possible since the Greek is difficult and the historians have Philip as Salome's first husband. Later on, Salome will marry her cousin Herod, who was also the grandchild of Herod.

Meanwhile, Antipas was the son of Herod the Great, with yet another of Herod's wives. Antipas called himself Herod, not to be confused with his father Herod, his brother Herod, or his half-nephew Herod. Herod Antipas was tetrarch but called himself a king, succeeded his father as far as being ruler of Galilee, and married Herodias, who was also his half-niece, swapping wives with his half-brother.

Did you follow that?

John's Family

Herod's descendents provide enough conflict to fill the plots of several soap operas, but we also have another side to the conflict. John, the well-known baptizer, preacher, and prophet, condemned Herod the tetrarch for marrying Herodias. John wasn't just well-known; he was wildly popular and widely considered to be personally saintly. Such popular support creates a power base even for a man who is not seeking power. Herod himself (the tetrarch) thought John was a good and holy man and was said to be in awe of him.

John was also the cousin of Jesus, who became famous, at first, as John's successor. The blood relationship, however, holds no significance in Mark's telling of the story; the family that was formed by the two teachers and their disciples is the counterpoint to Herod's dynasty.

The Story

The story is far less complicated than the description of the characters in it. As I said, John was condemning Herod and Herodias for for an unrighteous marriage. Herodias seems to be the one who hated John for judging them so publicly.

Herod Antipas had no interest in being saintly himself but he seems to have been intrigued by the idea of holiness and awed by the holy man. He put John on a reservation where he could be protected from Herodias, accessible to Herod's personal curiosity, and safely separated from day-to-day life.

Now Herod threw himself a birthday party. He invited his department heads and political supporters. Herodias sent her daughter to entertain. (The daughter isn't even named by Mark; she appears in the story merely as a tool that her mother wields.) The guests were pleased. Herod Antipas sees an opportunity to look magnamimous. He offers his step-daughter a vast reward. Why not? The girl could have title to half the kingdom and Antipas would still rule all of it.

But she didn't ask for half the kingdom. She asked for something that even Herod could not take back: the death of John.

The Telling

Why would Mark even tell this story? It is ugly and gory and doesn't seem to have much of a moral point. Mark doesn't even tell it in chronological order, but throws it into the narrative as a flashback while he waits for action to take place off stage.


Mark places the flashback to John's death at the point where Jesus sends his disciples to the various villages nearby. Jesus was just then taking on a truly public role and people are asking, Who is he? Those who had known him growing up thought he was putting on airs. Some thought Jesus was a new prophet, like Isaiah or Amos, something unknown for generations. Some went farther, suggesting that Jesus was Elijah, meaning the forerunner of the Annointed One who would save Israel.

Another answer was that John had come back to life. Presumably, coming back to life endowed someone with superhuman powers, so this explanation owed as much to Jesus' miracles as to his message. But to make sense, John would have to be dead and Mark has neglected to say anything about that. One reason to tell the story is to explain why some people, and especially Herod Antipas, said that Jesus was John come back to life.


Telling the story at this point serves a narrative purpose as well. Jesus has just sent his disciples out to the villages where they preached repentence and healed sick people. The message of repentence is similar to the preaching of John, but the healing miracles go beyond John's ministry.

By inserting the story of John's death here, Mark sets us up to compare and contrast the ministries of John and Jesus. There were many similarities in their message, for both preached repentence, justice, and the coming of the kingdom of God. But there were differences, too. Where John preached judgement, Jesus preached faith and forgiveness as well. Jesus and his disciples also performed amazing cures of sick people, showing Jesus' power to be greater than John's. Finally, John's death at the hand of Herod bears some similarity with Jesus' death under Pilate.

At the very least, telling John's story here points out the dangers that faced Jesus as he began to preach more widely. Being bold and telling the truth put John in prison and then cost him his life. These facts would have been known to Jesus and to the disciples that he sent out to preach. It is even more striking to us who know that Jesus, too, will be executed.


Perhaps these grand narrative functions are too broad a topic for us today. Mark may have had all these purposes in mind when he wrote the gospel story, but we read only a little piece of Mark's story, and it may be enough to spend our time on just that one flashback. Let's look more closely at each of the players in this little drama.


Herodias' daughter dances her way into history trapped in her mother's delusions about power and reputation. We think we know a little more about her from the secular historians, but as far as Mark's story is concerned the younger woman has no individuality. From Mark we have neither her past nor her future, none of her own thoughts or dreams. Only her mother's dark dream lives in the daughter.


Herodias herself is trapped with Herod in a perverted and twisted relationship. Their marriage is incestuous as well as adulterous. Very likely (although Mark says nothing on this point) the marriage was based on no kind of love but on a lust for status and political power. Herodias has no qualms about using her daughter to trick her husband into giving her what she wants, and she has no hesitation about wanting a man to die.


Of all the people who played a part here, John was the most free. John had spoken openly about the sins and failures of virtually everyone in the nation. We know (from Luke, not from Mark) that he spoke to soldiers and tax collectors, to lay people and to priests. From this story in Mark, we know that John was not afraid to speak against Antipas. That openness put John in prison and made his life subject to Antipas' whim, and yet John was still free to speak the truth because he was unafraid.

And Herod Antipas liked to listen to him.


It is Herod who is the central character in this play. It is Herod whose failures hold all of us up to judgement. All the other lives were twisted and entangled with his, and all their fears and failures are added to his. And it is Herod who stands for us in this story.

Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who played at being a king, presumed himself to be free. He could make, change, or flaut the law. He could give or take away freedom. He could take a life. Yet Herod was trapped in his own words and a slave to the opinion of his public. Herodias, through her daughter, demanded the death of John. Herod had to comply – he was trapped. He couldn't get out of it.

Herod trapped? How could that be? Wasn't he the king? He could have said, No, that is wrong. I will not murder John. He could have said, No, John's life belongs to God, not to me. His death is not mine to give.

But no, in Herod's twisted sense of life that was not possible. Why? Because he was afraid. Herod Antipas was afraid of seeming wishy-washy if he took a moral stand. He was afraid of what his guests would say. He was afraid that they would call him weak – unless he gave in. Herod could not be strong for fear of being called weak.

And who were these people before whom the tetrarch trembled? Were they foreign generals in command of armies? Were they prophets of God? (No, that was John.) Who was Herod afraid of? They were the officers of Herod's own army and the officials of Herod's own territory. Herod was afraid of a bunch of drunken bureaucrats.

Herod's view of life did not encompass the whole truth. Herod could see his guests, but he couldn't see who they really were. He saw that his guests might turn on him, but he couldn't see that their support was worthless. He heard the request for John's head, but he couldn't put it into a moral context. Herod did not seem to see that by giving in to evil, he truly became weak. (No one ever became weak merely by being called weak.)

The voice in Herod's head said, You have to kill John. There is no way out. You have to do what she asked. Yes, Herod was trapped, but not by Herodias. Herod Antipas was trapped by his own warped view of life – and the result was the death of a holy man.


We Are All Herod

Herod Antipas was not the only person to have a fear of bureaucrats. Nor was Herod the only person to be caught in a dysfunctional family and blind to a way out. One of my sayings is, Almost everyone will do almost anything to maintain almost any kind of relationship. Like Herod, we see something (or someone) and twist all our thoughts around it. We become blind to the rest of the truth. This blindness to the whole truth is the fabric of the net that traps each of us, just like Herod.

We are all Herod. Have you never said, You have to do that?

The truth is that beyond breathing there is very little we that have to do. Everything else involves our choosing. But we are not very good at making choices. In making our choices, we are caught in a twisted, sinful understanding of life, just as much as Herod was.

A friend of mine in college told me about her father when he went to a cafeteria. As he waited in line, he'd look at the selections and discuss which ones he wanted for lunch. But when his turn came, he invariably took the same thing as the person ahead of him.

I've often thought that the experience of my friend's father appropriately illustrates how our minds become twisted away from what we truly desire and how our vision becomes clouded by what happens to be near at hand. Are we clear-sighted enough to have confidence in even the smallest decisions of daily life?

It is a good thing that we seldom hold the life of a holy person in our hands. Herod is who we are.

Perfect Love

But we are more than Herod. Jesus says, You will know the truth and the truth will set you free. We have Christ's teachings and example, which keeps pulling us out of that net of blindness.

Thank you, Jesus, for living God's truth. Even while we are struggling to see, you have already conquered our blindness.

And we have Christ's friendship and forgiveness. That banishes our fears and gives us the confidence to be more than who we are, to be more than king Herod Antipas, to be kings and priests to God, and even to be members of God's family. The first letter of John tells us this: Perfect love drives out fear.

Thank you, Jesus, for coming to us as perfect love. You have conquered all our fears.

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