After this sermon, one of our elders, a refugee from war and immigrant to this nation, told me she knew I was talking about the president and agreed with my take. Now, I wasn’t thinking about him at all when preparing this piece. My attention was very much on each of us and our shortcomings. Her response, then, was a reminder that between the preacher’s speech and the congregation’s hearing there are many filters. Filters of experience and attention and Spirit holy. So what we say is not necessarily what they hear. And that is OK. It was also a reminder of the Holy Bible’s ongoing usefulness for interpreting our lives and our times.
The Bible is ripe with villains, or at least villainous behavior.
Abraham, cast his firstborn child and that child’s mother out into the wilderness because he feared the mother of his second born child. Jacob steals his brother’s birthright before being humbled enough before God to become Israel. Laban, uncle of Jacob, tricks Jacob into marrying the less attractive of two sisters. Judah does so poorly by a widowed daughter in law that she had to pose as a prostitute before he will fulfill his obligations.
But at this point in the Bible, is there any villain greater than Herodias? She uses her daughter to force her husband to cut off a man’s head. Manipulative. Dastardly. Evil.
Yet possibly far less despicable than her husband, Herod.
This story’s Herod is just one of many in the ancient near east. He is probably Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Herod Antipas ruled Judea from 4 BCE to 39 CE in part through a successful war against one of his brothers, Archelaus.
His wife, Herodias, is not Antipas’ first. That was a political union with a princess of the Nabatean kingdom on the Arabian peninsula. Antipas met Herodias when he was visiting his brother Philip, to whom she was married. But not only is Herodias his sister-in-law, she is also niece to Antipas’ and Philip and Archelaus via a fourth brother, Aristobulus IV. This family was very complicated well before today’s story.
Scholars suggest Herodias married Antipas out of political ambition, as this brother had a higher profile in the region. This resonates with her other actions as Herodias has the original Nabatean wife banished before moving herself and her daughter Salome, aka Antipas’ great-niece, into Antipas’ home. And, of course, Herodias’ will to control continues in the gospel, when she turns a party into a beheading.
The beheading of John the Baptist, prophet of God and ritualizer of redemption.
Several weeks ago when John made his first appearance in this gospel named some of the other prophets of his time and how they took people to the wilderness, they took others en masse to the temple, they tried to part rivers and collapse walls, and all of them were executed for their trouble. So John’s own execution—and Jesus’ later—is neither unique nor surprising. But it wasn’t John’s wilderness work that got him killed, it was the marriage of Antipas and Herodias.
Though there is a strong tradition in the Hebrew Bible of brothers being required to marry sisters-in-law, that is only supposed to happen after they are widowed. Instead, Herodias left one living brother to be with another, and he gladly received her. That’s a violation for John the Baptist and he says so, publicly.
But why would Antipas or Herodias care what some local guy in animal cloth who dips people in rivers has to say? They are people of international travel and personal reach, born into and married within a political dynasty. Yes, there had been wars that risked their family’s place, but was John the Baptist a likely candidate to start another one?
Like the other executed prophets of his time, John was trouble. Trouble because he critiqued social practices and political families. Those kinds of criticisms gain followers, followers who may choose to pick up arms.
While scripture says that Herodias had a grudge against John, more accurately she was threatened by him. Threatened by the possibility that John’s movement would be the one that toppled their walls, that brought the unbound wilderness to her feet. Herodias’ execution of John is the product of political self-preservation.
Yet as horrible as Herodias’ use of her daughter and abuse of John’s body is, what do they matter to us? Where is the lesson there for us, today? None of us will be in a position of dynastic leadership faced with the desire to kill someone to protect that dynasty.
That’s why I don’t think Herodias is the villain we should attend to rather we need to pay attention to the villainy of Herod Antipas.
The story says Herod “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and Herod protected him.” So why the change? The passage also says that “out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, (Antipas) did not want to refuse (his step-daughter/grandniece).”
I am pretty skeptical about the first as I doubt that Antipas has any real concern about breaking an oath. He went to war against one sibling and married the spouse of another. These do not speak of a great deal of personal or ethical integrity. It must be the other reason given, “out of regard…for (his) guests”, that moved Antipas from grief at Herodias’ request to fulfilling it.
But what do the guests have to do with anything? They aren’t under threat. Herod doesn’t have to agree to behead John for their immediate personal safety. No, Antipas is trying to save something else. He is trying to save face in front of those guests.
John lost his life to protect Antipas’ ego.
Which is what makes Antipas worse, makes him more cruel and more dangerous, than Herodias. She has the excuse of protecting their reign; Antipas is only protecting his pride. Herodias’ sin is a rarity in motivation; Antipas’ is all too common. Antipas’ villainy is amplified, it is elevated because of its banality.
Which is why Jesus tries to teach us to resist it.
Just before this royal drama and gruesome death, we read that Jesus has sent disciples out into the world to heal people of their pains. Jesus asks that they not take a lot of baggage, only what he has taught them, only what God has gifted them with. Jesus also offers them instructions that if they are unwelcome or rejected, they should walk away.
The disciples had witnessed already how whole communities would rather reject and run Jesus off than allow themselves to take seriously what he had to offer, than allow sick people any healing. Jesus is asking them to experience the same, and to do so without any provisions, without any tools of protection or comfort.
Jesus also knows the disciples will be perceived as a threat, that others will try to use scorn or derision to try to draw the disciples back within the boundaries of what they consider right behavior, right belief. Jesus knows they will be tempted to let that fear of the opinions of others serve as their guide, rather than God.
The Bible does have a lot of villains because so does the world. Our work as students of the Bible is to identify which are the outliers and which are just like us. The Herodiases out there are surely a problem, but so it the Antipas within.
From royalty to regular folk, all of us are at risk of choosing our pride, our need to be right, over learning someone else’s perspective, over protecting someone else’s right to exist. Jesus invites us to lay that lethal self-centeredness down, to carry with us only God’s universal and total love.
So go naked into a hostile world, disciples, to offer relief from pain. And when we are met with that world’s disdain, don’t internalize it, don’t take criticism of you to heart, don’t worry about saving face. Just shake it off as we would dust on our sandals or snow from our boots. For when we do, the people we will relieve from pain will include ourselves.
“Villainous Self: Mark 6.6b-29”
Delivered at Ames UCC on February 9, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie