How much does Christianity embarrass powerful people? In North Korea it will get you killed. In Iran it could get you imprisoned. In America and Australia it could get you laughed at or silenced in the media. People have always tried to silence those who challenge bad morals.
Let’s understand that God’s message contains high moral standards that are an offense to some people who will try to silence it.
We will first look at the politics of hate, how truth can be offensive and silencing the messenger in the context of Mark 6:14-29.1
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.
Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14a)
H’rodes Antipatros nicknamed Antipas belonged to a murderous family. The Herodian dynasty began with Herod the Great, who butchered his enemies and even family members. He was a client king over Judea, subject to Rome. His son Herod Antipas was tetrarch of Galilee. A tetrarchy is like a monarchy but with four rulers instead of one. Antipas divorced Phasaelis to marry his niece Herodias, a marriage that caused great offense in royal families and war. John condemned it as evil and was murdered for his open criticism, which embarrassed Herod Antipas and Herodias. Mark almost mockingly calls Antipas king, perhaps an unofficial local title, which Rome had refused to recognize after Herodias goaded him into requesting it. Inter family rivalries and subsequent wars led bloodthirsty Roman Emperor Caligula to charge him with treason and send Antipas and Herodias into exile.
Rumors about Jesus (Mark 6:14b-15)
As news of the missionary activity of Jesus and his disciples spread, so did hearsay. Three of the most popular rumors were that Jesus was John the Baptist resurrected, Elijah or another prophet like those of old. Because Jesus did not begin his ministry until after John the Baptizer had been assassinated, it is easy to understand how some may have thought he was John come back from the dead. They had obviously not heard that Jesus had also been baptized by John nor much of his ministry in Galilee. John the Baptist had proclaimed one who would come after him, and some assumed that was perhaps the “messenger of the covenant”, Elijah promised in Malachi 3:1; 4:5. Others thought that Jesus was some other returning prophet or spokesperson for God in the order of the ancient prophets.
Herod’s Conscience (Mark 6:16)
I once met a man who was engaged in black magic. He claimed that the devil promised him power and wealth, and asked what God had to offer. I told him none of those things necessarily, but all of that and more in the world to come. The devil’s promises were temporary and led to hell. The man decided that God’s religion was not for him and that the devil had a better deal. When true religion is ignored because it is not politically advantageous, superstition and magic are sometimes the choice. Herod’s family held power through evil, but he still had a conscience. He may have thought that John used magic to come back and haunt him. Herod’s beliefs were probably mixed with some Jewish ideas like resurrection being a precursor of the judgment and he seemed somewhat terrified.
Politically Incorrect (Mark 6:17-18)
Herod Philip, half brother to Herod Antipas, was Herodias’ first husband. Herod’s marriage was adultery, causing great offense to the father of Herod’s first wife Aretas IV of neighboring Nabatea. John’s criticism was a personal insult, but could have been seen as a threat from Nabatea. Telling the truth can sometimes get you imprisoned. Does that mean that we become so politically correct that we avoid the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11)? We are not to cause offense (1 Corinthians 10:32), but the truth will. We cannot avoid the truth of the Gospel (Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 5:29-30; John 6:60-70). It will cause offense. Persecution and tribulation cause offense (Matthew 13:21; 24:10), Jesus offended religious leaders (Matthew 15:12) and he is a rock of offense (Romans 9:33) because of the truth.
The Politics of Hate (Mark 6:19-20)
Murder and hate go hand in hand according to 1 John 3:15. Murder of a political enemy is a common theme of history. French royalty used the guillotine. British royalty had enemies pulled apart by four horses, drawn and quartered. Our politicians assassinate each other’s character and spread lies. John the Baptist is metaphorically referred to as Elijah. His conflict with Herodia recalls Elijah’s conflict with Jezebel and Esther’s experience in the court of king Xerxes. When royals are criticized they can exact revenge in ways which commoners cannot. However, Herod had a healthy fear of John and was strangely fascinated by his preaching. John’s simple lifestyle, like that of Saint Francis, added an authority to his preaching that is not available to wealthy televangelists or Bavaria’s Bishop of Bling. Herod did not follow John but liked to listen.
Silencing the Messenger (Mark 6:21-23)
God’s message is not always popular with power brokers. The church’s message is two-fold. It is good news for the poor, of the kingdom, of salvation, of Jesus Christ and peace (Isaiah 61:1; Matthew 4:23, 11:5; Mark 1:1; Luke 4:18;7:22; Ephesians 1:13, 6:15). It is also bad news for those who have been corrupted by power in this world’s dog-eat-dog Babylonian system (Revelation 18). Herod planned a birthday banquet for society’s greatest, the commanders of a thousand and other A-list citizens. Just as then, the church today has an offensive message for corrupt leaders who willingly let others suffer for profit and those who use religion for personal gain: repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2). The princess performed a dance and won her mother’s wish.
The Plot (Mark 6:24-25)
The politics of hate caused John the Baptist’s death. Like some modern sociopaths who behead innocents, Herodias plotted to decapitate John. Just as political parties plot to get the dirt on each other, so too did Herodias plot to undermine her husband’s protection of John the Baptist. Her daughter responded quickly to Herod’s offer of an extravagant gift, betraying the preconceived conspiracy. Herod had him beheaded and presented her with his head on a platter. Are we any different? Politics manipulates the truth and we believe it. We don’t know all the facts, yet politics incites us to hatred because the more we hate the more we will vote for the other party. When we allow hatred of each other, hatred of a political party, hatred of even our enemies to enter our hearts, we are no different than Herodias.
The Truth is Political Death (Mark 6:26-29)
If we live sheltered lives it can be a shock when we are confronted with some of the evils that exist in our society. There are levels of abject moral depravity which can shock even someone who has destroyed lives to get where they are. Herod deeply grieved having to kill John the Baptist. He did so to save face. He sent one of the spekulatora, Roman Imperial bodyguards, to bring John’s head. Telling the truth can sometimes get you falsely imprisoned and killed. John’s death did not end his ministry. In the end John’s words proved true as Herod’s former father-in-law Aretas IV the Nabatean king made war with him in vengeance for Antipas’ adultery against his daughter Phasaelis. Aretas defeated Herod Antipas which eventually led to his removal from office by Rome and his exile to Gaul.
Putting it in Balance
Are we uncomfortable with Christians who publicly condemn others for their faults? This Gospel lesson has John doing something similar. How do we understand John's criticism of a public figure, contrasted with what Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, that who is without sin cast the first stone. Jesus did not condemn her to death, but told her to sin no more. Neither did John condemn Herod to death, but said his actions were unlawful. This story is descriptive not prescriptive. It is not a call for Christians to blunt and offensive criticism of sinners. Jesus urged people to repentance from human corruption not judge or condemn them to hell because of it. Some of us are blunt. Others are tactful. Whichever way we choose, truth is not popular in the public arena. Yet, truth must be told.
The greatest news of all time is seen as bad news by some people and they will try to silence it. If we call the world out for its bad behavior, even as we admit that we are fellow sinners, people will hate us. Yet the Gospel is also wonderful news of salvation from our corruption. Let’s not allow that message to be silenced.
1New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.