14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He 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 it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
I have long been a fan of John Chrysostom, the great Bishop of Constantinople. He was born in 349 and died in 407. Chrysostom was an intense guy. He was a powerful and fearless preacher (“Chrysostom” means “Golden Tongue”), an aesthetic who placed high demands on the clergy, and a bold leader who possessed a keen sense of justice.
He had a particularly fascinating relationship with Eudoxia, the Empress who had been declared “Augusta” by her husband. She was, needless to say, a profoundly powerful woman. John’s relationship with Eudoxia was good…until it was not…and it frequently was not.
For instance, John occasionally railed against the opulence of the royal house. In one sermon he pointed out that if the Empress entered the church in her finest clothes and the Apostle Paul entered beside her wearing rags and chains, Paul would be much more beautiful than the Empress and all eyes would turn quickly from her to the Apostle. That is a true point, but that kind of thing did not please the Empress! More to the point, somewhere around the year 400, a man named Theognostos, who had been exiled on trumped-up charges, died. He left his widow nothing but a small vineyard. Eudoxia wanted the widow’s little vineyard, so she appealed to a largely fictitious law that proclaimed the royal couple had the rights to any land upon which they had trodden, and took it. Chrysostom, the poor widow’s pastor, did not suffer injustice lightly, and took to his pulpit to rebuke the Empress for her greed. He was, after all, the Empress’ pastor too.
Things reached a boiling point, however, when a large silver statue of the Empress Eudoxia was erected right near the cathedral, John Chrysostom’s church. How is how two ancient historians described the scene and what happened:
At this time a silver statue of the Empress Eudoxia covered with a long robe was erected upon a column of porphyry supported by a lofty base. And this stood neither near nor far from the church named Sophia, but one-half the breadth of the street separated them. At this statue public games were accustomed to be performed; these John regarded as an insult offered to the church, and having regained his ordinary freedom and keenness of tongue, he employed his tongue against those who tolerated them. Now while it would have been proper to induce the authorities by a supplicatory petition to discontinue the games, he did not do this, but employing abusive language he ridiculed those who had enjoined such practices. The empress once more applied his expressions to herself as indicating marked contempt toward her own person: she therefore endeavored to procure the convocation of another council of bishops against him. When John became aware of this, he delivered in the church that celebrated oration commencing with these words: “Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” This, of course, exasperated the empress still more. Not long after the following bishops arrived: Leontius bishop of Ancyra in Asia, Ammonius of Laodicea in Pisidia, Briso of Philippi in Thrace, Acacius of Berœa in Syria, and some others.
Apparently the festivities marking the unveiling of the statue were so loud that they disrupted Sunday services, so John allegedly made comment upon the inappropriateness of the whole affair. This angered Eudoxia greatly. Upon learning of the Empress’ anger and of her plotting to have him removed, John preached a sermon on the feast day of John the Baptist, after whom he was named, in which he likened himself to John the Baptist and Eudoxia to Herodias. John’s sermon against Eudoxia resulted in him being permanently exiled.
Even so, what a fascinating comment John made: “Again Herodias raves; again she is troubled; she dances again; and again desires to receive John’s head in a charger.” John was alluding to our text, and not without some warrant, for there were parallels to be made. But then, there are always parables to be made in the relationship between the people of God and the worldly powers. Let us consider the death of John the Baptist and what it says about the relationship of the Church to the powers.
God’s people must proclaim and show that there is a Power above the powers.
Our text reads like a thrilling tragedy. It keeps us on the edge of our seats. Immediately preceding this text, Jesus’ sends out the disciples and great works of salvation and deliverance and power are done through their ministry. News of the power of Jesus soon reaches the ear of Herod.
14 King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He 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 it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. 18a-b For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you…”
The stage is set. It begins with a bad “king.” Who is this “King Herod”? Joel Marcus provides some helpful background information.
The Herodian family tree is quite complicated, since Herod the Great had ten wives and numerous offspring, many of whom intermarried with each other…Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great. Her first husband was a son of Herod the Great (hence her uncle); his name, according to Josephus, was also Herod; Mark, however, calls him Philip…Herodias divorced this Herod and then married his half brother, Herod Antipas, who was her uncle too. (She seems to have like uncles and men named Herod – and there were a lot of both around, thanks to Herod the Great.) Thus Salome, Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage, was at the same time Antipas’ niece (on her father’s side), his grandniece (on her mother’s side), and his stepdaughter.
Well. One is tempted to invoke the lyrics of Ray Stevens’ song, “I’m My Own Grandpa,” to understand this. Regardless, royal family trees are historically notorious to untangle, and this one is no different. Technically speaking, Herod was a “tetrarch” and not a king. He was a puppet ruler for the Romans. He is likely referred to as a king by Mark because this was the customary title given to him by the people. Others have suggested that Mark is being ironic, since Herod’s behavior is anything but kingly and because he clearly is anything but in charge in this story.
John the Baptist calls out Herod’s immoral behavior and the illegitimacy of his marriage. One notes that one of the earliest clashes between the people of God and the state in the New Testament is over the sexual immorality of the rulers. Be that as it may, John, ever bold and unyielding, pronounced rightly the judgment of God against such immorality. According to Josephus, he was not alone in this. Josephus likewise considered it obscene.
John’s specific statement concerning and against Herod is worthy of note: “It is not lawful for you…”
Whatever other relationship the Church and the people of God might have with the earthly powers – governments, rulers, and kings – we must stand as a living, abiding, and consistent witness to the powers that there is a Power above them. There is something in the very nature of power that is ever ascending, that desires to leave no room for a power above our own quest for power. In truth, only those who recognize that their power is not the ultimate power are truly able to handle power.
The Army officer and civil engineer George Washington Goethals, who was famed for his oversight of the completion and opening of the Panama Canal, is said to have been utterly intoxicated with power.
One beautiful moonlight night Goethals was walking on a little hill, overlooking the cut, with one of the best-known ladies of the Zone. His companion was much affected by the splendor of the tropical scene. “Yes, it’s a beautiful spot,” the Colonel replied to her exclamations, “and I love it! But I love it for other reasons than its beauty or the things I get from it. Above all, I love it for the power.” He was silent for a moment and then went on: “I remember once visiting a monastery of Jesuit Fathers. I saw the wretched cells they lived in, the little rude cots they slept in, the rough tables at which they had their meals. And then I remembered the vast power that the men who lived like that had once exercised. It was worth living simply in order to have that.” In his enthusiasm he raised his hand. “That’s the only thing in life worth having. Wealth— salaries— these are nothing. It’s power, power, power!”
Ah! Power is “the only thing in life worth having,” said Goethals. His cry of “Power! Power! Power!” is a cry that is well known in the hearts of many. Power is a drug. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a man who suffered under the dark tyranny of unrestrained governmental power and a man who himself came to believe that we must see that there is a Power above the powers, wrote this:
Power is a poison well known for thousands of years. If only no one were ever to acquire material power over others! But to the human being who has faith in some force that holds dominion over all of us, and who is therefore conscious of his own limitations, power is not necessarily fatal. For those, however, who are unaware of any higher sphere, it is a deadly poison. For them there is no antidote.
Oh, how hard it is to part with power! This one has to understand.
While the kings and rulers and wealthy and powerful of the earth shout, “Power!”, the abiding witness of John confronts them time and time again: “It is not lawful for you…”
There is a law above the lawmakers. There is a code above the code enforcers. There is a gate above the gatekeepers. There is a Power above the powers. The Church is beholden to the Power above the powers, as should we all be!
God’s people must proclaim and show an alternative morality.
Not only do the people of God stand in prophetic protest against unrestrained power, we also stand in prophetic protest against aberrant moralities that tend to walk hand in hand with unrestrained power.
18b-c “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
What was Herod’s crime? His crime was that he had taken his brother’s wife. This was forbidden in Leviticus 20:21, “ If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” Herod had acted immorally and John called him out on it.
The early Church’s pronouncements had force because they were undergirded and backed by their lives of holiness and purity. The Church today must come to terms with the uncomfortable but undeniable fact that our pronouncements to the powers of the authority of the Power above them do not have force if we are not yielding to the Power above the powers in our own lives. Among the many reasons why the world has stopped listening to the Church is the fact that the Church now looks like the world.
In the year 125, Hadrian, the Roman emperor, visited the city of Athens. At that time Arisitides the philosopher wrote his famous Apology concerning the Christians in which he explained who they were and what they were like and dedicated it to Hadrian. What is abundantly clear from Aristides’ Apology is that he felt the holy lives of the Christians was one of the strongest evidences of the truthfulness of Christianity.
XV. But the Christians, O King, while they went about and made search, have found the truth; and as we learned from their writings, they have come nearer to truth and genuine knowledge than the rest of the nations. For they know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth, in whom and from whom are all things, to whom there is no other god as companion, from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come. Wherefore they do not commit adultery nor fornication, nor bear false witness, nor embezzle what is held in pledge, nor covet what is not theirs. They honour father and mother, and show kindness to those near to them; and whenever they are judges, they judge uprightly. They do not worship idols (made) in the image of man; and whatsoever they would not that others should do unto them, they do not to others; and of the food which is consecrated to idols they do not eat, for they are pure. And their oppressors they appease (lit: comfort) and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies; and their women, O King, are pure as virgins, and their daughters are modest; and their men keep themselves from every unlawful union and from all uncleanness, in the hope of a recompense to come in the other world. Further, if one or other of them have bondmen and bondwomen or children, through love towards them they persuade them to become Christians, and when they have done so, they call them brethren without distinction. They do not worship strange gods, and they go their way in all modesty and cheerfulness. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God. And whenever one of their poor passes from the world, each one of them according to his ability gives heed to him and carefully sees to his burial. And if they hear that one of their number is imprisoned or afflicted on account of the name of their Messiah, all of them anxiously minister to his necessity, and if it is possible to redeem him they set him free. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food. They observe the precepts of their Messiah with much care, living justly and soberly as the Lord their God commanded them. Every morning and every hour they give thanks and praise to God for His loving-kindnesses toward them; and for their food and their drink they offer thanksgiving to Him. And if any righteous man among them passes from the world, they rejoice and offer thanks to God; and they escort his body as if he were setting out from one place to another near. And when a child has been born to one of them, they give thanks to God; and if moreover it happen to die in childhood, they give thanks to God the more, as for one who has passed through the world without sins. And further if they see that any one of them dies in his ungodliness or in his sins, for him they grieve bitterly, and sorrow as for one who goes to meet his doom.
XVI. Such, O King, is the commandment of the law of the Christians, and such is their manner of life.
Notice the two elements mentioned by Aristides’ in the first line of part XVI: “the commandment of the law of the Christians” and “their manner of life.” The two walk together. They cannot be separated.
May we become a people who are once again revered for the holiness of our lives.
God’s people must demonstrate Kingdom convictions to the point of being hated…but only for righteousness’ sake.
To proclaim the ultimate authority of the King above all kings and to live a life of Kingdom values is to invite the hatred and opposition of the world. We see this in the martyrdom of John the Baptist.
19 And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 For when Herodias’s daughter 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 to you.” 23 And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” 24 And she went out and said to her mother, “For what should I ask?” And she said, “The head of John the Baptist.” 25 And she came in immediately with haste to the king and asked, saying, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 And the king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her. 27 And immediately the king sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison 28 and brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
In this macabre scene, Herod Antipas’ wife Herodias instructs her daughter, with whom Herod was obviously infatuated, to ask for John’s head. Herodias and her daughter adeptly manipulate Herod, catching him in a web of his own lusts as well as his own words, with the result that one of the truly great men of God ever to walk the earth was savagely murdered.
Adela Yarbro Collins makes two interesting observations about the girl and her dancing. First, when one constructs the timeline of events and of Herod Antipas’ life, this girl “would have been at least of an age between nine and nineteen at the time of the festive banquet…” Others argue that the word “girl” suggests that she was somewhere around 12-14 years old. Furthermore, “the separation of the sexes at banquets was traditional” and “the fact that the girl had to go out of the banquet hall to speak to her mother is an indication that honorable women are not portrayed as joining in the banquet.” This means that what we may have in this situation is what we would refer to as a “child” dancing provocatively before a room of nothing but leering men, the most powerful one being her uncle and her step-father. Even if she was older than a child, it was not by much at all.
It is difficult to imagine a more lurid scene until, of course, we read of the twisted and murderous request for John’s head. John was martyred, but not because he was a busy body. He was killed because He followed Jesus on the path of righteousness. Jesus suggested that this kind of persecution for righteous living would happen. In Matthew 5, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we read:
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“For righteousness’ sake”!
Let us make sure that if we are persecuted we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness. In truth, it is only for the sake of righteousness that one can claim persecution. To suffer for unrighteousness is called “punishment.” To suffer for righteousness is to be persecuted.
In Matthew 10, Jesus specifically said that persecution will result in opportunities to bear witness to Christ before the earthly powers.
16 “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. 17 Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues, 18 and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them and the Gentiles. 19 When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. 20 For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. 21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next, for truly, I say to you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.
Put another way, just as Jesus stood before the religious and government authorities, the Church today must also speak truth to the powers when given the opportunity. This will oftentimes lead to a conflict. We must remember that this very day there are Christians the world over who are paying a price for speaking truth to power. Herodias’ daughter still dances. Herod still lusts. And many today still suffer for the cause of Christ.
There is, however, a hint in this story that suffering for the cause of Christ calls us into the life of Christ in a way that nothing else can.
Joel Marcus points out that Herodias’ daughter had John the Baptist’s head brought in on a platter even though “the platter, incidentally, had not been mentioned by Herodias.” Marcus sees in this “overtones of cannibalism” and points out that the story immediately following this is of Jesus miraculously feeding the five thousand, which has traditionally been seen as a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper. The serving of John’s head on a platter at a feast, then, “suggest[s] that it is meant to be seen as a kind of demonic eucharist. That this interpretation is plausible is indicated by the medieval practice of venerating a devotional image of John’s head on a platter as a type of the eucharist.”
This is an intriguing and theologically provocative proposal, that the serving of John’s head on a platter is a kind of mocking Lord’s Supper (though the characters involved in this scene could not have known that). Perhaps that is so. Or perhaps the merging of John’s beheading with this wicked banquet is intended to suggest that whenever we suffer for Christ we participate in the sufferings of Christ and that what the world means as an anti-Christ mockery is, in fact, a blessed participation in the body and blood of Christ in ways that the world cannot understand. When the powers serve the slain bodies of God’s people at the table of their own wickedness they are unwittingly pointing to the slain body of Christ that was given for all on the table of remembrance. The martyrdom of the Church evokes the self-giving of Christ which is celebrated at the table of the Lord.
Which is to say that to suffer for Christ is to suffer with Christ.
The powers may kill the bodies of God’s people, but not without pointing to the body of God’s Son. And it is through that body – broken, bled, and risen – that we endure, that we overcome, and that we live.
John the Baptist’s suffering gave way to eternal bliss, to everlasting joy, to unending life.
The powers do not have ultimate power even when they exercise their power. The Power above the powers has decreed that His children shall live forevermore through the self-giving Christ in whose name we proclaim, challenge, call, love, and invite the fallen world to return to its Creator and King.
 J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), p.150-151,170.
 Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27 (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2005), p.394-395.
 McCullough, David (2001-10-27). The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 (p. 588). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
 Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago. Vol. I. (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1973), p.147, 558.
 Adela Yarbo Collins, Mark. Hermeneia. Ed., Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p.308, 308-309n.114, 311.
 Joel Marcus, p.402-403.