The Kingdom Advances
This story has everything you need for a great satirical TV show: a weak but arrogant governor who styles himself a king, a vengeful wife determined to manipulate him to do her will, a beautiful sexy daughter who is controlled by her mother. As if that’s not enough for a good plot, throw in a preacher who condemns the marriage! The twist in the story is that the king likes to listen to the preacher and protects him from the vengeful wife.
(Read the passage.)
We don’t see the whole story in this passage. Mark only plays the climax for us. It’s the critical event when Herod throws a party for the Jewish, political, and military elite in Galilee some of whom no doubt felt pressured to be there. The sexy daughter performs an belly dance that a prostitute would usually do. So it is all the more entrancing that this voluptuous vixen in front of them is daughter to the queen. R-rated visuals as the girl swirls around and the men recline with their gaping mouths hanging open, Caligula had nothing on Herod! But then, hold your breath…
How long does it take to ruin your life? Mere seconds. The stupid arrogant king swelled with wine and arousal and pride promises the girl anything she wants. He turns around beaming with magnanimity at all his honored guests also awash in their cups and plates. Then he doesn’t stop there, he promises to give her up to half his kingdom!
But they all know Herod doesn’t have a kingdom! He’s not a king at all. He’s a tetrarch appointed by Rome. He couldn’t give her any of Galilee even if she asked for it. In his inflated pride he imagines himself one of the magnificent ancient kings of Israel. He’s actually only one of four tetrarchs governing Israel.
Mark is showing him as completely, stupid, arrogant fool, a cartoon like Homer Simpson. He has no idea of the trap his wife has him stepping into, but suddenly it’s sprung. The girl doesn’t ask for a pretty dress, or a nicer room, or a handsome slave, or a party. No, she asks for the head of the preacher, John the Baptist! And as if that’s not enough she wants it now and she wants it on a platter like the final course of the banquet! Herodius the queen has designed this trap to utter degrade Herod in front of his guests. He can’t wiggle out this time. He is caught in a lose/lose situation. Checkmate.
Can you imagine the disgust of his guests forced to watch this spectacle play out, forced to see the bloody head brought on a platter and set on the table among the leftovers and garbage strewn about? Herodius proved Herod to be weak, humiliated, wrapped around the fingers of his womenfolk. Forced to perform a deed hideously against his will by a lovely slip of a girl.
Apparently, Herod liked to collect information, especially puzzling religious ideas, so he enjoyed the enigmatic pronouncements of John. He collected them and even did some of John’s suggestions, but never took them to heart. He never changed his ways, not really. His was a religion of entertainment with no thought of seriously applying what he heard to his own behavior.
Although the ruler of Galilee, he proved himself to be no man, just a brute beast led around by his passions and circumstances. What a tragic story. Herod had an unparalleled opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God, but missed it because of his pride, arrogance, the manipulation of his wife, and the inertia of the moment.
Of the four gospel writers only Mark includes this story. The writers were all very selective and succinct in what they choose to include, so they included only what seemed most important to them. So why did Mark include this long story in his brief gospel? And why did he sandwich it in between Jesus sending the disciples on their mission and their return to report? This sandwich is a literary technique that Mark uses through his whole gospel. He starts a story, sticks in what seems to be an irrelevant story about Herod’s banquet, then finishes the story he started with. Why does he do that?
There are a number of possible reasons and maybe all of them are what Mark had in mind with his sandwich technique. 1. The story shows the passage of time. 2. The story about the banquet of Herod contrasts with the next story about the banquet of Jesus when he fed the 5000. 3. The story, in this case, shows that the influence the ministry of Jesus and the disciples had reached the very top echelons of society. 4. The story makes a transition from the ministry of John the Baptist as forerunner to the ministry of Jesus as Messiah. 5. The story demonstrates the utter decadence of the Jewish religious and political leadership in their complicity. 6. The story ties John and Jesus with the prophets of old in persecution and death. 7. The story foreshadows the passion of Christ. That’s a lot of reasons!
Maybe there are even more reasons for this story, but it’s interesting that the other gospel writers chose not to include it. It’s especially intriguing that Matthew and Luke didn’t include it since they copied much of Mark’s gospel into their own. Maybe they were too polite for this story.
They cleaned up Mark’s writing in a number of instances. Instead of the story about Herod, Matthew included another detail in chapter 11 in which John doubts that Jesus is the Messiah. Apparently, Jesus has sent away the 12 on their mission and He is continuing on alone ministering in the towns of Galilee. In verse 2, when John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent His disciples to ask Him, “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?”
How poignant this question seems when we know what was happening to John from Mark’s account. John apparently was wondering if his whole life’s work was useless. This Jesus was not storming the palaces of Herod to free him. He was not overthrowing the Romans who had kept Israel enslaved. Jesus’ answer corrected John’s understanding of Messiah and blessed him for not falling away in the end. But neither did Jesus free him from prison and the final ignominious death, a reward for the lewd dance of a young girl.
What a tragically ironic story from a human point of view. But Jesus declares that John was the greatest man who ever lived. Then referring to John and the disciples’ mission Jesus says in Matthew 11:12, “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven has been forcefully advancing and forceful men lay hold of it.” Then down in verse 25 Jesus says, “I praise you Father, Lord of Heaven and earth because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”
None of the elite at Herod’s party would have considered these disciples of John and Jesus to be holy or knowledgeable of religious things. These Jewish leaders enjoying Herod’s table and entertainment would have disregarded and disrespected such crude forceful men, these “children.” Yet Mark shows the leaders for what they are, shameful participants in heinous evil, first of the murder of John the Baptist, then of Jesus himself. How low the leadership of Israel had sunk into evil and how forcefully the kingdom of God was advancing among the common people, the children of Israel!
I think that is what Mark had in mind by sandwiching John’s death between Jesus’ sending the disciples and their return to report. He demonstrated graphically the contrast between the righteous Jewish men around Jesus and the decadent Jewish leaders around Rome’s courts. Overthrowing Rome was not Jesus’ intent. He was overthrowing the whole religious/political establishment, not with an army, but person by person speaking word of mouth, under the radar.
The kingdom of God was forcefully advancing right under the noses of the ruling elite and they just did not see it coming. Finally with their culminating act of irony they completed Jesus’ victory by crucifying him to save their own positions. Herod was blinded, haunted by what he had done to John. He was terrified that John had come back in the person of Jesus. He figured that was why Jesus had such power. It was like a Greek play! But it is evidence that the mission of Jesus and disciples was demonstrating great power and the leaders didn’t get it.
Then John’s disciples buried him and Jesus’ disciples returned rejoicing in the power and authority that Jesus had delegated to them. Thus ends the era of John and the Old Testament prophets and begins the thrust to the final victory of Jesus on the cross. That’s what Mark is saying with this sandwich.
Is there anything we can apply to our lives from this sordid story? Normally, in biblical interpretation we apply the lessons the author intended and the interpretations the original readers would have understood. Unfortunately, I don’t think Mark intended his readers to seek out a direct application for their daily lives from this story. I don't think he was admonishing his readers, "Never promise to give your step daughter half your income." However, in some ways we can apply it as a cautionary tale, a kind of parable. Perhaps we can take five interconnected lessons from it.
1. Jesus had just finished teaching, he said over and over, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Unlike Herod, we should be ready to act on what we learn. For instance, I just went to a two day class on creative job searching. It was useful information, but if I don’t apply it I probably will never land a job. I might just as well not have gone.
2. So we need to be aware of opportunities that God drops in our laps. It may be that Herod was almost forced to imprison John because he was dangerously close to leading a rebellion against Herod’s rule in Galilee. But with John’s presence in his court he had a great opportunity to repent and follow the will of God. He didn’t seem aware of the opportunity that God had dropped in his lap. He didn’t repent and follow the will of God.
3. It sounded like he was interested in religious things and sort of collected ideas that puzzled him. He may even have implemented some of John’s advice like a dieter keeps trying new diets, not so much to lose weight as to enjoy new techniques. The dieter never loses weight and keeps it off because the interest is in the information and novelty, not in the point of the diet. So Herod wasn’t interested in changing his heart. He was just interested in being entertained by a great preacher.
4. The problem with that is when our religion is only surface deep, when it is primarily tradition and entertainment, our own passions and the inertia of the moment can overwhelm our shallow little will. Like Herod glancing at his guests in chagrin and ordering the death of John, we find ourselves doing what we had decided not to do. We find ourselves unwilling to do what we know would be good to do. We find ourselves wishing we could even want to do the good we know, but it just seems impossible. We are too comfortable, life is too complicated right now, I’m involved in too many other obligations right now. Like Herod, we end up trapped, having to choose between options that are both lose/lose. And that brings us to:
5. When we live on the surface of our religion, but really on the level of passions and daily inertia, we are vulnerable to manipulation as Herod was. It’s unlikely that our spouse is as evil as Herod’s and will manipulate us like she did. It’s more likely that we will be vulnerable to manipulation by advertising and party affiliation, by peers and pride. In short by manipulation from this world’s system which, according to Jesus, is controlled by the devil,.
We need to step back and look at ourselves and our situation. Are we like Herod? Is our religion primarily spiritual entertainment and tradition? Have we let ourselves be so vulnerable to manipulation because we live on the level of our passions, desires, and inertia? Or are we like Jesus’ disciples? Are we advancing the kingdom of God through obedience to Jesus? Are we letting the kingdom of God advance forcefully into our lives?
What is Jesus sending you to do? Where does Jesus want to advance in your life?
Here’s some possibilities of where Jesus may want to advance in our lives: If it’s something you have been doing, then do it more intentionally with a cheerful heart. Perhaps you will see that it can branch out more, go more deeply.
Is there something you enjoy hearing about, but don’t feel you could ever do because of your life situation? Ask Jesus to make a way. When He does make a way, then do it!
We may not be talking about huge moves, more likely we are talking about daily kindnesses, more likely being the kind of people who make life in your community more peaceful and loving, more likely to be telling the story of Jesus influence in your life.
We should consciously decide to welcome the forceful advance of the kingdom of God into our lives, then watch for opportunities that Jesus brings our way. Two years ago when Ginny asked if I would come be your pastor, the time didn’t seem possible, but now two years later here I am. Another time, I got a call from another member of our church. His wife had left him and he felt helpless. He wanted to sit in the park and talk about it. I left what I was doing and went to him. When we see those opportunities we need to act on them while we have the chance!
They don’t stay for long, sometimes for a fraction of a second,
or an afternoon,
or until the bank teller is finished taking your deposit, or the cashier is done bagging your groceries.
On the other hand sometimes opportunities take years to develop,
but the beginning is to have ears to hear
and decide to act on what we hear
and then do it.