Oh my goodness, is there any good news in this Gospel reading this morning - for the word “gospel” does mean “good news.”? And why do we have to listen to this sordid story of royalty, revenge, sex, murder and power politics?
In the old Prayer Book lectionary, this passage never came up for Sunday worship reading, but in our current Revised Common Lectionary here it sits, on this Seventh Sunday after Pentecost - squarely between the description of Jesus sending out the Twelve in mission, which we heard last week, and the return of the Twelve and Mark’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, which we’ll hear next week…and all in the same chapter.
Let’s run that by again…a story of royalty, revenge, sex, murder and power politics – hmmmm, we get that every day in all the major news organizations and media outlets, and they are the stock-in-trade of every tabloid and supermarket check-out line magazine; clearly, there are lots of people who are interested in just this sort of news!
But why should we be hearing this in worship, and how in the world can it be good news, the Good News of God in Christ? As we consider this question, we need to paint a little background scenery first, so please stay with me for a bit.
The Herod who is mentioned here, and anywhere else in the Gospels in connection with Jesus’ life as an adult, is Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee who exercised whatever power he had only with the permission and authority of the Roman Empire. He was the son of Herod the Great who was the King of Judea at the time Jesus was born (also under the rule and authority of the Romans). You remember Herod the Great – he was the one who tried to do a deal with the Magi/the Wise men who came looking for the newborn king whose star they had seen at its rising. Herod the Great’s plan was to discover where this child was and have him killed before he could become a threat.
As it turns out, Herod the Great died soon after, and his kingdom was divided amongst his sons, to the degree that they satisfied the imperial priorities and sensibilities. Herod Antipas only received a portion of his father’s kingdom, but had pretensions to be King of all Judea, including Galilee. Somewhere in the middle of all this Herod (who was already married) fell in love with Herodias (who was married to his brother). Two divorces were arranged and they married each other. Whether this was true love or a desire for a younger, better-looking trophy wife, or a more politically advantageous match, we don’t know.
What we do know was that the whole thing was pretty slimey, and John the Baptist – in the best tradition of the Old Testament prophets – was very clear and public about telling Herod that he was wrong, out-of-line, and that this was no way for a Jewish king (who was supposed to be a leader for his people in faith and morals as well as government) to behave. As you can imagine, neither Herod nor Herodias were happy about the public criticism, and had John arrested and thrown in prison, although it seems Herod was fascinated by John, at least in an intellectual-arm’s-length sort of way.
Herodias just held a flat-out resentment and grudge, and when the opportunity presented itself, she took advantage of the only kind of power a first century woman at court had – calling Herod’s bluff on his rash and prideful, and no doubt drunken promise to Herodias’ daughter. "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it" Herod solemnly swore to [the girl]. "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." And so she claimed John the Baptist’s silence, his life – which Herod could not refuse without great public embarrassment; for Herodias that was one political enemy out of the way.
Sadly, this is a story that has been repeated throughout history and with endless variation. Those whose power is built on the shaky foundation of deceit and intimidation will try to silence anyone who threatens them by speaking the truth – even if that silence is gained through violence. This is human nature run a-muck; we should not be surprised.
But back to the question – how is this passage God’s Good News to us and to the world? Jesus isn’t even part of this story!
Remember back at the beginning when I said that this story is sandwiched in between Jesus’ sending-out the disciples in mission, and their return to report to him what they had done and seen and heard? Well, Herod heard this news, also. He heard about what Jesus was doing – healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, announcing the Kingdom of God, giving people hope – and Herod became afraid that maybe Jesus was somehow John the Baptist, back from the dead with new and greater powers that went beyond anything he had said or done as a prophet.
Of course Herod was wrong, but that didn’t make him any less alarmed or fearful – and so Mark, the Gospel writer – gives us the back-story about Herod and the killing of John, to explain his distress at hearing about what Jesus was doing. Mark is letting us know that Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God by so many signs and words had spread beyond the people in the villages and towns, had spread beyond the religious leaders and had reached the ears of the political authorities.
And Herod was right to be afraid, because he knew that the hope proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures, the hope that the Jewish people of Judea and Galilee were straining toward, was the hope that one day the Messiah, God’s Anointed, would come amongst them. On that day God’s kingdom, God’s reign over all creation, would start to be fulfilled. And when that happened all human rulers, all power structures, all principalities would come under the authority and accountability of God so that justice and truth and equity would flourish in God’s Name for all people.
And this is what we are asking for when we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is what we affirm when we say in the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
God’s Kingdom is a future that has already begun; it began in the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It is a future that is being fulfilled by the power of the Holy Spirit operating through each one of us as we speak the truth in love; as we pray and listen and take action according to the promptings of the Spirit; as we work for the well-being of others, and for the common good. God’s Kingdom is a future which will reach its fruition and completeness in God’s own time.
Of course the human powers and principalities who have no regard for God hear this with derision. Of course the spiritual powers that we enumerate in the baptismal service as “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, and the sinful desires that draw us from the love of God” will not hear this as good news. Left unchallenged violence, corruption, oppression, degradation, vindictiveness will grow and flourish – like poison ivy, invasive and insidious.
But Christ has called us to take our place in proclaiming God’s Kingdom; that’s what we signed-on for when we were baptized; those were the marching orders given to us in the Baptismal Covenant which we renew at every baptism and at the four great baptismal feast days of Easter Eve, Pentecost, the Baptism of our Lord and All Saints’ Day.
And so through prayer and worship, through reading and meditating on the Scriptures, through comforting the broken-hearted, standing with the helpless, encouraging those who struggle, healing the sick, calling our leaders and officials to account when necessary, through working for reconciliation between individuals and between nations, and through so many other countless ways, we who are Christians are working with Jesus to make God’s Kingdom a greater and deeper and truer reality – bit by bit, day by day, prayer by prayer.
That is Good News, indeed, for you and for me and for God’s world. May you be blessed as you take your place in this movement and in this ministry each day. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2012