This summer so far we have been journeying with Jesus around Galilee in our series, Jesus
Unfiltered. We have been looking at the real Jesus just as he is depicted in the Gospel of Mark.
We haven’t been skirting around the difficult issues and sayings. What that has shown us is
a Jesus that can be tough and stern as well as compassionate. We have seen a Jesus who can
be demanding in his call to faith and discipleship as well as kind and understanding to those
who are desperate with the smallest kernel of faith. As we have watched Jesus heal people and
still storms, people have wondered who Jesus is. Last week, he was rejected by his hometown
of Nazareth and had sent out his disciples two by two to spread the gospel message. This week
we will take a slight departure as we look at one of two episodes in Mark where Jesus doesn’t appear.
Today’s episode lets us into a royal birthday party. It is Herod Antipas’ birthday, and he’s invited
the rich and powerful to a party. This is not Herod the Great (using the term “great” loosely). No,
this is one of his sons, Herod Antipas. This is a party that has been a popular subject for art due to
the imagined wildness of the party. It is a party that includes a strange request and results in the
death of John the Baptist.
Our Gospel passage for today, comes from Mark 6:14-29. Hear the Word of the Lord!
Mark 6:14-29 (NIV)
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known.
Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that
is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.”
And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”
16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been
raised from the dead!”
17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him
bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife,
whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for
you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and
wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and
protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard
John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for
his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.
22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and
his dinner guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.”
23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to
half my kingdom.”
24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.
25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to
give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner
guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner
with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison,
28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she
gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his
body and laid it in a tomb.
This episode has been recorded in all kinds of artwork over the centuries. Modern culture’s
interpretation of this scene has been shaped by this artwork. A scantily clad young woman
dancing in front of a group of men. The picture of John’s severed head triumphantly on display.
Anyone who has watched TV or movies knows why. Sex and gore sells. We can see it every day.
In fact we have a difficult time avoiding it. It’s not just TV shows and movies. It isn’t just in
advertisements. It is the news. It is on-line. It is posters and displays in stores. There is nothing
new about it. If you are an artist during the Renaissance, what better way to combine it all than
under the heading of “religious art?” When we think of the art inspired by the beheading of John
the Baptist, none of it is moral, compassionate, or charitable. It is all highlighting the decadence
of Herod Antipas’ court. After all, sex and gore sells.
Perhaps that is fair. This is a grizzly scene. In Mark it follows teaching and healings of Jesus. Even
though Jesus’ hometown didn’t accept him, the kingdom, the kingdom of God rather than the
kingdom of Herod Antipas, is continuing to spread. The disciples are drawing the circle wider, after
all, Jesus can only do so much as one man. He can only be in one place at a time. With his disciples
spreading out, so many more people can be reached. We’ve been seeing what the kingdom of God
looks like. People’s lives are being changed. They are being healed. They are being restored to their
As Herod Antipas hears about Jesus’ ministry, he says that it must be John the Baptist resurrected.
(Whether he means physically resurrected or that he thinks Jesus is John’s successor is up for some
debate.) Word has gotten around to Herod Antipas, and he remembers John and what he did to John.
It all starts with a birthday party for Herod Antipas. The wine is flowing. The “important” people
from Galilee are there. In the chapters before this, we have been seeing what God’s kingdom looks
like. Now, we are a getting a look at a worldly kingdom. A look at the lives of the Rich and Famous,
like with the TV show of the 80s or Keeping Up with the Kardashians of today, many of us like to
get a peek inside even if it is difficult to admit it.
Are you familiar with the movie Operation Petticoat? It is one of my favorite movies with Carey
Grant and Tony Curtis. They are on a submarine mission during World War II, and they rescue a
group of nurses off an island in the South Pacific. Did I mention that this is a comedy? Tony Curtis
is a social climber, and he says that he became an officer because he needed an officer’s uniform.
He explains his philosophy of life to his captain, played by Carey Grant.
Tony Curtis’ character, Nick Holden says, “When I was a kid, people told me that money
wasn’t everything and I believed it. Then I found out that the people that were telling me
that money wasn’t everything were the people who had all the money. Now there are two
ways you can get money. You can steal it, or you can marry it.”
Nick was a little reluctant to steal it, so he decided that he needed to get married to a rich
heiress. He needed an officer’s uniform, so that he could get into the right parties. If Nick
Holden was living during Herod Antipas’ time, this would have been one of the right parties.
During the party, the young girl comes in to dance for the men. At this time, for a party of this
type, the men’s and women’s parties would have been separate. It is unclear whether the girl
was Antipas’ daughter, his step-daughter, or even his niece. Her age is not known. Popular art
has given her an appearance of someone 17 or 18, but she may well have been a little girl dancing
for a doting father-figure, as she is described the same way that Jairus’ twelve year old daughter
was described back in Mark 5.
Never-the-less, Herod Antipas is feeling generous and wants to show the girl his appreciation
on his birthday. He offers her anything she wants. The child doesn’t know what to ask for, so
she runs off to her mother to get her advice. Remember this is no ordinary party with no ordinary
family. Antipas’ father, Herod the Great, had his own children assassinated when he felt that they
were a threat to him, let alone trying to have Jesus killed as a baby by killing all the children under
two in the village he just left (cf. Matthew 2:13-20). Ruthlessness, palace intrigue, this is what Antipas
grew up on. So did Herodias.
She saw this as an opportunity to get a thorn out of her side. John the Baptist had been making her
life more difficult by criticizing her marriage to Antipas. He says that he will give you anything you
want, child? Ask for the head of John the Baptist.
The child asks for one better. She not only asks for John’s head. She wants it on a plate right now.
Whoa! This seems a bit much, even for a movie of the week.
Antipas doesn’t want to do it. He has a soft spot for John, but he feels trapped. He thinks that breaking
his promise will make him look weak in front of his guests. And, of course, he is weak, especially
compared with his father. Herod the Great would have had John the Baptist executed ages ago. He
never would have put up with such a challenge to his authority. No, Herod Antipas is much more like
King Xerxes as seen in the Book of Esther. In the opening scene of that of that book. Xerxes is having
a party and entertaining the most powerful officials and nobles from his empire, much like Antipas in
today’s narrative. When the queen refuses his order to come in front of all of these men while she is
supposed to be hosting her own party for the women, Xerxes makes a rash decision to have her banished
due to the poor council of his officials and his fear of how he would look in front of all his nobles and
officials. Despite his misgivings, Herod Antipas sends the executioner down to John the Baptist.
In this series of Jesus Unfiltered, in this part of Mark, we have this story where Jesus never appears.
Why? Is it an interlude to break up the narrative while Jesus continues his kingdom building activities?
Mark is the shortest gospel, and a favorite word is “immediately.” That word even makes it into today’s
passage. Why would Mark spend fifteen verses on a story that does not include Jesus? Why would he
spend fifteen verses on a story that seems so hopeless and depressing?
We have seen so much of what the kingdom looks like with Jesus. Here we have an example of what
the world is like without Jesus. It isn’t pretty. We all know it because we see it every day. This story talks
about the broken human condition we suffer without Jesus. Jealousy, hypocrisy, fear, trying to please
other people to the detriment of others. It plays out in so many ways that hurt others. We see it in the
news with abuse of power whether it is exercised half-way around the word or in our own backyard. We
see it in our own families when we or others strike back with a verbal insult after they have felt hurt or
We live in a country where the secular definition of freedom means that I ought to be able to do what
I want, when I want, with whomever I want. There has long been a caveat with this … as long as it doesn’t
hurt anybody. This has been the justification for drinking and drug abuse, casual sex, watching pornography,
support of violent movies and video games. It doesn’t matter because it’s just pretend, right? It doesn’t hurt
anybody, but the problem is that it does. If nothing else, it hurts the person doing it. It also hurts their friends
and family as they have to deal with the consequences of these actions.
The other thing is that participating in these activities changes us. We start to think that anything
we do can be okay. When I hear story after story like the 91 year old man beaten with a brick while
others came over and kicked him while he was down, I think that the caveat of “I can do whatever
I want as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody” no longer seems to apply. It is depressing. This is the world
without Jesus. This doesn’t sound like good news at all does it?
Mark’s original audience was being chewed up and spit out by the world too. They were living in a
time just after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans. Jews and Christians who
survived had fled all over the known world. They continued to be persecuted by the Roman government.
One of the messages Mark had for this community is that they had to remain strong and stick to the
message of Jesus no matter what the authorities might do. Still doesn’t sound like good news, at least
to me. That doesn’t quite leave me inspired. I know that John the Baptist was a great man. I am weak.
How could I live up to that ideal?
Maybe only a few of us can do it, but if we are going to be followers of Jesus, we have to know that our
message is not going to be popular. We need to be prepared. It seems strange. You would think that a
message of God’s unconditional love would be very popular, but many find it extremely threatening.
The perspective of love your neighbor as yourself certainly goes against doing what I want, when I want
with whomever I want. One of the messages to us in this narrative is that we shouldn’t be surprised when
people resist our attempt to share God’s love. When that happens to us, we need to be brave and push
Because Herod Antipas and his party is not the whole story. That is why Jesus comes to show us
that there is something better. There is something more than the jealous, selfish, conspiring fear
of the fractured world. There is a more excellent way. That is the good news, the gospel promise.
Jesus helps us to see that there is more to life than what we can perceive. Jesus has redeemed us all
of that ick. We still have it all around us, but we don’t have to allow it to control our actions. That is
how we have life, fulfilling life, rather than one that empty and vacant. Do your think that Herod
Antipas and Herodias with all of their wealth and power where happy? That their lives were fulfilling?
If they can be threatened by a man like John the Baptist with no money, no power, no influence, no
army, how vulnerable they must have felt. Jesus and the kingdom of God gives us an alternative tha
t leads us to abundant life.
When we remember this in the midst of this tragic episode with John the Baptist, we see the better end
of the story that Jesus gives us. “When the Temple has just been destroyed, or your marriage is ending,
or you’ve lost your job, or you fear that your child will never speak to you again, or you’re sure that your
friend has betrayed you, or you think that you may have just screwed up the one relationship that meant
something to you … then the possibility of another ending — a good ending — is, indeed, not just good
news, but the best news you can imagine.” (David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, “Tell the Truth Twice,”
workingpreacher.com, accessed July 10, 2018)
That is what is so inspiring about the passage from Ephesians that we heard earlier. As the Apostle
Paul writes, “We have been ransomed [from the power of this broken world] through [Christ’s] blood,
and we have forgiveness for our failures based on his overflowing grace, which he poured over us
with wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:7-8) “The Holy Spirit is the down payment on our
inheritance, which is applied toward our redemption as God’s own people, resulting in the honor of
God’s glory.” (Ephesians 1:14)
That is our continual hope despite the examples that we see every day of the brokenness of our world.
Our hope continues to be in Christ and the Kingdom of God. And that is Jesus Unfiltered. Glory to God!