Mark 6:26

The king was much distressed; yet, because of his oath and of the guests at his table, he did not like to refuse her.

simply being upset at injustice
is insufficient energy
to shift gears to needed work
building a mercy hedge
around earth’s wretched

waves of influence battle each other
roiling a kindness-sinking maelstrom
image in other’s eyes comes first
violently denying alternatives
to position based on power

the right of kings
is a right never wrong
once said is enough
an open mouth carves stone
there is no appeal

Herod had many an enlivening conversation with John while constrained to imprison John lest more people would get riled up with the charge John brought against Herod and Herodias.

There is an important image of a “weeping executioner”. This is a term attributed to Dr. Walt Herbert, emeritus professor of English at Southwestern University. A weeping executioner is one who expresses concern for the oppressed, but will not leave their place in the hierarch of oppression. It was used to good effect by Rev. Amy DeLong after her church trial in 2011. [Queer Clergy: A History of Gay and Lesbian Ministry in American Protestantism, by R.W. Holmen545]

No matter how many times you tell your story, there are those who love to hear the telling and are emotionally touched without ever moving from a feeling of repentance toward a change in behavior. Whether you are “upset”, “very sad”, or “deeply grieved” about ordering another’s death (Herod) or simply wash your hands of it and move on to a next order of business (Pilate), the end result is the same—death.

Perkins599 affirms, “Willingness to sacrifice others to maintain honor, prestige, and power remains one of the great temptations of persons in positions of authority.” The difficulty is that we often don’t understand what authority we have and how boldly we can honor others and what power we have to be in solidarity with them. This is not just a matter for those currently in the position of an occupier. Whether a dancing girl, the proverbial Joe Blow, or a weekly pew-sitter, this is the source of every transformation and a next Axial Age. How we practice partnership with others will reveal our changed life.

Mark 6:25

So she went in as quickly as possible to the king, and made her request. “I want you,” she said, “to give me at once, on a dish, the head of John the Baptist.”

a demanding child
is not to be trifled with
no matter where its orders
and testing of limits of enough
rose to rule the day

both weal and bane
come with an immediacy mode
pushing to overcome limits
able to use every pressure point
to evade process and dictate

without knowing it
through a surfeit of pleasure
or denial of ever-present wilderness
tests are always underway
a satan’s task never ends

out of an implied generosity
comes an unexpected consequence
catching us too far off guard
to respond with anything but
que sera sera

when so caught
there is never felt time
to retreat for clarity
past patterns take over
dies are cast death ensues

And, BANG, the girl is back with an imperious voice. This is a “request” that suggests turning it down will get you a horse’s head in your bed.

What we don’t easy envision is the spectacle this is leading to. Compare this with three other “head” stories.

Giant Goliath fell to a round stone flung from David’s sling. David proceeded to cut his head off and parade it to Jerusalem. This changed the power relationship between Philistines and Israelites, between Saul (present king) and David (future king). [1 Samuel 17:51–57]

David’s bosom buddy, Absalon, had long lovely hair he cut once a year (5 pounds worth). While fighting against David’s army his hair was caught in a tree and his mount rode out from under him, leaving him suspended. An easy target, he was summarily killed. A friend grieved is still a friend dead. [2 Samuel 14:26; 18:9–14; 18:33 or 19:1]

Judith played the temptress game with King Holofernes and, after a kingly feast, when he was drunk in his own tent, beheaded him with his own sword. Holofernes’ head went into her food bag and was taken back to the Israelite army, whereupon they routed the Assyrians and Judith was given Holofernes’ silver platter and everything belonging to the king. [Judith 13:1-10; 14:11]

Mark 6:24

The girl went out, and said to her mother “What must I ask for?”
“The head of John the Baptizer,” answered her mother.

who am I to make a decision
in a world of top-down power

not even a best friend will do
when dealing with this opportunity

whomever I vest with authority
to direct my life risks my death

what shall I ask means less
than who I ask for guidance

when number one requests
it is only number two to go to

with this deed done
a limit of power is revealed

there is no one without an agenda
when within a circle of power

subservient mostly until an opening
which now becomes a sharp trap

Through experience we mature. This general statement recognizes differing stages of life. There is development of thinking by age that is particularly notable on both ends of a life span. There are also fears and carefully taught prejudices that short-circuit knowing any­thing beyond what we already know.

If this is a pre-teen girl this story is grosser than we first wanted to admit. If it is someone who has settled into their curves and knows how to use them, why would they run to Mama? Do they not have their own calculation of what the equivalent of half-a-kingdom might be for them? All the while we remember this is a patriarchy that devalues women, particularly their intellect, and gives no practice beyond a household economy.

“What should I ask for”, implies a calculus of greed. Somewhere this daughter has learned that, “Mother knows best!”

While this conversation is going on, what do you think is happening back in the feasting room. What is the going rumor about Herod’s offer and the girl’s response of leaving? Is there betting she’ll return and hold Herod to his promise (probably not wise to beard this lion in his own den)? Does everyone at the party know the offer was merely complementary and there is no culturally acceptable response that would do except embarrassed leaving, a simple, “You do me great honor with your offer”, or a request for a token?

Mark 6:23

and he swore to her that he would give her whatever she asked him – up to half his kingdom.

evaluating our sphere of influence
is a never-ending task
continually getting bogged down
on physical boundaries
to be opened or walled off

what usually is over-looked
are intangibles eliciting joy
caught on the materials of life
we never consider their consequences
substituting surface for depth

who wouldn’t offer half their value
for a moment of lingering pleasure
by half is meant geography not friends
is meant treasure not learning
is meant life-time not healthy ego

It is very easy to say more than we mean. This is part of the energy behind every canon. Time and again, every question needs a definitive answer; no response will do, only a binary decision—“it is this way, not that way”.

Having set a public promise, public figures have a very difficult time modifying their position in light of subsequent information. They and all get trapped with both a righteous ego and fear of loss of status should our first word not also be our last word.

Swearing, here, is not cursing, but a vow, a placing a hand on a sacred object or over one’s heart or sharing blood that what is said will be literally followed to the letter and part of a letter. Once this is witnessed, it will bring with it predictably dire consequences.

Wright76 reminds us of the banality of evil, best described by Hannah Arendt’s, Eichman in Jerusalem;

The casual, accidental nature of the event gives an extra dimension to the tragedy, a belittling of the noble and lonely prophet.

If royalty, sex and religion form such an explosive mixture, we shouldn’t be surprised at the chequered history of court intrigue, scandal and disaster that have dogged the steps of the church ever since royalty became interested in Christianity.

Like Herod, the church, in turn, can be sworn at, cursed, for the ways it has sworn allegiance to its own—bishops forced into creedal statements, denial of physical/scientific realities, crusades of many sorts, divine right of rulers, just war theory, sexism, patriarchy….

Mark 6:22

When his daughter – that is, the daughter of Herodias – came in and danced, she delighted Herod and those who were dining with him. “Ask me for whatever you like,” the king said to the girl, “and I will give it to you”;

failed again
thinking the time ripe for release
we awake
finding our deep pleasure a risky spot
impetuously committed
commanding what we have no right to

smooth dancing
thinking life more generous than it is
pleases eyes
finding life’s limits set aside in wonder
a perceptual trick
commanding manipulation become high art

thrilled by joy
thinking my feast my friends
exhausted by joy
finding political traps cunningly laid
betrayed by joy
commanding our own downfall.

It is easy to chalk this up to besotted male leaders and a fetching dancing girl. The text makes it difficult with the best reading probably being that the dancer was the daughter of Herodias. History and/or tradition also sneaks its nose in here with references to Herod’s step-daughter, Salome, and, later, an addition of seven veils.

However, presuming the cultural mores of this time and place, it is unlikely that a female relative would be allowed to reveal the sexual rawness needed to elicit the reported response from Herod.

It is not necessary to go the lascivious route as explanation of Herod’s offer to ask extravagantly. His willingness to be intrigued with John can also suggest an appreciation for nuance and suggestion. A-thing-forever-beauty can appear in a moment in the strangest and least expected places, just like leadership partnered with G*D coming from the youngest rather than oldest.

As we listen in there are enough connections with Judith, Esther, and Jezebel to hear this story revealing realities beyond a transition from John to Jesus, right in the middle of a practicum of the Twelve. No matter the good healing they do, one on one or several at a time, structural and institutional power continues mistaking short-term personal desire and gain for long-term community growth that essentially guarantees there will be increasing numbers of people in need of the anointing and exorcism skills of Jesus and those joined with him.

Mark 6:21

A suitable opportunity, however, occurred when Herod, on his birthday, gave a dinner to his high officials, and his generals, and the foremost men in Galilee.

finally the time is right
kairos becomes immediately

yet slow this down
to consider right for whom

with our multiple agendas
it is seldom clear which leads

distinguishing a better angel
from any other is time constrained

beast or angel are both seen
after their fruits are tasted

celebrate accumulated anniversaries
celebrate that not yet seen

privileged accomplishments speak loudly
learning to walk new paths risks falls

we fritter away our moment
bread logged circus feasts

Carrington looks at Mark structurally and would read it sequentially, according to the Jewish calendar, except for longer readings of Jesus in Jerusalem and the “Passion” during the feasts of Tabernacles and Passover.

This calendaring aspect intrigues:

Herod chose a ‘fortunate day’ for the banquet in connexion with which it occurred. It was his genesia or birthday…. the birthday of a king in the ancient world was the day of his accession…and we learn from the Mishnah that Jewish kings counted their reigns from the old new-year’s day, Nisan I….133

The story is so told as to echo the story of King Ahasuerus and Queen Esther….the visit of Queen Esther to King Ahasuerus took place on Nisan I. 134

If there is an intentional reference to Esther rather than simply an intertextual connection, it would suggest that this is a turning point in the undoing of a plot against the Jews. This can justify John’s death as a plotter and can bring Herod into clearer relief as one who, bottom-line, is undoing the salvation of those he has power over. This birthday feast is anti-Purim in showing that the people are not safe from palatial plots to aggrandize someone’s personal privilege, whether it is the machinations of a Hamon or a Herodias or today’s equivalent.

Mark 6:20

because Herod stood in fear of John, knowing him to be an upright and holy man, and protected him. He had listened to John, but still remained much perplexed, and yet he found pleasure in listening to him.

confused but intrigued
Herod and John
Shahryar and Scheherezade
aggrieved kings captured
reverse Stockholm Syndrome

it was then as now
presence is power
artful presence claims time
and time after time
delays an expected outcome

delay is a form of injustice
power is still power
a velvet glove is not comfort
a death sentence still stands
a shotgun wedding still coercion

Paraphrased, “Jesus’ words greatly confused the Disciples, yet they enjoyed listening to him.”

The word ἠπόρει (ēporei) is a large puzzlement that ranges from worried, perplexed, to a variety of images from other languages as reported by Bratcher196—“his heart was gone” (Tzeltal), “hard chased” (Piro), “his mind was killing him” (Navajo), “his stomach rose up” (Gurunse), “he was very irresolute” (Indonesian: literally, “it was all wrong with him”), and “his heart was very divided” (Javanese).

We might well wonder who had the power in the relationship between Herod (imprisoner) and John (prisoner).

“My faith has been tempered in Hell,” wrote Vasily Grossman in his masterpiece “Life and Fate.” “My faith has emerged from the flames of the crematoria, from the concrete of the gas chamber. I have seen that it is not man who is impotent in the struggle against evil, but the power of evil that is impotent in the struggle against man. The powerlessness of kindness, of senseless kindness, is the secret of its immortality. It can never be conquered. The more stupid, the more senseless, the more helpless it may seem, the vaster it is. Evil is impotent before it. The prophets, religious leaders, reformers, social and political leaders are impotent before it. This dumb, blind love is man’s meaning. Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.” [Quoted by Chris Hedges in his article, The Price of Resistance]

Mark 6:19

So Herodias was incensed against John, and wanted to put him to death, but was unable to do so,

desire thwarted lingers
building deeper resentment
building to a climax
seeking one release
seeking still another
satisfaction is elusive
satisfaction doesn’t satisfy
shame colors everything
shame requires satisfaction
desire thwarted lingers

Not being able to do-what-we-want-when-we-want is a rather mundane part of life. We have heard that there were religious groups who wanted to do Jesus in but didn’t have the authority under Roman occupation; they couldn’t. When we look clearly enough at our own lives, there are any number of reasons/constraints on us; we can’t.

When we have to work through someone else’s agency, we can get rather creative in finally getting our way.

While able to repress internal conflicts for a while, eventually they show up under the guise of, “It wasn’t our fault, they blocked me from acting (or forced me to act) on my desires (noble or not).”

Just as there were competing rumors about a John/Jesus connection, there are differing explanations for the final decision to do away with John that have been put forward. Josephus indicates Herod had John killed for political reasons because Herod feared his influence/accusation might lead to open revolt. Mark has a comedic caricature of an unjust/decadent ruling class with an ever-popular palace intrigue that all too easily falls into a formulaic scheming wife and a helpless husband.

Whether we are talking about political intrigue or personal conflict, Myers73 suggests a larger context, “Mark suggests a common destiny for all who preach repentance.” It is the changed heart and life challenge that brings resistance from Herodias and resignation from Herod. These combine to resist repentance and are present in every system with an ordered power resting on violence as a final solution.

Finding desires thwarted is a wilderness testing that aborts a deeper journey to find a retreat experience which would transform the angst of perceived shame into a doubling down on the strength of knowing one’s own belovedness, wherever you are on a culture’s ladder. To use Jacob’s ladder here—how do we stand steady and let the “angels” use the ladder as we partner with G*D and Neighb*r?

Mark 6:18

For John had said to Herod – “You have no right to be living with your brother’s wife.”

particular behaviors are against the law
there is not a day we are not in violation

each category of law claims independent authority
personal law natural familiar state law

each person ranks laws differently
leading to increasing gaps between people

to apply my favorite law to enforce
on someone who does not recognize it is silly

faced with a foolish literalist raises anger
anger shifts silly to dangerous for all

John may be referencing Leviticus 18:16 where a man (remember this is a patriarchy) is not to sleep with their living brother’s wife. This is the reverse of Deuteronomy 25:5-10 where a man is to take his deceased brother’s wife as his own (Matthew 11:23–33 builds on this with another test from the religious establishment—this time by the Sadducees).

Rabbinic law resolved the conflict by viewing the latter as an exception: Intercourse with one’s sister-in-law is prohibited in every case except that described in Deuteronomy. The midrash even suggests that the two laws were spoken in the same utterance, so that the general rule and the exception would become known at one and the same time. ~JSB251

Herod is not as fortunate as the Rabbis who can hold dissonances together. If this is your first reading of this story, you may be getting edgy as Mark’s telling jumps forward and backward in post-modern fashion. This very jerkiness expresses a kind of urgency. Eventually we will find Herod’s excuses for both keeping John alive and also giving the Red Queen’s order. [Do spend a moment imagining Mark as Lewis Carroll as this Jesus story can be as convoluted and hilarious as a later one about Alice and a Looking Glass.]

This is Mark’s longest, most detailed telling that is not directly about Jesus. When this section is completed it would be instructive to reflect on what would lead the author to put this extended tale where it is, separating the mission of the Twelve, when it could have been as brief as the information about John’s arrest.

Mark 6:17

For Herod himself had sent and arrested John, and put him in prison, in chains, to please Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because Herod had married her.

flashbacks catch us up
now we can see a bit more
bringing relief or fright

pieces fall together differently
with each new process glimpse
shifting decision points

a 180° change in understanding
can appropriately have us affirming
first and last judgments

like a crystal radio
we are always dialing in
fluctuating signals

doing the best we can to keep up
with late-breaking news
adjusts intimations of what’s next

stories without flashbacks comfort
we always only know what we know
never having to forgive more

for now we recalculate
where we thought we were headed
which moving way we now follow

Herod has dealt with John and can as easily deal with Jesus when he crosses a line or raises a politically sensitive matter. John shamed Herod about his marriage to his half-brother’s wife while Philip (per Mark) or Herod (per Josephus) was still alive. Whatever the brother’s name, this was a direct affront to Leviticus 18:16; 20:21.

We have already heard that the Pharisees and Herodians were conspiring against Jesus. In due time another death will distract from the tenuous legitimacy of Herod’s rule.

In many ways we are hearing the latest transgression G*D warned against when the crowd demanded a king in 1 Samuel 8. Mark has extended a long line of privileged excess—Ahab and Jezebel are here named Herod and Herodias. Whether the king’s wife is a foreigner or a niece, “might makes right”.

Marley’s ghost or Lady Macbeth’s hands can’t be avoided. Herod may have dealt with John’s shaming with a beheading, but the underlying problem of power, privilege and their self-justification will continue to haunt Herod and all who follow. Already the unease has begun before we even get to Herod’s excuse for intentionally doing away with John.