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.

Mark 6:16

But when Herod heard of him, he said – “The man whom I beheaded – John – he must be risen!”

Marley’s ghost is claimed to be
a bit of undigested beef crumb of cheese
a mustard blob on an underdone potato
disordering Ebenezer’s stomach

John’s ghost is as easily discounted
see resurrection at work
reincarnating at the least a remorse
in the problem of the day

past as prelude to a next future
confuses direct cause and effect
with unintended consequences
leaving us all at sixes and sevens

we are dragged into repeating
past regrets and outright wrongs
with no negotiated settlement in sight
only being caught in yesterday’s loop

We have heard a couple of the rumors regarding Jesus. They associate him with the remembrance of prophets past. There is still power in those remembrances and we do well to hearken unto them in every age.

This is a potential hint about the identity of Jesus that keeps getting hung up on the Son of G*D/child of humans duality. Prophets also walk this line starting as children of humans.

What has been known as the Markan secret, since Jesus keeps telling people and partners not to tell, may end up being clarified by the end of this circular and ambiguous account.

For now, we each are in the midst of multiple story-lines. The Native Grandfather story of two wolves awaiting to see which we will feed is appropriate here. Which of the intersecting stories we live between will we give attention to?

Herod has chosen to continue dealing with the prophet he knows, John. This both empowers and endangers Jesus. When Jesus heard of the arrest of John he began his public engagement and advocacy for the poor and sick, the victims of oppression and conquest. As we embark upon hearing of John’s death, a part of our attention wonders about Jesus’ response to a beheading (didn’t that slip by easily—or did you have a small recoil at simply hearing that said in such an everyday manner?). If there wasn’t a moment of discomfort at bumping into that word you may have been reading too quickly.

Better to deal with John than Elijah—Signifier of Time’s End.

Mark 6:15

Others again said – “He is Elijah,” and others – “He is a prophet, like one of the great prophets.”

Elijah is expected every year
not like any ancient prophet
whose name hasn’t faded yet

leaving space at the table
makes us familiar if not present
yes this one we know

since we know Elijah stories
it is easy for us to know all stories
as Elijah’s genre stories

in our reality wrestling
and meaning quest continuance
wisdom’s breadth is narrowed

I’ll bet my Elijah interpretation
against your John speculation
any day of the week

The blogosphere of Herod’s time was as busy as the current one. Herod’s responses seem to not be one of a policy-maker but a reactor to the latest news.

You can almost hear echoes of Herod’s Press Secretary daily giving a different explanation of the wonder-working outside of Herod’s purview or control. “Jesus is John revived from death” (again, an intimation of death without detail). “Jesus is Elijah returned as dramatically as he left” (2 Kings 2:11). “Jesus is another of another prophetic school” (how many ancient prophets come to mind and how many of them are women?

None of this prophet talk is sitting well with Herod and those privileged to be in his entourage, part of his posse. Prophets and heads-of-state are in conflict about the future. Prophets see the constraints on abundance resulting from the use of resources to protect the powerful and are advocates for a better tomorrow for everyone disadvantaged by today’s systems. Those in charge of others find themselves constantly using more of tomorrow’s resources to prop up their current standard of living. There is no oil/water interface here, but a stark difference in orientation.

With all this speculation we can sense Herod becoming edgier and edgier. Dissonance is being built up. John is meddling in state politics when he proclaimed against Herod’s intermarriage that consolidated his meager dynasty. Colonialism in any age brings out the necessities required to stay in power. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear can anticipate Jesus’s arrest and death. Mark doesn’t have to say any more at this point, nor does Jesus.

Mark 6:14

Now King Herod heard of Jesus; for his name had become well known. People were saying – “John the Baptizer must have risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are active in him.”

it is most difficult
to go beyond our experience
thought experiments are rare
present knowledge is comfortable
trustworthy loyal controllable

along comes strange news
by definition not good news
to be grabbed by the neck
stuffed into a current category
curiosity satisfied memory wiped

such stasis settles in
each social stratum has theirs
by which we know and find our place
John Jesus Jonah Jeremiah
we got you covered

Markan “sandwiches” or inclusions interrupt themselves as we just read with the sending of Twelve. They also are interrupted by other events such as the woman who bled for twelve years and this episode with Tetrarch Herod Antipas and Baptizer John.

The transition here is smoother as it builds upon the report of the Twelve about the healing they were able to do. In Herod’s terms “miraculous powers” had been wakened.

The exact nature of these countervailing powers was quite up for grabs as a variety of explanations will be forthcoming. This same variety of speculations arise in every time, for nothing is quite as simple as we would like to be able to have our meaning-making desire cared for. Basically, strange things are afoot and this means danger to those who are momentarily powerful and opportunity for those out-of-the-loop.

John, “raised from the dead”? We first met John in Chapter 1 when he was baptizing as a sign of repentant metanoia (1:4). With John’s arrest (1:14) Jesus begins his Proclamation Tour. John’s disciples are following their tradition and become part of the stimuli for a test of Jesus regarding fasting (2:18). John has been under arrest for some time. We’ve practically forgotten about the Baptizer. Now, out of the blue, in the midst of an ecstatic recounting of healing after healing, John is dead?

BANG! It is time to reorient ourselves to a sideways approach to the question of Jesus’ identity and finding out about John.