In our gospel reading from last Sunday, you might remember that Jesus sent out the twelve disciples on their first solo mission. After a disappointing start in his home town of Nazareth, Jesus sends out the twelve, two by two, into all the surrounding area, to preach and teach and heal in his name. And for once, the disciples totally nail it! As Mark writes, “They went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.” Jesus and the disciples are doing awesome stuff all over Galilee: they’re healing the sick; they’re freeing people from their demons; and they’re preaching good news everywhere they go.
This is the report that reaches Herod at the beginning of our gospel reading for today. Herod had heard of Jesus – but now he’s hearing about all these incredible things that Jesus and his disciples are doing, and the way that massive crowds of people have started following them around. And all this freaks Herod out. Herod feels threatened because he recognizes that there is real power at work here, real power in the things that Jesus and his disciples are doing. And Herod recognizes this power because it’s the same power – God’s power – that was at work in John the Baptist. So, logically, Herod concludes, “Well, the only possible explanation is that this guy must somehow be John the Baptist… whom I killed… who now seems to have been raised from the dead… Crap.”
We then get this weird sort of flashback episode in the text, like Herod is remembering back to how things went down with John the Baptist. And it is one of the more horrifying stories in the bible (a category for which there is very stiff competition). John had – rightly – been criticizing Herod ever since he decided to take his brother Philip’s wife Herodias as his own wife. Herod finally gets fed up with John and throws him in prison, but Herodias is never quite at ease knowing that he’s still alive. So when Herod rashly promises to give his daughter whatever she wants, Herodias seizes the opportunity. On Herod’s orders, John is brutally murdered and his severed head is brought into Herod’s birthday party on a platter as part of the entertainment.
This one story tells us so much about who Herod is and about how he uses power – and none of it is pretty. The portrait we get here is of a selfish, cowardly, abusive ruler whose primary concern is hanging onto his own power. Even though this story paints Herodias as the one who’s actively pushing for John’s death, Herod is still the one who calls the shots. As a woman in the first century, Herodias wouldn’t have had much say in what happened to John – nor, for that matter, would she have had a lot of say in being taken by Herod as his wife in the first place. Her position and security depended on the whims of men, which is why she gets so angry with John for provoking Herod.
One can imagine that the same more or less goes for Herod’s daughter, who dances at the party for her father and his rich friends. Herod is so “pleased” (ugh) by his daughter’s dancing – and probably a few sheets to the wind by this point in the evening – that he swears that he will give her anything she asks for, as much as half of his entire kingdom. And when she asks for John’s head on a platter, Herod does it – not because he wants to, but because he’s afraid of losing face in front of his guests. Herod cares more about his reputation as king than he does about his people; he literally kills a man in order to save face. And Herod doesn’t want to kill John – because he knows it’s wrong. He knows that John is a man of God. But Herod kills him anyway.
The contrast could not be starker between the ways that Herod uses his power and the ways that Jesus and his followers use power. And in case this contrast weren’t already clear enough, Mark surrounds this story of Herod and John the Baptist with examples. Immediately after this story of Herod’s birthday feast, Mark tells the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. He tells us stories side by side of two feasts that could not be more different.
While the story of Herod’s feast begins with fear and anger, the story of Jesus’ feast begins with his great love for his followers and his grief over the death of John the Baptist. He tries to find a moment alone with his disciples in a deserted place, but when massive crowds again come out from all the towns to see him, Jesus is filled with compassion; he welcomes them all and he teaches them. And you know how the story goes. It gets late and the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away so they can go buy something to eat. But Jesus responds that they already have everything that they need; he tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” And by the time they’re done, everyone is stuffed to the gills with bread and fish, with twelve whole baskets left over. It’s a story overflowing with abundance and generosity and compassion.
What these two stories illustrate so well is how vastly different God’s power is from the power of the rulers of this world. And what we see in the story of John the Baptist – and in our first reading, with the prophet Amos – is that the powers of this world often experience God’s power as a threat and a challenge. For instance, as we see in the scriptures, God’s power is generous and abundant – it challenges the mentality of scarcity that says there’s not enough to go around, so I’ve gotta get mine first. God’s power brings life and healing to all those who ask – it calls into question the ways of a world where healthcare is treated as a commodity or a privilege instead of as a God-given right. God’s power is compassionate and inclusive, and it flat out denounces the way that some lives are treated like they matter less than others, or the way that those in power decide that some people are in and some are out.
When we see people using their power in this world – and I’m sure you can think of examples – it’s important for us to pause and reflect on what that use of power looks like: does it look more like Christ’s compassionate, abundant, life-giving power, or more like Herod’s fearful, self-serving, and death-dealing power?
And even though none of us are kings (though we do have the mayor of Schuyler here!), we also have different kinds of power, even if we don’t necessarily think about it in those terms. We might have power as part of an organization or at work, power as parents, power in our social groups, or even just the power of our votes as citizens of a democracy. It’s just as important for us to consider how we use our power in ways that give glory to God and lift up our neighbors – to consider how we can use our power in Christlike ways, rather than Herodlike ways.
Because just like Jesus’ first disciples, we are called to be bearers of good news and healing and love to all those whom we encounter. We are called to live in imitation of Christ. And that is a powerful thing.