Weekly Sermon Illustration: Herod Antipas

In our blog post every Monday we select a reading from the Revised Common Lectionary for the upcoming Sunday, and pair it with a Frederick Buechner reading on the same topic.

On July 12, 2015 we will celebrate The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost. Here is this week's reading from the gospel of Mark:

Mark 6:14-29

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised." For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

Here is Buechner's description of Herod Antipas, first published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words:

HEROD ANTIPAS, the tetrarch of Galilee and the son of Herod the Great, seems to have spent much of his life running scared.

When John the Baptist started criticizing his private life in public, Herod had him locked up for fear that otherwise he might become a fad, but he didn't dare have him executed for fear that John's fans might get themselves a new tetrarch if he did. On his birthday he told Salome that he'd give her anything she asked for if she'd do her act with the seven veils for him, and when what she asked for was John the Baptist's head on a platter, he shook in his boots but gave it to her because he was afraid of what might happen if word got around that he was turning chicken.

He turned pale when he heard that a new prophet named Jesus was stirring up trouble because he was sure that it must be John come back from the grave to get even, and he decided to have him taken care of a second time. This threat doesn't seem to have especially bothered Jesus, because when news of it reached him, he referred to Herod as a fox and sent word back that he had bigger things on his mind to worry about. (His use of the word fox is interesting because, although then as now it could be used to suggest slyness, its more common use apparently was a term of contempt. Pussycat might be a better rendering. The fact that the Greek word is in the feminine gender mayor may not be an allusion to some of Herod's more exotic proclivities.)

They finally came face-to-face, of course, Jesus of Nazareth and the tetrarch of Galilee. It was the night of Jesus' arrest, and when Pilate found out he was a Galilean and thus under that jurisdiction, he had him bundled off to Herod's headquarters immediately. He'd never been able to stand Herod's guts, Luke tells us, and was probably tickled pink to find this way of needling him.

Ironically enough, it appears that Herod was tickled pink too, because he'd apparently given up the idea that the man was John the Baptist's ghost and, again according to Luke, had been looking forward for a long time to seeing him perform some of his more spectacular tricks. He thought that if he was who they claimed he was, it should be quite a show. Unfortunately, Jesus refused to accommodate him or even to answer his questions, and, taking this to be a sign of weakness, Herod decided to have a little fun with him.

He had his soldiers rough him up for a while and then let them do some other things to him that struck them as appropriate to do to a man who'd been the cause of their having been woken up in the middle of the night. When all of this was finished, Herod had them doll him up in one of his fanciest tetrarch uniforms with a few hilarious additions and deletions and in that state sent him back to Pilate.

As luck would have it, Pilate turned out to have the same sense of humor, and Luke tells us that he and Herod became great friends from then on. It is nice to think that at least one good thing thus came out of that dark and harrowing night, and it is interesting also to note that on this one occasion when Herod might justifiably have been scared out of his wits, you would have thought he was watching a Punch and Judy show the way he threw back his head and howled.