Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Case of John the Baptizer: "Good, Unpopular News"

There's a great piece for July 6 on Theolog [], which I highly recommend, by Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber who serves House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, CO. It's entitled: "Good, unpopular news". It will give you a succinct idea of what the Gospel for today's liturgy [Mark 6:14-29] means.

Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, and along with his full brother Archelaus and his half-brother Philip, was educated in Rome. Antipas wasn’t Herod's first choice of heir; only later did Herod revise his will. During his fatal illness in 4 BC, Herod had yet another change of heart about the succession: making the elder brother Archelaus king of Judea, Idumea and Samaria, while Antipas would rule Galilee and Perea with the lesser title of tetrarch. Philip would receive what is now the Golan Heights, southern Syria, Trachonitis and Hauran. Since the plans had to be ratified by Augustus, the three heirs travelled to Rome to make their claims. In the end, Augustus confirmed Archelaus as ethnarch rather than king, and Antipas as tetrarch.

Early in his reign, Antipas had married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. While staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip, he fell in love with his host's wife Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I. Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their previous spouses in order to marry each other. Relations between Antipas and King Aretas understandably soured and in time preparations began for war. Today’s Gospel reading exposes the kind of human values which are opposed to the way of God’s reign. It begins with Herod Antipas in a state of fear and anxiety: Jesus’ fame had begun to spread, reports about demons being cast out and of others cured after he anointed them. Rumors were flying that John the Baptizer had returned from the dead. There were other speculations that Jesus was a prophet, in the style of the great Jeremiah or Ezekiel. Herod’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he whispers to himself, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”

Verses 17-29 are a flashback to the time when John, the wildman desert preacher, had begun a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River, which marked the western edge of Antipas' territory of Perea. John had pushed the envelope too far by publicly castigating the tetrarch for his unlawful bedding of Herodias, former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. That was cause enough for Antipas to imprison John in Machaerus. The Jewish writer Josephus also suspects that John's public influence, and later that of Jesus, made Antipas fearful of rebellion.

Herodias didn’t take kindly at all to John’s criticism. Zara’s comment in 17th century playwright William Congreve’s The Mourning Bride was never more true:
Heav'n has no rage,
like love to hatred turn'd,
nor hell a fury,
like a woman scorn'd.

Herodias was seething, and looking for every opportunity to have this religious meddler executed.

The major obstacle in Herodias’ way was Antipas’ fear -- fear of the Baptizer -- coupled with his curious unexplainable respect. John fascinated Antipas; he could sense that John was righteous and holy, and so he protected him by keeping him safely locked in the prison. John also frustrated Antipas, though he was drawn to what John had to say.

Living, as Antipas and his family and and friends did, -- and as we sometimes do -- in fear and with irresponsible disregard for the deeper, more basic needs of the spirit, oftentimes trips us up through serendipity circumstances. Once caught up in them, people act in unpredictable ways, often with dire consequences.

Antipas, celebrating his birthday, gave a lavish banquet to which he invited all the big-wigs of Galilee: courtiers, officers, leaders, anyone who was anybody. The wine, of course, flowed freely. Usually table wine was diluted with
water: two to four parts to one part of wine. A stronger mixture was half and half, and if early drunkenness was the preference, wine was served straight. People ate reclining on couches, with food served from a table in the middle of the room, brought by slaves who attended to one’s every need. After dinner more wine was served, whether for political, philosophical, or social discussion, or to accompany games or entertainment by dancers. Female companionship might be provided by the Greek equivalent of geishas: hetairai, as they were called. One commentator notes: “Again, the percentage of the wine had something to do with the intimacy of the entertainment.

We don’t know who instigated it (although my bet is on Herodias), but Herodias‘ daughter, Salome, was chosen as the evening’s designated dancer, probably and sadly a young girl not much older than the daughter of Jairus (in the Gospel two weeks ago). To have an aristocratic daughter dance before a roomful of men flies in the face of many cultural standards of that day. Mark modestly observes: “
...she pleased Herod and his guests...”. Indeed, she must have, because Antipas, no doubt well into his “cups” by now, makes a vainglorious and irresponsible promise in order to impress his colleagues: he’ll give Salome anything she wants, anything at all -- even up to half of his kingdom! The girl, almost surely prompted ahead of time by Herodias, checks with her mother and asks “What should I ask for?” To which Herodias, probably with a vindictive sneer, spits out “The head of John the Baptizer.” Mark says that the girl “immediately...rushed back” to Antipas and relayed her wish, John’s head, adding a further detail: “at once...on a platter”. John the Baptizer is to become a sort of "final course" for the meal. Mark presents an image of fear, hatred, depravity and lack of control run utterly amok: in individuals, including a child; in families; in Antipas’ political domain.

Antipas is stunned, then sobered, then, realizing the full impact of what has taken place, is grieved. The repentance which is called for seems simply impossible to such a culture’s self-absorbed, corrupt and prideful will. Mark says, “
...out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her...” He immediately sends a soldier with the order to bring John’s head. And it was done, on a platter, “and [he] gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.” Such is the corrosive, destructive power of systemic, familial, cultural, and political sin. Placed as it is between Jesus’ sending his disciples out in humble ministry with a call to repentance, and his receiving them back, gathered around him, telling all that they’d done and taught, this passage provides a reminder of the resistance which awaits those who would embrace the foolishness of the cross.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. The evangelist Luke later tells us that a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that, because of the stir he was making among the polticial powers that be, Antipas was plotting his death also. By this time Jesus would have had a pretty good idea of the character of Antipas and his family. Not one given to name-calling, Jesus denounces the tetrarch with a kind of surprising reference: "
that fox", and declares that he, Jesus, will not fall victim to such a plot because "it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem". Luke also credits Antipas with a role in Jesus' eventual trial in Jerusalem. He says that Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod Antipas' jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time. Initially, Antipas was pleased to see Jesus. Always one ready for the spectacular and the outrageous, he hoped to satisfy his lust for novelty by seeing Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus, however, remains silent in the face of questioning, and Antipas mocks him and sends him back to Pilate, improving, according to Luke, relations between Pilate and Antipas despite their earlier enmity.

About three years after Jesus died, in 36 CE, the conflict with Aretas of Nabatea, caused by Antipas' divorce and the rulers' disagreement over territory, developed into open war. Antipas' army suffered a devastating defeat, and Antipas was forced to appeal to Emperor Tiberius for help. When the emperor ordered Lucius Vitellius, governor of Syria, to
march against Aretas. Vitellius obediently mobilized two legions, sending them on a detour around Judea while he joined Antipas in attending a festival at Jerusalem.

Antipas' fall from power was eventually due to Emperor Caligula and to Antipas’ own nephew, Agrippa, brother of Herodias. When Agrippa fell into debt and despite his connections with the imperial family, Herodias persuaded Antipas to provide for him, but the two men quarrelled and Agrippa departed. After Agrippa was heard expressing to his friend Caligula his eagerness for Tiberius to die and leave room for Caligula to succeed him, he was imprisoned. When Caligula finally became emperor in 37 CE, he not only released his friend, Agrippa, but granted him rule of Philip's former tetrarchy (slightly extended), with the title of king.

Josephus relates that Herodias, jealous at Agrippa's success, persuaded Antipas to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. However, Agrippa simultaneously presented the emperor with a list of charges against the tetrarch. Caligula decided to credit the allegations of conspiracy, and in the summer of 39 AD, Antipas' money and territory were turned over to Agrippa, while he himself was exiled. Herodias chose to join her husband in exile, where Antipas died. Among the followers of Jesus and members of the early Christian movement mentioned in the New Testament are Joanna, the wife of one of Antipas' stewards, and Manaen, a "foster-brother" or "companion" of Antipas Presumably, these were sources for early Christian knowledge of Antipas and his court.

Antipas has even appeared in a large number of more recent contemporary representations of the passion of Jesus – often, as in the films Jesus Christ Superstar and The Passion of the Christ, being portrayed as effeminate. In Longfellow's view, however, he wasn’t effeminate so much as rash, ineffective, and when backed into a corner by his furious ex-father-in-law, willing to do anything to save himself.

If we take anything away from this rather lengthy portrayal of Herod Antipas and those surrounding him, it might be the dramatic contrast between him and them and John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth and his followers. In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber above, “There’ s just not a huge market for the message ‘Jesus bids you come and die’...” An echo of Jesus in the Scriptures: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...For those who lose their life for my sake will find it...” Paul picks up the theme in 1 Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

That power of God and its benefits Paul outlines in the Epistle: Jesus’ followers are “blessed” with every imaginable spiritual blessing: chosen in Christ, adopted as children, redeemed through Christ’s blood, forgiven their sins, lavished with grace upon grace. To such is given wisdom, insight, and understanding of “the mystery of [God’s] will” as we see it lived out in Jesus’ words and actions. To such is given “an inheritance”, the “seal of the promised Holy Spirit” of Love, which gives us hope to endure beyond the cross as we devote our lives to living “for the praise of his glory.

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