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:
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
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