Meals of the Rich and Famous
First Presbyterian Church
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.
As we move through the menu of biblical meals this summer we come across this rather unappetizing one. This is one of the meals of the rich and famous or perhaps rich and infamous. You could call it, “What the powerful people do at supper when they are bored.” It is a story of how not to use power.
If it helps, the story is fiction. It is a fiction similar to the Christmas story of Herod’s slaughter of the innocents. That story is a retelling of Pharoah’s killing of the babies in Exodus. Both stories tell of the divine escape of the hero from the clutches of the ruthless. Baby Moses escapes. Baby Jesus escapes.
The story we have in Mark about the dance is a fiction likely based on an account by the historian Livy. Livy tells this story about Lucius Quinctius Flaminius who was expelled by the senate in 184 BCE for abuse of power. Here is the story:
“…at Placentia a notorious woman, with whom Flamininus was desperately in love, had been invited to dinner. There he was boasting to the courtesan, among other things, about his severity in the prosecution of cases and how many persons he had in chains, under sentence of death, whom he intended to behead. Then the woman, reclining below him, said that she had never seen a person beheaded and was very anxious to behold the sight. Hereupon, he says, the generous lover, ordering one of the wretches to be brought to him, cut off his head with his sword. This deed, whether it was performed in the manner for which the censor rebuked him, or as Valerius reports it, was savage and cruel: in the midst of drinking and feasting, where it is the custom to pour libations to the gods and to pray for blessings, as a spectacle for a shameless harlot, reclining in the bosom of a consul, a human victim sacrificed and bespattering the table with his blood!” (Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, p. 36.)
Biblical scholar Dominic Crossan writes that this is not the way to exercise power. Flavinius was expelled from the senate for doing so. It is likely that the author of Mark’s gospel has this story in mind when he creates the story of Salome and her dance. Why does Mark tell this story? Mark is painting a portrait of Herod as an abuser of power. This takes the focus away from the actions of John the Baptist and Jesus. Mark wants to sanitize the Jesus movement for Rome.
Yes Jesus was executed. Yes John the Baptist was executed. But both were executed by bumblers, by abusers of power, and by rulers who were influenced by others. Herod doesn’t really want to do it but he does it to save face. Pilate doesn’t want to execute Jesus but he does so to pacify the crowd, all according to Mark’s gospel.
Mark wants to say that neither John the Baptist nor Jesus, nor especially us, dear reader, the followers of Jesus, are a threat to Rome. We aren’t going to start a revolution. We are good guys and those who killed Jesus and John were bad examples of Roman leaders. Mark goes out of his way to paint Herod and Pilate as bad, incompetent leaders and take the focus away from what John the Baptist and Jesus were really doing.
John the Baptist was an historical person, probably more well-known than Jesus in his time. Herod executed John the Baptist. This is what first century historian, Josephus writes about him in his Antiquities:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod's army came from God, and was a very just punishment for what he did against John called the baptist [the dipper]. For Herod had him killed, although he was a good man and had urged the Jews to exert themselves to virtue, both as to justice toward one another and reverence towards God, and having done so join together in washing. For immersion in water, it was clear to him, could not be used for the forgiveness of sins, but as a sanctification of the body, and only if the soul was already thoroughly purified by right actions. And when others massed about him, for they were very greatly moved by his words, Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt -- for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise -- believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.
And so John, out of Herod's suspiciousness, was sent in chains to Machaerus, the fort previously mentioned, and there put to death; but it was the opinion of the Jews that out of retribution for John God willed the destruction of the army so as to afflict Herod.
This is an amazingly understated passage by Josephus. Josephus needs to sanitize John the Baptist. Josephus paints John as a good guy encouraging people to be their best selves, etc. But he gives away the likely reason that Herod executed John.
“Herod…feared that such a strong influence over the people might carry a revolt.”
It is likely that John the Baptist was a revolutionary. He wanted Rome to end the occupation and for Israel to be a kingdom. He thinks that God is going to make this happen. That is why is doing his part. He is baptizing people in the Jordan River. As historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan wrote, the “Jordan is not just water.” (Crossan, Jesus, p. 29ff)
The Jordan is a highly symbolically charged river. It is the river that Joshua crosses in order to conquer and claim the Promised Land. When John baptizes people for purification, for repentance, he is baptizing as Crossan puts it, “apocalyptic time bombs.” He is baptizing them into a righteous fervor.
This is all supernaturally charged. Weather happens good and foul because of the activities of the gods, or in Israel’s case, because of God. Why does God send rain or not send rain? Why does God punish his people or reward his people? Because God is responding to their behavior, whether it is line with Torah or not. Who decides? The scholars and especially the prophets, like John in the wilderness dressed like a madman.
He like any prophet, read any of them in the Old Testament, thinks that if people repent of their sins, then God will restore their fortunes. John is baptizing and purifying people and calling for their repentance so that they will move into the promised land, sanctified and ready. Ready for what? The Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, says John, is at hand. John is getting people spiritually fired up for the restoration of Israel and the end of Roman rule. The Kingdom of God, not the Kingdom of Rome.
Now we have been taught that the Kingdom of God is spiritual. The kingdom of God is heaven, some otherworldly place. We think that because the gospel writers did a good job of sanitizing John and Jesus. They had to explain why John and Jesus were executed by the state, a punishment for criminals and insurrectionists. The explanation is that John the Baptist died because he criticized Herod’s marriage and Herod’s second wife got back at him. The explanation for Jesus is that he died for our sins. That is the big divine plan. It was carried out because Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus or whatever. None of that is historical.
As the centuries wore on and Christianity became the religion of empire it became a religion of the powerful preaching otherworldly salvation and most importantly one that sanctified the powers that be. Jesus the social and political prophet, to use a metaphor from Robert Price, was hidden behind a stained glass curtain.
When we strip away the legends and the spin, we find that both John the Baptist and Jesus were insurrectionists. They wanted to overthrow Roman rule and to re-establish Israel as a kingdom under God.
Remember John baptized Jesus. This is an embarrassing fact that the gospel writers go to great lengths to explain. He was himself, a ticking apocalyptic time bomb.
Debate surrounds how far Jesus moved from John. Was Jesus apocalyptic like John was thinking that God would respond with vengeance on behalf of his people, newly baptized and ready, or was Jesus similar but different? Crossan offers that Jesus preached that the kingdom of God was a collaboration between humans and God, a non-violent insurrection. I wonder if Jesus knew what to do. What do you do?
How do you end Roman occupation? Fight and lose. Fight and lose. Fight and lose. Or don’t fight and still lose.
It is a similar story today.
The parallels are striking between ancient Israel’s fight for independence from Rome 2000 years ago and the Palestinian fight for independence from the modern state of Israel and its ally the United States over the last six or seven decades.
What do the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza really do? Fight and lose. Don’t fight, still lose. Violent resistance. Non-violent resistance. It doesn’t seem to matter. The powerful have too many resources and chief among them is propaganda.
One lesson from history is that fight and lose against a powerful and ruthless enemy really loses. The Jewish revolts in 66-70 and later in the 130s were crushed mercilessly. You have to find a way to balance the power. You need to get allies. You need to tell your story again and again and get it heard.
I think the religious task in all of this, and this is the point of the sermon, is to do the hard work of reading our texts critically and to deconstruct them. The movement toward understanding our texts historically has opened our eyes. We are finally starting to hear that Jesus was a social and political prophet. The mythical and supernatural elements are a distraction. When taken literally, these mythical and supernatural elements serve the interests of the status quo. When understood as symbols for transcendence, they can serve liberation.
The point is not to find the historical Jesus and then worship him. The point is that the process of deconstruction itself is liberation. Our modern task is to strip away the myth, legend, and propaganda in order to uncover the power relations in and behind the texts and then to re-imagine possibilities for our future. To notice where God is bubbling up.
Many things are done in the name of religion and God that are against the good health of our society and our world. Just yesterday I saw a story about a group in Dallas, Texas, of the Institute for Creation Research, who are out to prove scientifically that the creation stories in the Bible are scientifically accurate. This is silly but in the popular imagination this nonsense gets a hearing in part because moderates and liberals have treated our texts and traditions with kid gloves.
Religion needs to be deconstructed and it needs to be deconstructed from within. We don’t look at these texts such as the silly story of Salome’s dance at face value. We read it with suspicion. It is a story that misdirects.
John the Baptist and Jesus were really executed. They were really executed because they were, in fact, enemies of the state. They were threats to the Roman order. They were insurrectionists, rebels, and freedom fighters or terrorists depending upon which propaganda network to which you listen.
If Jesus was an insurrectionist what does it mean to follow Jesus today? If Jesus was on the side of the poor and the oppressed, what side are followers of Jesus to take? You might say, “I don’t want to follow this Jesus.” That is a mature decision.
Another mature decision is to take what we can and leave what we can’t. For example I leave behind the first century supernaturalism. It doesn’t matter how many people John the Baptist baptized in the Jordan in order to get a divine being to take action. All they got was wet. I have seen no evidence that a divine being either controls weather or political processes. I leave behind the supernatural elements whether Jesus believed in them or not.
I take the humanistic elements of the Jesus movement. I draw from it many of his parables and his passion for social justice and his love of enemies that I think distinguished his non-violent movement.
I do honor the transcendence of this movement.
This is why his movement was explained through myths of resurrection. There is something alive in this passion, something with depth. God rather than up and out and intervening on occasion, is instead within and through. God is the bubbling up.
This is religion after being deconstructed that can be constructed again. For example, today I see God bubbling up in young adults calling for divestment from our fossil fuel consumption, making music and art that both transcends and embraces our ethnicities, questioning all forms of institutional propaganda. I call that transcendent bubbling up, God.
It was a beautiful bubbling up at this year’s PCUSA General Assembly. The Young Adult Advisory Delegates or YAADs voted with the historical Jesus in my view. On the issues of importance, they were on the side of the angels. The issue that ignited their passion was divestment of fossil fuel companies. They lined up several at a time at the microphones to speak articulately and with the passion of John the Baptist on behalf of Earth. They were ready to dismantle industrial civilization. The old Presbyterians weren’t quite ready for it.
I saw in these young adults God bubbling up.
It comes through in this hymn we are going to sing in a few minutes, Soon and Very Soon. It is transcendent language about a liberation movement sung by African-Americans. It is a song of hope while in an otherworldly framework is about a-this-worldly hope.
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king. Which means…
Soon and very soon, we will know this sacrifice and loss is not in vain.
Soon and very soon, we will find our liberation and freedom.
Soon and very soon, those who hunger will be filled.
Soon and very soon, those who thirst for justice will be satisfied.
Soon and very soon, spears will be turned in to pruning hooks and swords will become plowshares.
Soon and very soon, tears will be wiped away.
Soon and very soon, racism will end in police departments.
Soon and very soon, religion will not inspire violence and ignorance but peace and courage.
Soon and very soon, Palestinians and Israelis will exist hand in hand in true justice and freedom throughout all the land.
Soon and very soon, the kingdom of heaven will be on earth.
That means that we can never, never, never give up hope, no matter the Herods, no matter the Pilates, no matter the mountain before us.
God is bubbling up.
Soon and very soon.