I Am My Own Grandpa, And Other Scandals

First United Methodist Church, Shelbyville, Tenn.
July 15, 2018

Mark 6:14–29 (CEB)

Herod the king heard about these things, because the name of Jesus had become well-known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and this is why miraculous powers are at work through him.” Others were saying, “He is Elijah.” Still others were saying, “He is a prophet like one of the ancient prophets.” But when Herod heard these rumors, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised to life.”
He said this because Herod himself had arranged to have John arrested and put in prison because of Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. Herod had married her, but John told Herod, “It’s against the law for you to marry your brother’s wife!” So Herodias had it in for John. She wanted to kill him, but she couldn’t. This was because Herod respected John. He regarded him as a righteous and holy person, so he protected him. John’s words greatly confused Herod, yet he enjoyed listening to him.
Finally, the time was right. It was on one of Herod’s birthdays, when he had prepared a feast for his high-ranking officials and military officers and Galilee’s leading residents. Herod’s daughter … came in and danced, thrilling Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the young woman, “Ask me whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” Then he swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give to you, even as much as half of my kingdom.”
She left the banquet hall and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?”
“John the Baptist’s head,” Herodias replied.
Hurrying back to the ruler, she made her request: “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head on a plate, right this minute.” Although the king was upset, because of his solemn pledge and his guests, he didn’t want to refuse her. So he ordered a guard to bring John’s head. The guard went to the prison, cut off John’s head, brought his head on a plate, and gave it to the young woman, and she gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard what had happened, they came and took his dead body and laid it in a tomb.

This is a familiar story, and kind of a lurid story, which always seems to attract our attention. It’s about the events that lead to the execution of John the Baptist.

The story is told here out of chronological order. It just sort of pops up, apropos of nothing, in between a passage in which Jesus sends out his disciples and the account of them coming back to him.

When Herod Antipas starts hearing stories about Jesus, he hears speculation that Jesus is the reincarnation of one of the prophets, like Elijah, but Herod goes along with speculation that John the Baptist had somehow been raised from the dead. Herod, and the others who put forth this theory, had no knowledge of the ways in which John and Jesus had interacted with each other, or they could not have believed John and Jesus to be the same person.

In any case, the gospel writer takes Herod’s fears about John and/or Jesus and uses them to set up what, in a movie, would be called a flashback. Herod thinks that Jesus is John reincarnated. Why would Herod be bothered by this? Here’s why …. (CUE HARP MUSIC, CROSS-FADE TO NEW SCENE, TITLE CARD READS “A FEW MONTHS EARLIER.”)

We all know about John the Baptist — he was a cousin of Jesus, and he prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. But the other characters in this story take a bit of explanation. In fact, William Barclay’s Bible commentary actually has a chart, so that you can see who’s related to whom.

When we were young, we used to beg my father to sing “I’m My Own Grandpa.” This song was made popular by the duo of Lonzo and Oscar, but it was written by two men named Dwight Latham and Moe Jaffe, who took the basic idea for it from an old Mark Twain story.

The song is about a man who marries a widow with an adult daughter. Then the singer’s father marries the widow’s daughter, and so he is, in one sense, his own step-grandfather. (There are a bunch of other births and marriages mentioned in the lyrics, but actually, those don’t really have anything to do with the man being his own grandpa; they’re just there because they make the song funnier.)

It’s a funny song. We hadn’t heard it in years, but in 2010, when we were at a high school graduation party for my oldest niece, my sister asked Dad to sing the song again, and he did. There’s actually video of Dad singing the song on Facebook. He still remembered every word!

The story of Herod Philip, Herod Antipas, Herodias and Salome is even more complicated, and a lot more scandalous.

Here’s the short version.

Herod the Great was the King Herod from the Christmas story — the one who met the Wise Men, the Magi, and who was so threatened by their prophecy that he ordered an execution of all male infants.

Herod the Great had children by five different women. He became quite unstable as he got older, and he murdered some of his own sons, but the two we’re concerned with survived. Herod the Great’s son by Mariamne the Boeuthsian was Herod Philip. Herod Philip married a woman named Herodias, and they had a daughter named Salome.

Now, Herod Philip should not have married Herodias in the first place, because she was actually his niece, the daughter of Herod Philip’s half-brother Aristobulus. But just wait ….

Herod Philip did not inherit any of Herod the Great’s territory and he moved to Rome, where he lived as a wealthy private citizen.

Herod Philip had a half-brother, Herod Antipas, who was the son of Herod the Great and a different woman, Malthake. Herod Antipas did inherit territory from Herod the Great, and he was ruler of Galilee. Herod Antipas went to Rome to visit his half-brother, and while he was there, he lusted after his half-brother’s wife Herodias, had an affair with her, and and stole her away from him, bringing her back to Galilee.

By the way, that made Salome Herod Antipas’ stepdaughter; she was also his niece, through his half-brother Herod Philip; and his great-niece, through his half-brother Aristobulus.

This whole adulterous, incestuous relationship was a general violation of common decency, and a specific violation of Jewish laws from the book of Leviticus.

John had publicly criticized Herod Antipas for this outrageously-offensive course of events, and Herod Antipas had him thrown into prison for it. 
But he didn’t kill him. In fact, the gospel writer says that Herod Antipas respected John, and enjoyed listening to him speak, even though he was confused by some of what John said. Herod Antipas knew, certainly, that John was telling the truth. And he respected John’s courage, and was fascinated by him. The gospel writer even says that Herod Antipas protected John because John was a good and holy person. There was something in Herod Antipas’ conscience that wouldn’t let him kill a man he knew to be God’s prophet, even it he felt free to silence that prophet and keep him out of public view.

Barclay uses this description of Herod Antipas to make the point that it’s possible for a single person to have both good and evil tendencies.
Herodias, however, did not share her husband’s affection for John. She wanted John dead, for daring to point out the obvious.

And Herodias came up with a devious scheme to get what she wanted. Herod was throwing himself a birthday celebration, with his own high officials and other prominent citizens in attendance. And Herodias sent her daughter, Salome, out to dance.

According to Barclay, this type of provocative, sexual dance was usually done by prostitutes. But Herodias sent Salome out to perform it in front of her stepfather-slash-uncle and his guests.

And they were all mesmerized. Herod Antipas, who, given the setting, may have been in a drunken state, promised his daughter anything she wanted, up to half of his kingdom. It’s funny that he uses the word “kingdom.” Herod Antipas never actually held the title of “king.” In fact, years after this story takes place, historians tell us that Herod Antipas went to the Roman emperor, Caligula, and asked to be named King of Galilee. Caligula considered this request impertinent, and maybe even a sign that Herod was conspiring against him. He banished Herod, sending him into exile in Gaul, which was roughly the area which we now know as France.

But at this point, Herod still thought of himself as a king, even if he didn’t have the title, and in front of all his guests he offered Salome anything she wanted, up to and including half of his kingdom. Salome asked for what her mother told her to ask for — the head of John the Baptist. Herod Antipas was backed into a corner, because he had made a promise in front of all his guests. He would have embarrassed himself in front of the most important men of Galilee if he had gone back on his promise. So he, reluctantly, gave Salome what Herodias wanted, and had John the Baptist beheaded.

Why does the gospel writer tell us this story, and why does he tell it in this place in the gospel, out of order, some time after it happened? This story is sandwiched between a passage in which Jesus sends out the disciples for ministry, and the passage in which they return and report on what happened. It is as if Mark wants to remind us of the consequences of telling the truth, the consequences of taking a stand. The disciples were sent out to represent Jesus. Representing Jesus is not always popular, because it means representing the truth, and not everyone wants to hear the truth.

Telling the truth can be dangerous. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a total of 334 journalists were killed between 2013 and last Sunday, when I checked the figures. Last month, as you know, five journalists were killed in Annapolis, Maryland. I was at an awards banquet Thursday night at the Tennessee Press Association summer convention in Cool Springs, and we began with a moment of silence for those who had been lost.

Truth is a threat to anyone who wants to exercise absolute power. Truth is a threat to anyone who has deluded themselves into thinking they are beyond reproach.

Truth was a threat to Herod Antipas, who had John arrested and thrown into prison. Truth was a threat to Herodias, who arranged for John to be killed.
At the start of our passage, Herod Antipas is starting to hear stories about Jesus, and he thinks that Jesus might somehow be John the Baptist risen from the dead.

What Herod Antipas did not know, of course, was that Jesus was far more significant, far more powerful, and far more familiar with the truth than his old sparring partner John the Baptist. John the Baptist could only know about Herod Antipas’ actions, which were bad enough. But Jesus sees into the heart. Jesus knows the sin inside all of us, even those who appear holy on the outside. Jesus said that lust was lust, whether it was acted upon, in the form of fornication or adultery or rape or harassment, or whether it was just a rotten place in someone’s heart. Matthew 5:27–28 reads, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.”

Herod Antipas was a sinner for committing adultery with his brother’s wife. But the men who watched Salome do her dance were also sinners.
Sin is sin is sin, and we are all sinners.

That’s the kind of truth we don’t like to hear. That’s the kind of truth we like to lock away in prison. Now, we would never want to kill our old friend Jesus, and it’s nice to hear him talk every now and then, but sometimes we don’t mind locking him away where he can’t cause us any trouble.

Herod Antipas turns up again in the gospels, of course, when Jesus has been arrested. The religious officials who arrested Jesus brought him to Pilate, but Pilate — who doesn’t think Jesus has broken any Roman law, and sees this as an internal dispute among the Jews — decides to pass the buck and send Jesus to Herod.

Herod, according to the gospel of Luke, is excited when he hears that Jesus is coming. He’s curious to hear him, and wonders if maybe Jesus will perform some sort of miracle. It’s not unlike the way that Herod liked listening to John, even as he kept John in prison. But Jesus doesn’t perform for Herod — in fact, the gospel writer tells us that Herod asks Jesus many questions, but Jesus gives him no answer.
Herod turns right around and sends Jesus back to Pilate. In a strange turn of events, this leads to a friendship between Herod and Pilate, who had previously been enemies. Politics, as they say, makes strange bedfellows, and in the matter of Jesus, both Pilate and Herod are more concerned about the political fallout than they are about justice.

We live in an age when it’s easy to deceive ourselves about the truth. For example, whether you’re a liberal or a conservative, you can find a TV channel or a website that confirms all of the things you already believe, and that never challenges you to take a second look. You can choose your own truth.

When comedian and talk show host Stephen Colbert started his previous program, “The Colbert Report,” he coined the word “truthiness,” which referred to something you believe, not because it is actually, demonstrably, true, but because it seems like it ought to be true because it goes along with what you already believe. We are all guilty of this, no matter what our politics or theology. We look for evidence that confirms the way in which we’ve already made up our minds, and we tend to dismiss anything that is uncomfortable or which challenges our assumptions. Unfortunately, the incredible range of voices to which we now have access allows us to shut ourselves up more and more effectively in these little cubbyholes, listening only to things we already agree with.

But while we can ignore the truth for a while, and think that we’ve cut off its head, it has a way of returning in the end.

It was William Shakespeare, in “The Merchant of Venice,” who gave us a famous phrase about this. “Truth will come to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son may, but at the length truth will out.”

Truth will out.

God is a God of truth, and God expects us to be honest with ourselves, honest about ourselves, and honest in the way we look at the world. The Pharisee named Saul of Tarsus thought he was sure what God expected of him — to follow the laws of Moses, as interpreted by the Pharisees. Those interpretations of the Pharisees turned the law of light and life into a law of burdens and self-righteousness. The new movement of Christ-followers was a threat to the Pharisees’ world view, and Saul of Tarsus persecuted Christians in order to protect the status quo.

Saul of Tarsus was spiritually blind. He had blinded himself to the truth. But God blinded him with the truth on the road to Damascus, and Saul became Paul, an advocate of the very movement he had previously sought to destroy.
The truth will out. Sometimes it happens quickly or dramatically, sometimes it takes decades, even centuries, but the truth will out.

Jesus sent his disciples out to be bearers of the truth. In some places, that truth might be received with joy and gratitude; in others, that truth might provoke murderous anger. All of the disciples returned from this trial assignment, but once the Christian church — and the opposition to it — had begun in earnest, they would not be so lucky.

Church tradition has it that 11 of the 12 disciples died violent deaths. Only John died of old age, but even he was in exile, house arrest, on the Isle of Patmos. There is a cost to telling the truth. Just as I quoted statistics earlier about journalists who have been killed for telling the truth, there are missionaries or other Christians who are killed for sharing their faith — the truth about Jesus, and the truth told by Jesus.

Our job as Christians is not to be intentionally obnoxious or rude. Some Christians seem to think that the truth gives them license to act like jerks, but Christ’s example is one of love for everyone.

Henry Stephens reading the rules.

On Friday and Saturday, I was a judge in numerous categories at the chili cook-off across the street. A certified chili judge named Henry Stephens gave us our instructions — which I heard a total of eight times over the course of the weekend. He told us it was important to leave comments for the competitors, but not to be mean about it. We shouldn’t say “this chili tastes like crap,” we should say “it needs more salt,” or “it’s too spicy.” If there was something we couldn’t describe more specifically, we should just say “the flavor was off,” in as kind a way as possible.

We are to have love in our hearts and love in our eyes, even when we are telling someone a difficult truth. Even a lovingly-told truth can provoke anger, though, if the hearer doesn’t want to believe it.

Our job as Christians is to be spreaders of truth, defenders of truth, wherever we find it. Sometimes, that requires humility — the truth is the truth, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be wrong about the truth. But it also requires courage and persistence, to tell the truth in the face of opposition. As Jesus’ disciples were preparing to spread the truth throughout the Roman world, the death of John served as a reminder that sometimes, telling the truth can be an act of heroism.