Herod had a dinner. It didn't end well.
Mark 6:14-29 tells how Herod, the local tetrarch (a minor client king of the Romans), had a birthday party at which he persuaded his wife's daughter to dance for him by promising her anything she desired. Her mother told her to ask for "the head of John the Baptist on a platter." Herod reluctantly grants her wish. Herod had arrested John because he was publicly critical of the king marrying his brother's wife, Herodias. But Herod respected (maybe a little too strong a word) John as a prophet and wouldn't kill him. Herodias wanted him dead.
I suppose you could argue that someone got their way and went away happy. But revenge doesn't bring happiness. This is a story about power over others, power to manipulate and control, hurt and destroy. That kind of power is potent and seductive and altogether too familiar in the news, in our entertainment, even in our day to day lives. There's no likeable characters here, no sympathetic ones, no positive message. It hardly fits the book that begins "the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1). And yet, here it is, plunked down here as a flashback (an oddity in the gospels) in the middle of a storyline about Jesus' disciples returning from their first mission outing.
Recently, I suggested that a re-reading of the Garden of Eden story without the baggage of historic interpretation could yield a different understanding to a contemporary mind. The snake, cunning, not evil, engages Eve in conversation. Eve makes a reasoned decision about the fruit of the tree of knowledge and shares it with Adam. As a result, they become aware and make choices based on the free will they have now acquired. Instead of being cast out from the garden for the original sin, they strike out from the garden into the world. I suggested that God gifted us with free will, but also knew that free will couldn't just be received, it had to be taken on. But, of course, with free will comes choice and choice is influenced by so much. Even though our default setting may be good, we established pretty quickly that we were more than capable of choosing something else. The power to kill over the power to give life; the power to destroy over the power to create; the power to hurt over the power of compassion; the power of hate over the power of love. We frequently chose "power over" rather than "power with."
I'm generalizing too broadly, perhaps. Our history hasn't always been wicked over good. But we have been very good at being not good.
So here is a story in which that is concentrated. Herod only has power because it is allowed him by the Romans who have power by force and oppression. Herod extends that oppression and cruelty to his own people and throws in a dash of excess when it comes to his own lifestyle. And yet, he is not the one with power here. It's Herodias and her seductive daughter, and they abuse the celebratory moment by taking a life for vengeance. There is truly no positive message to this story. That's only found in it's juxtaposition with the dinner that follows it.
Jesus' disciples return and the journey together continues as crowds follow them, listening to Jesus teach. It grows late and the disciples want to send them away to find food. But Jesus wants them, the disciples, to feed everyone there. It's a big crowd, they say, and they have no money. Jesus asks them what they can find and they come back with five loaves and two fish someone is willing to share. Somehow Jesus feeds everyone and has food left over.
Jesus may have done something miraculous with the loaves and fishes. Or could it be enough of a miracle that an initial act of sharing inspired others to find that they had something they could share and, more importantly, that they did share. All were fed and went away satisfied because so many were willing to look beyond themselves to the good of all. Now that seems like a miracle, especially when set opposite Herod's dinner party.
What would it take for us to find the second story less a miracle and more a reality? How can we make the forces of oppression, the selfishness of the Herods and the ruthless hatefulness of the Herodiases an aberration, rather than an everyday norm? What would it take for us to find our way back to that default, "the image of God," which is the root of our creation? What would it take?
Jesus has a way.