Sometimes people in power think they can behave any way they like, especially when it comes to people who are more vulnerable or people who are a nuisance or people who offend them or disagree with them or point out their failings.
We see this today in the way Donald Trump has been splitting up families of immigrants, and the way he has treated people who have experience of his appalling behaviour towards women.
There is no sign that Trump recognises the wrong he has done. In fact, he is full of self-justification. He thinks he is in the right, that he is the best, that he has done nothing wrong. He even stated recently that he has the power to pardon himself. That was in relation to the special council Russia investigation.
Herod, on the other hand, does seem to have a guilty conscience. Mind you, what he did was pretty bad.
Herod Antipas, the Herod in today’s Gospel reading, is the son of Herod the Great who features in the stories of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great was king by permission of the Roman rulers. When he died, the kingdom was split into three and governed by three tetrarchs – and Antipas was one of these. A tetrarch was not quite a king, it was the next level down. In today’s Gospel, Mark calls Herod Antipas king, but actually, he wasn’t. And the Herods ruled by permission of the Romans.
On our holiday to Munich recently, we visited the fairytale palaces built by Ludwig II. He was king of Bavaria 1864-1886, but he was subject to constitution. All he had to do was sign documents. He really wasn’t very interested in the art of ruling or diplomacy or leading the nation, but the longed for the power and the influence and glory held by his hero, King Louis XIV of France, the sun king. He wanted to be a proper king.
The Herods were a bit like that. They had some small power, but they longed for greater power. They wanted to be religious rulers like David and Solomon with the support of the people behind them. Instead, they were unpopular and hated by the people.
The home life of Herod Antipas was less than exemplary. One time, when he was visiting his half brother Philip, he fell in love with Philip’s wife Herodias and proposed to her. So Herodias divorced her husband Philip and went off with Antipas, while Antipas divorced his wife. It was all pretty scandalous, like the tabloid accounts of the sexual shenanigans of royals or presidents in our own day. Antipas has stolen his brother’s wife, and that’s just not on.
John the Baptist spoke out publicly against the situation. So Herod put him in jail.
But Herod had one saving grace. He like to listen to John. He didn’t always understand him, but he wanted to hear what he had to say. He didn’t always like the message, but he knew that it contained a truth. There was part of him that wanted that truth.
Herodias, on the other hand, was having none of it. Nobody was going to tell her that what she was doing was wrong. She was going to have her revenge. And she took it. There was a drunken, debauched party for Herod’s birthday and she manipulated the situation behind the scenes and had her daughter Salome ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter.
Herod could hear the two voices: John’s voice – the voice he didn’t understand but he knew it made sense, the voice that cried out against him but held the truth. And the voice of Herodias his wife – calling him into further evil in order to save himself from shame.
According to the historian Josephus, Herod had John killed because he was afraid that John would be the focus of a rebellion against him. And that may well be another dimension in the story. Herod was trying to protect his kingdom and preserve his honour.
John the Baptist was killed because his message conflicted with those who held power.
Herod Antipas wanted so much to be king. But his way of being king was to misuse power to control the truth ad to enjoy a lifestyle of pleasure and debauchery. Ludwig II so wanted to be a glorious leader like his namesake Louis XIV, and the only way he could do this was to spend all his money and all the public funds he could lay his hands on to build amazing palaces where he could cut himself off from everyone else. And President Trump – what does he want? – to be loved and lauded and looked up to.
And then Herod Antipas starts to hear stories about Jesus. It’s early in Jesus’ ministry and people are trying to make sense of who he is. Herod picks up some of the gossip that Jesus is a prophet, maybe Elijah returned to life. But Herod’s conscience stirs and he thinks Jesus is John the Baptist returned to life. He knows the execution of John was wrong. And now he is afraid that he might get his comeuppance. He is pierced by guilt.
Guilt is not comfortable. Guilt happens when we recognise that we have done wrong, when we have hurt someone, when we have pursued our own interests at the expense of others. Actually, guilt can be really healthy, because it happens when we face up to the truth about ourselves. Because then we can do something about it.
And the message of Jesus is that God will forgive us whenever we turn to him. I wonder if Herod heard that message? I don’t think so somehow. God love us so much that he will always wipe the slate clean and help us start again. We can’t do it for ourselves. Trump thinks he can pardon himself in political terms, but he never can pardon himself before God.
The kingdom that Jesus proclaims is where God rules, where God is king, not someone who puts himself forward as perfect, as the best. The kingdom of God is where sins are forgiven, where God forgives us, where we forgive those who hurt us, where we have the confidence that whatever we have done, we are still loved and accepted by God.