Fear, the impact of a guilty conscious

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
July 11, 2021
Mark 6:14-29

Thoughts at the beginning of worship

Last week we saw how, when famous, it can be humbling to go home where people know you too well. It was no different for Jesus. He visits his hometown and immediately faces opposition. So, he leaves. But he also greatly increases his ministry as he sends out the disciples two by two. 

This week, we’re going to see another impact of Jesus’ message, this time on those in power. This passage follows shortly after Jesus’ telling of the “Parable of the Sower.” That parable is followed by another examples of how the gospel fails to take hold. According to the New Testament scholar, Mary Ann Tolbert, whom I quote in today’s bulletin, our story today falls into the seed that is choked by weeds. Herod is an example of one more concerned with the world that with the gospel.[1]

Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, rules Galilee. The Herods were ruthless rulers and very corrupt. When this Herod hears about Jesus, his guilty conscious makes him think John the Baptist, whom he had killed, has come back to haunt him. Our text today isn’t even about Jesus. This is the only section in Mark’s gospel that’s not primarily about Jesus.[2]

Read Mark 6:14-29

After the Scripture

A ride on the city bus

from https://www.petersburg.k12.va.us/walnuthill

We moved to Petersburg, Virginia just before I started the first grade. I spent my first three years of school at Walnut Hill Elementary. There were no school buses in the city. You either walked to school, your parents carried you, or if lucky, you got ride the city bus to school. The later was a treat which I only did once. When you’re six years old, it doesn’t take much to be impressed and consider something a treat. Most of the time my parents drove me to school. 

However, one day, early in the school year, I got to ride the bus. I’m not sure why. Maybe my father was out of town and a sibling was sick so mom couldn’t take me. Whatever reason, mom sent me on bus stop with Ellen. 

       Ellen was an older woman, a six grader who lived next door. She seemed to get a kick out of taking me places. When she did, she always introduced me as her boyfriend. This didn’t bother me much because the perks were good. She took me to the pool on hot and humid summer afternoons. 

       On this day, as I was getting on the bus, I realized I had left my fare at home. I had a nickel in my pocket for a carton of milk, that’s how much it cost back in 1963. There was no time to run home, so I pulled it out to give it to the bus driver. Ellen intervened. She told the driver I needed that money for milk. The driver said he’d pay my fare and I could repay him the next time I rode the bus. 

       There was no next time. A week or so later, during the week John F. Kennedy was shot, we moved. Out new home was close enough to the school that I could walk. I never rode the bus again and never repaid the driver. 

My guilty conscious

We lived in Petersburg another two and a half years. The whole time I feared bus drivers. When a bus came down the street, I turned my head so they wouldn’t recognize me. I assumed there was a character sketch of me on a wanted poster in the bus garage. I knew if the driver saw me, he would stop and demand his nickel along with some interest. My conscious was guilt-ridden. 

Although I didn’t want to leave my friends and worried about hurricanes as we moved after the third grade down near coast of North Carolina, I also let out a sigh of relief. If you’re going to be a fugitive, it’s safer to do it in another state where your misdeeds are unknown. 

Herod’s fear

       Certainly, my misdeeds were nowhere near as evil as Herod, but I understand his fear.  Like his father Herod the Great, the one who so feared the birth of a child that he had innocent children killed,[3] Herod Antipas lived a scared life. He feared his evil deeds would catch up with him. So, when word spread about Jesus’ teachings and miracles, Herod thought the worst. “John the Baptist has come back to haunt me.”

       We don’t know all the story about Herod and his wife, Herodias.[4]Mark tells us John challenged the two of them since Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, Philip. We are left to assume Philip is still alive, making the marriage an adulterous relationship. 

More details into Herod’s life

Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, provides more insight into what happened. Herod was in Rome and stayed with his brother while there. He became enamored with his brother’s wife. It appears the attraction was mutual. Herod takes his brother’s wife back to Galilee. Complicating matters is that Herod already had a wife, the daughter of Aretas IV. Herod’s father-in-law ruled the providence just north of Herod’s kingdom. Getting wind of what was happening (Herod returning with his brother’s wife), Herod’s legal wife fled to her father’s kingdom. He, in turn, invade Herod’s kingdom and defeated Herod’s army. The Jews saw this as God’s punishment for Herod’s misdeeds. Rome had to intervene and established peace between Herod and his former father-in-law.[5]

Speaking truth to power

Understand this, John the Baptist attack on Herod and his adulterous relationship created a political problem in addition to a moral one. With a jilted ex-wife and her father on his border, willing to support a revolt against Herod, any threat of rebellion was feared. But the Baptist felt it necessary to speak truth to power. To appear strong, Herod has John arrested. The move, he hopes, silences John. 

Strange as it seems, we’re told in these verses that Herod likes John. He considers the Baptist a righteous and holy man. He protects John from the wrath of his wife. Herod’s psychological make-up is complex. On one hand, he knows right from wrong. But on the other, as a man afraid of what might happen to him, his actions are ruthless.

On his birthday, Herod so enjoyed the dance his stepdaughter performed that he promises her anything. She could even have half of his kingdom. The girl, who was probably in her mid-teens, runs to her mom for advice. Her mother doesn’t appear to have a moral bone in her body. Her daughter could be set for life, but instead, she uses this request to rid herself of her critic. 

“Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter,” she suggests. They’re at a banquet after all, so a platter goes with the decor. Herod feels he has no options. His promise and his desire to appear strong place him into a position that compromises any moral compass he may have had. 

There ain’t a lot of good news in this passage. It’s a commentary on power. Herod has all the power that could needed. The only way he could have been more powerful was to be Caesar, but that wasn’t in the cards. In his kingdom, he had power over life and death. If he kept peace and collected taxes, Rome stayed off his back. He could do as he pleased. But he still shook in his boots. He was afraid of what his ex-wife and her father might do. He was afraid of John. He was afraid of looking weak.

As we learn in this passage, when Jesus began preaching, Herod takes notice. “Good grief,” he probably said, “John’s back.” Herod is afraid of the dead. This passage reminds us of the power of words and ideas. John’s words and the ideal of a righteous life scared the most powerful man in Galilee. Those who trust in the power of brute force will always, sooner or later, be disappointed and punished.[6]

It also goes without saying that those who speak truth to power may suffer in this life. Their reward may not be in the present. John the Baptist and other such prophets-the Martin Luther Kings, the Bonhoeffers, and the Joan of Arks will be rewarded. But it may not be until the next life. 

Herod knew he had done wrong. The belief that John had returned was the work of a guilty conscious. 

We know Herod finally met Jesus.[7] He just happened to be in Jerusalem for Passover, a few years later, when Jesus is arrested and taken to Pilate. Learning that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate sends him over to Herod, hoping to get out of the middle of this mess between the Jews. By this point in the story, Herod no longer thinks Jesus is John. He is, however, glad to see Jesus. He’s heard a lot about this man. 

In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Herod taunts Jesus to walk across a swimming pool. Jesus refuses to do or say anything, so Herod dresses Jesus up and sends him back to Pilate. Herod could have done the right thing and freed Jesus, but again, he takes the easy way out. Isn’t that just like us? Take the easy way out. But instead of taking the easy road, we should take the righteous road.

Closing

In closing, I want to go back to the story I told you in the beginning. I don’t want you to have a wrong impression of me. It was probably 20 years ago, when I was living in Utah, I wrote a short memoir piece about not paying the bus fare. I showed this to my mom asked if she remembered it. She did. She also remembered giving Ellen the money to give to the driver the next day. For about thirty years, I worried about a debt that had been paid by my mother. I think we are often like that in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Although John didn’t rise from the grave to accuse Herod, Jesus did rise from grave. He died, and rose, and paid our debt. And for that, we should be forever thankful. Amen. 


[1] Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 158. 

[2] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark (Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 158

[3] See Matthew 2 (especially verses 16-18). 

[4] She was also related to Herod, through her grandfather Herod the Great (see Hooker, 160). In addition to being corrupt, incest wasn’t unusual for the family (Lane, 218, provides a family tree for the Herods). It also should be noted that Herod wasn’t a King (as we’re told in Mark 6:14). He was a tetrarch. While he wanted to be a king and some may have referred to him in such a manner, he never obtained the title from Rome. Mark may even be mocking Herod by using this title (Lane, 211). 

[5] This story is told more fully (but with some differences than scripture) in Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews XVIII, 3. As for the differences, Josephus was writing long after the events (40 or so years) and has a different point of view. For a detail treatment of the differences between Josephus and Mark, see William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 215-220.

[6] Acts 12:20-23.

[7] Luke 23:6-12. 

5 thoughts on “Fear, the impact of a guilty conscious”

  1. It’s nice to see you giving your sermons outdoors, Jeff. Best of luck with that and hopefully the flies will leave you alone. Great sermon and personal story. I love those kind of endings. Moms are pretty awesome. Probably would have been nice if you knew sooner.

  2. I always enjoy reading your sermons, Jeff, and this one is no exception. I’ve heard the story of the beheading of John the Baptist at many ages in my life. It still disturbs me greatly to think that so many rulers have had such power, and your life can be taken on a whim. My parents drilled into my head the importance of speaking truth to power, although they termed it standing up for what you believe in. One time my father’s speaking up cost both my parents having a job for over a year. We experienced great hardships as a family, but I was always proud of my father for standing up for what he believed in. There is much in your sermon that makes me think of today. I’m glad your mother paid the bus driver via Ellen!

  3. So many interesting parts to this post. When you said you moved before repaying the bus driver, my first thought was, “Give the money to Ellen!” I like your mother.

    Truth to power is an intimidating concept. I spent most of my growing years wanting to hide, not be noticed, but now, I want to do what’s right, even if there’s a cost. Hiding didn’t accomplish the big goals of life. Truth to Power has become right. I’m not sure I’d be as strong as John, though!

    Another thoroughly enjoyed and reflective article.

  4. Oh, wow…. I like the conclusion to your childhood story! It also goes to show that if you’d just confided your worries to your mom, she could have put your mind at ease and saved you all that worry and guilt. We can do the same every day in our prayers.

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