Tyrant Tales (& Assessing Application): Studies in Mark, Pt. 15

It is probable that, of all of the passages in Mark’s account of the Gospel, biblical scholars are the most perplexed—at least from a historical standpoint—with Mk. 6.14-29. This is the case, in a nutshell, because Mark’s record conflicts with the historian Josephus’s about two things: 1) The location of the banquet that Herod is giving, and 2) Who the mother and daughter are (e.g. Are they actually Herodias and her daughter Salome or other persons?). While I do not wish to address that issue here and barring the enigma of the daughter’s name, I would suggest that Mark’s account is accurate in what it reports: Herod took his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, and married her while Philip was still living; from John the Baptist’s point-of-view, this was a trespass against God (Lev. 18.6).

Moving on, what I want to focus on here has not to do with sorting out the Herodian kin issue but rather the genre of writing that Mark places this story in. More specifically, I want to simply point out a number of insights that Abraham Smith made in a recent article titled, “Tyranny Exposed” and build on them. I do not plan to build on them from the standpoint of research but rather from the perspective of application.

When one compares Mark’s story of John the Baptizer’s death to that of Matthew’s account, they notice a great difference. Even a simple word count of the two stories reveals that Mark’s narrative was twice the length of Matthew’s. One thing that this reminds the reader of is that the Gospel writer’s chose to tell their stories differently, and included different details because they had different points and agendas. (I have written more on the differences in the Gospel accounts, which you can read by clicking the following link: Gospel Differences.)

One of the things that Mark does to make his point is to tell the story of Herod murdering the Baptizer in the form of an ancient Tyrant Tale. Abraham Smith (Bib. Interp., 14.3) has surveyed many of these ancient types of writings and has concluded that there are 4 themes that are common throughout: 1) The tyrant is often paranoid, 2) The tyrant often has a bodyguard or bodyguards, 3) The tyrant often lives and acts in excess, and 4) The tyrant often engages a wise person or a philosopher. When one reflects on Mark’s telling of the Herodian banquet and beheading of John, he or she sees all four of these elements present. Indeed, Herod is paranoid, has bodyguards, lives and acts in excess and engages a wise person (e.g. John).

This research and these insights are fabulous and in my opinion, spot on; Smith has shed much light on this ancient story. One thing that his work lacks though is the “so what now?” or the “application” factor. Of course, Bible readers should not start with the “application” factor and that should not be their chief end; it should merely be part of the process. I would say that when one does good exegesis, he or she does not have to strive to find a point of intersection for applying the text, it simply happens.

So, how does this story of John’s death apply to us today, other than saying: “It is a story about standing up for the Gospel despite the circumstances?” Well, while that is a valid and preachable point, it is not the main point. In fact, it seems to be only a footnote to the story.

I think that, when we cosnider the four points often found in ancient “tyrant tales,” the story is much more powerful and much more meaningful and thus, much more applicable. So, let’s see how each of those four points might apply.

1. Paranoia – Clearly, many people in our society live in a state of paranoia. Of course, most all of us deal with paranoia at sometimes, but dealing with it and constantly living with it are two different things. In religious circles, some groups preach a paranoia message. Take for example, the Left Behind series (you all know how much of a fan I am of it). The aim of the series, which is totally built on faulty exegesis, attempts to instill a state of paranoia into its audiences. It seeks to make them think, “If I don’t do this, I will be left behind.” Now, it is true that there will be a dividing of the righteous from the unrighteous when Christ returns but should we be leading people to Christ by first leading them into a state of paranoia? I don’t think so. I would suggest that it would be more Christ-like to share the love of God with that person than to manipulate them with some untrue, religious garbage.

Another thing that this can teach us, apart from the initial conversion experience, is not to live in a state of constant paranoia. When we do that, it only leads to breaks in our relationships and causes us to try to manipulate others. Take for example, a husband who is sitting at home waiting on his wife to return from work. Five minutes pass, ten, fifteen and twenty. He starts getting paranoid and thinking, “I wonder if she’s out with another man? I saw her talking to John the other day at work, is she meeting with him?” A few minutes later the wife walks in. How does the husband approach her and treat her? He is angry with her and he nearly forces her to admit to something she never did. He shows her that he has lost trust in her and in return, she will be upset and lose trust in him. Now, I’m not saying that these things shouldn’t be questioned because sometimes they do happen but having facts and making up scenarios are two different things. Don’t sit around and make up scenarios, you will only drive yourself and those you are in contact with, crazy. Doing this is the first step to becoming a tyrant, a person who oppresses another.

2. Well, how can the tyrant having bodyguards relate to me today? Putting this in its ancient context really helps. For example, just knowing that in the ancient world when most people in the public saw someone with a bodyguard, they thought, “If this person isn’t involved in something illicit, why does he or she need a bodyguard?” helps a lot. In other words, in the ancient world, having a bodyguard was like the equivalent of saying, “I’m engaged in something dishonest and just in case I get caught, I need protection.” Really, this speaks for itself then. As believers, we are not to be engaged in illicit behavior. Just as well, we should not engage in things that cause others to question our faith and faithfulness. To do so is the second step in becoming a tyrant and perhaps, flows into the next point.

3. To engage and live in excess can have treacherous results, as it did in Herod’s case—another human died because of his excessiveness. This is not to say that all excess is bad, it isn’t. For instance, praying in excess or without ceasing is a great thing; we should all strive after it. However, having an excess amount of wealth and using it selfishly while it could be used to help better the situations of others, is incredibly selfish. In fact, for all of the wealthy people that exist in the world, if they were just a bit more generous, there would be a dramatic economic shift. Just look at all of the celebrities who speak out for organizations such as “One,” but do not give their money to such causes. What is this but a form of oppression—the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer?

Some things we should do in excess, others we should do in moderation and some things we should abstain from altogether. A good rule of thumb is: If you have to ask, “Is this okay?” then you probably shouldn’t do it. Better to play it safe than sorry. Also, living a life of excess is not very fulfilling. If you were to ask people who have lived selfish lives but later sacrificed much, at which point in life they were happier, they will tell you that they were happy when they were giving and helping others. We should give generously and not live excessively; we should live lives that, as much as we can help it, do not oppress others. If we do not, we are taking on yet another characteristic of a tyrant.

4. We saw from Mark’s telling of the story that Herod did indeed engage a wise man. In fact, the text says that Herod even feared and respected John the Baptizer. Yet, in a moment of haste, a moment drenched in drunken excessiveness and the desire to ward off public shame for not keeping his word, Herod killed John. One of the things that should be pointed out though, is that this was not Herod’s idea. It was Herodias who wanted John beheaded. And we might ask here: Why, of all the body parts that could have been chopped off, did she request his head? If she wanted him dead, why not torture him or puncture his heart? It is significant that she wanted John’s head because it was symbolic of shutting his mouth, of silencing him; he could no longer preach against her.

For sure, it was what John was saying that got him in the most trouble. Though Herod may have actually imprisoned John for John’s own safety (that’s what the text sort of implies) or even to have his own personal philosopher nearby, in the end, it was John’s speaking that got him in hot water. Herodias did not like what he was saying; John was preaching a message of repentance to her. Here, we might apply this to ourselves today by making the same point: How do we react when someone tells us we need to repent? For preachers, we might analyze how congregants act when certain sins are preached on.

No doubt, many a preacher have been fired for preaching about certain sins taking place within the congregation. What is this but the Church acting like Herodias? Surely the Church has wounded many of her own prophets! Yet, the message of repentance still needs to be proclaimed. Or what about the fact that this story teaches us to be careful with words, not only the words we speak but also the ones we listen to? Here, John was speaking the truth and Herodias was speaking deceit. Here, Herod threw his words around haphazardly and made an ignorant promise. Here, Herod chose to listen to deception instead of truth. Here, then, we see yet another step that leads to becoming a tyrant!

Without a doubt, the application points that I have made above could be expanded on even more. Yet, I feel as though by considering the genre of the writing, I have shown that this story is no longer one-dimensional but rather multi-dimensional and now, is incredibly ripe with homiletical fruits. As I said above, when good, contextual exegesis is done, the preacher or teacher does not have to strive for points of application but they just come naturally. Godly application is the result of good exegesis. That said, may we learn from this story that, whether in the ancient or modern sense of the term, we should steer clear of things that cause us to be or to be viewed as tyrants!

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