So, whilst the disciples are off on their holy adventures, Mark entertains us with a rather colourful and gory story.
We haven’t heard much about John for a while: right back at the beginning of Mark’s account John was noted to be calling people to repentance and baptising them. We witness John baptise Jesus, and then hear of his arrest. We know that John has his own disciples and that Jesus’ disciples are held up against them as being somewhat lacking as they don’t fast in the way that John’s do, and that is about it. Until now.
Now, as Mark fills time waiting for the 12 to return, we hear the rather lascivious story of John’s death:
Herod was a man of great power and wealth, a man with a beautiful wife whom he somewhat dubiously acquired from his brother, and with her a daughter. The daughter is young, nubile, beautiful and a great dancer.
John, a rather strange man who wondered around in camel hair and eating whatever he could forage, spoke forcefully of the need for repentance in the world, and especially amongst the successful elite, the powerful and wealthy, people like Herod who had no qualms about stealing another man’s wife, even if that man was his brother.
John had no fear in speaking against Herod’s marriage and need for repentance, and Herod somehow found himself attracted to the words that John spoke – though not enough to act upon them, to repent. Herod’s wife was not attracted to John. He was a thorn in her side, a mosquito humming in her ear. Herod had the man imprisoned, out of the way, yet not far enough for Herod’s wife who would find her husband in his company, listening to his preaching.
So much for the back story: Our story takes place on the king’s birthday. It is only fair to say that this king is not just powerful and wealthy, he is also vain and arrogant. In his pride he invites his courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee to a banquet to celebrate his birthday. All the guests are men, of course, and they all wish to impress the king and assure their own role in elevated society. As he gorges on the delicacies set before them, they do too; as he devours glass after glass of fortified wine they do too, and when his daughter is called to dance for them, and they leer after her, he does too. She swirls and turns and encourages their cheers and jeers and other ‘manly’ responses to the way she uses her body, and when the king calls her to him, she responds demurely, lowering her eyes. She knows what is about to come.
The king praises her and the men echo his praises with energy, and he offers her ‘whatever you wish, even half my kingdom’ – a generous offer, the most generous of all, and he swears solemnly, with all the courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee as witnesses. The young woman, nods and smiles and backs away to meet with her mother who has been watching, the mother who has trained her daughter to dance and delight, the mother who has been plotting for this one golden prize.
‘What shall I ask for?’ the daughter says.
‘The head of of John the Baptist’, she replies, without hesitation.
The daughter rushes back and requests,’I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’
The leering and jeering stop. This girl is no innocent, this girl is a viper who has just stung. The courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee look on in silence: will he do it? Will he murder a prophet on the whim of a girl? Will he keep his word?
Herod too is silent. John is a man of God. He knows it is really his wife behind this and that she has trapped him. He knows too that his honour is at stake. It pains him, he likes the man, there is something special about him, even though Herod knows that John is no fan and would show no loyalty to him. What loyalty would the courtiers and officers and all the leaders of Galilee show him if they discovered him to be weak? What has he to lose? Only the head of a man who has been needling him and upsetting his wife for years.
So he gives the command. A soldier is sent to do the deed, and returns bearing a platter covered in blood and bearing the head of John the Baptist; bearing the ears of the one who heard from God, the mouth of one who spoke words of repentance, the eyes of one who saw deep into his heart, the one who prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah.
So other than filling time, like a community song in a panto whilst the cast change into their wedding costumes for the finale, why does Mark tell this story now?
Well the Gospel is changing tack. Mark is taking us closer and closer to the cross. In this passage we are reminded that John is the forerunner of Jesus. Their lives have mirrored each others from before they were born: both had miraculous conceptions, both had a calling to preach repentance and to draw others into God’s kingdom. Both drew curiosity and intrigue from the powers that be, and just as John has met a bloody end, so too will Jesus. And just as Jesus and John share a similar fate, so do the powers that be: both Herod and Pilate find themselves, ‘manipulated to carry out the deadly hostility of a third party, both, though seemingly in charge, become unwilling actors in a drama beyond their control’ (Williamson Jnr).
What’s more, for those who continue to follow Jesus, those who have picked up their staff and gone out in their twos to preach the kingdom in Jesus’ name, will also face such hostility and, for many, violent death.
There is also a warning here, that political leaders may seem to spout words of support for the kingdom, may show understanding, compassion and even an inkling of faith, but don’t be surprised if they let us down. They did it to John and to Jesus.
This isn’t a story of evil defeating good. This is a story of success versus significance. Pilate may have succeeded in removing a threat to the current tenuous peace, the religious leaders may have succeeded in removing the ‘heretic’ in their midst, Herod’s wife may have succeeded in removing the threat to her marriage and her throne, however, the significance of the Gospel has not and will not be diminished. Not John’s nor Jesus’ nor any of the disciples’ deaths will have been in vain, each of them have been building blocks in the kingdom, of restoring heaven on earth.
Something to do:
Light a candle and hold some silence. Read out loud the passage from the Gospel of Mark (read it here.)
Something to watch:
Something to think about:
- What is the most enthralling or inspiring entertainment you have been caught up in?
- How did it make you feel?
- What do you think were the real motives in this story? For Herod, his wife Herodias, her daughter, Salome, for John?
- Explore some of the implications of Mark including the story at this point in the gospel.
- What lessons can we learn from Herod’s pride? Are there ways in which we need to make changes in our attitudes?
Something to pray:
open our hearts to everything you would say to us through your words and through those who speak it to us, however demanding it might be – however unpalatable the truth, demanding the challenge, humbling the experience or searching the questions we must face.
Speak to us and equip us to speak for you in turn, standing up for truth, right and justice, even though that may be equally demanding.
Give us strength and humility both to hear and to be your voice, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen