(for the Seventh Sunday After Pentecost, July 12, 2015)
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:14-29, NRSV).
Even at this stage it is clear that the Messiah it is far from immune to suffering and grief.
Our passage is an account of the senseless murder of Jesus’ cousin and co-worker, John. His abrupt arrest at the beginning of the gospel entirely refocused Mark’s narrative from John to Jesus.
Now, five Jesus-focused chapters later, we return to what amounts to an extended passage on the death of John. This apparent departure from the life and mission of Jesus demands explanation.
Mark’s opening paragraph initially suggests that this account is here because it points to the popularity of the ministry of Jesus. The mission of the kingdom of God is causing people to talk. Jesus is being credited – not unlike John the Baptist earlier in this gospel – with the gifting of Elijah and the prophets. Some even see a direct line to John himself: ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’
And the king agrees: ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised’.
It is good to see Herod owning the decapitation of John. He could so easily have tried to palm the responsibility off: Herodias his stolen wife, her dancing daughter, the accumulated guests, the soldier who swung the sword. Indeed, the king could even have pointed his finger at John himself: Why did he have to so publicly interfere in matters of the royal family?
Herod, however, blames none of these players for the murder of Jesus’ forerunner. He owns his place in the death of this ‘…righteous and holy man’.
Surely, however, there is more reason to this narrative detour than Jesus’ popularity and the king’s seared conscience?
So far in the gospel of Mark two heroes of the kingdom of God have emerged: John and Jesus. Both preach the nearness of God’s kingdom, urge the crowds to ‘repent and believe’, and are speculatively compared to ancient prophets. John is depicted in this passage as a ‘righteous and holy’. He perplexes and intrigues the king. Herod even ‘likes’ their conversations.
In the face of public pressure, however, he will kill.
No doubt the same could be said of Jesus: ‘righteous and holy’, baffling and attractive. The crowds delight in his parables and teaching. Yet, the time will come when they chant in unison: ‘Crucify him’.
This intriguing departure from the story of Jesus coupled with this paralleling in call and reputation goes some way to preparing the reader for the coming passion of Jesus. All too soon it will not be John’s, but Jesus’ followers who prepare take the body of their Rabbi, prepare him for burial, and lay him in a tomb.
Perhaps this is why Jesus seeks – unsuccessfully – a solitude with his disciples following this account. Certainly Jesus is grieved at the barbaric execution of his cousin. He surely mourns the loss of the one who ‘prepared the way’. In John’s demise, however, Jesus may also have seen his own.
Perhaps the ‘holy and righteous’, the ‘perplexing’ and intriguing are not always as welcome among us as we like to think.