Our Gospel reading for this morning is a most uncharacteristic Gospel lesson. For one thing, no matter how carefully we listen, we cannot detect a single note of authentic joy or hope anywhere in this text. Instead, what we hear is a wretched tale of anger and revenge, resentment, and death. But there is a lot of that going on in our world today!
This is one of very few stories in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is never mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men — John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women — Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/ stepdaughter.
Last week’s Gospel passage concluded with Jesus sending out the twelve disciples to further his mission in the surrounding villages (Mk. 6:7-13). This was the beginning of another of Mark’s sandwiches. Today’s Gospel is inserted between the departure of the Twelve and their subsequent return (6:30) it tells the graphic account of the death of John the Baptist (Mt. 14:1- 12; Lk. 9:9), who had been arrested as Jesus began his ministry (Mk. 1:14). John is a compelling figure in all of the Gospels, and this story of John’s death is the only passage of such length not focused on Jesus. The writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also affirm that Herod imprisoned John and ordered his death.
Despite the fact that Jesus was not well received in his own hometown (Mk. 6:1-3), word of his miraculous works had spread throughout Galilee — to the extent that people speculated that Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead, or perhaps Elijah or another prophet (v. 15). It was believed that the spirits of those who had died a violent death worked through the living. Herod had thought that beheading John would end his problems with wonder-working prophets who stirred up unrest. But even Herod himself wondered if Jesus might be John the Baptist raised (v. 16).
With this introduction, Mark goes on to tell of the death of John. John had been arrested and put into prison by Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great and tetrarch of Galilee. In the Gospel of Luke, Herod Antipas also played a role in the execution of Jesus (Lk. 23:6-16).
Under Herod’s orders, John had been arrested and put into prison. Herod’s wife, Herodias, wanted revenge against John because the Baptist had called into question the legitimacy of her marriage to Herod. According to Mosaic Law, a man is forbidden to marry the wife of his brother while the brother is still living (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).
However, the real motive behind John’s arrest was likely political. John’s growing popularity posed a potential threat to Herod’s control over the area and could have led to rebellion.
The opportunity for John’s death came at a banquet given in honor of Herod’s birthday. Those attending represented the ruling powers of the day, accentuating the contrast between worldly power and the Kingdom foretold by John. During the festivities Herod’s daughter had greatly pleased the guests with her dancing. Afterward Herod asked her what she would like as a reward, even to half of his kingdom. When she went to her mother to ask what to request, Herodias instructed her to say “the head of John the Baptist.”
The text tells us that Herod was “deeply grieved” at this request (v. 26); but he did not want to break his oath to the daughter in front of his assembled guests. Thus he ordered that John be killed and his head brought on a platter to the daughter, who gave it to her mother. Afterward, John’s disciples came, took his body, and laid it in a tomb. Just as John was killed by the reigning political powers, so too was Jesus handed over and killed. Both their executioners — Herod, and Pilate in the case of Jesus — seemed reluctant to deliver death sentences. However, because of their own ambition and weaknesses, both men ultimately succumbed to outside pressure.
And there is a final parallel that connects this story to the departure and return of the Twelve. Mark was writing during a time when being a disciple could very well mean giving up one’s life. Thus, the disciples had to realize that one day they too might be sentenced to death by those who “lord it over” others (Mk. 10:42; 13:9-11).
Although Jesus is never mentioned, he is the key to understanding the story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where the Lord’s fame and success is growing exponentially. Just as the opening verses of Mark link the beginning of Jesus’ ministry with the work of John the Baptist, so here, John’s death is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. John’s determination to speak the truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. King Herod will become the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The means of execution will be a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.
The Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus will never be easy. The road is rocky. Resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders are not as outwardly wicked as King Herod, but they are often just as spineless, committed to expediency, and willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will win some votes and guarantee their election.
So, here we are caught in the middle of a sandwich; waiting for the disciples to return from their first mission trip. We are reminded, once again, that the decision to follow Jesus, to follow our conscience, carries some innate risks. The Good News wrapped up in today’s reading is that through God’s grace we are redeemed, and our sins forgiven, so that we are able to receive “the mystery” of God’s will. We are sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, who comes to us in answer to our trust in Christ. Our response to God’s grace is to give praise and glory to God. This allows us to sit with the uncomfortable readings, like today, and the uncomfortable realities of life.