This is one of those passages where the words, “The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God” stick in your throat a bit. It is one of the more horrific stories in scripture. What is it doing in our lectionary cycle? Many of the “texts of terror,” as one scholar labelled them[i], are omitted from this three-year cycle of scripture readings we use, but in this year of reading through Mark, the lectionary does not skip over this gory story. Why is it here? And why does Mark give it so much attention? Apart from a few verses at the very beginning of his gospel, it is the only time Jesus is not in the story. And Mark, which is a short gospel in which the story moves very quickly, takes an inordinate amount of time with this story, going into great detail. Why is it so important to him?
Let’s look at the context. Just before this passage, Jesus has sent the twelve disciples out two by two on their own missions. He’s given them authority to cast out unclean spirits, teach, and proclaim repentance. They have had a very successful mission, having healed many people. Their mission is so successful that even Herod has heard about it and about what Jesus is doing. Mark interrupts this story of Jesus and the disciples’ mission trips to tell us what Herod is thinking and what he has done. Jesus and the disciples are having a big impact, and people are flocking to Jesus to hear him and be healed. And that’s when Mark tells us this story—in the midst of Jesus’s popularity and the disciples’ success. The empire has gotten wind of what is happening. Herod has heard about Jesus and all that is being done in his name, and is concerned. People are wondering who this Jesus is. Some say, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead.” Others think Elijah has returned, and others say, “it is a prophet, like the prophets of old.” Herod himself says, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” What a terror-filled thought: the prophet you wrongfully executed has come back to life. Herod must be experiencing the archetypal fear of being pursued from the grave. Mark immediately launches into the story of John’s beheading, told as a flashback. Back in chapter one, Mark briefly tells the story of John the Baptist’s preaching and Jesus’ baptism, then he quickly gets John out of the picture, simply saying, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee…”[ii] That’s it. There is no more information given about John or why he was arrested. He’s done his job as the forerunner, and the focus is now on Jesus. Until now. Now we find out why Herod arrested John. It was because John was not afraid to speak truth to power, as the saying goes. Herod had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. His brother wasn’t dead. Herod had just taken his wife. Herod’s first wife had been sent packing back to her father, the Nabatean king, thus making an enemy of a former ally. John told Herod it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife. John is calling his ruler to task for breaking the religious law. Neither Herod nor Herodias are pleased. Herod seems content to simply keep John contained in prison, but Herodias wants him dead. As a woman in that day, no matter how ambitious she might have been, she would have had little to no say in who she married or whether she was divorced. If Herod listened to John, repented and divorced her, where would she go? It’s not likely Herod’s brother would welcome her back. None of that excuses her murderous intent and ultimate success at getting rid of John, but it does help us understand why it was so important to her.
Herod does not want to kill John. Mark tells us that Herod knows John is a righteous and holy man. He’s perplexed by John’s preaching, yet intrigued enough to want to keep listening. Then comes Herod’s birthday and the banquet that has inspired art, film and opera. All the important people are there, anyone who is someone in Galilee—courtiers, officers, political leaders. His daughter, probably his step-daughter, confusingly also named Herodias here, but called Salome by the first century Jewish priest and historian Josephus, comes in to dance for the guests, and her performance greatly pleases them and Herod. It is fair to assume that a great deal of wine has been consumed by this point. Herod outlandishly promises her, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” Then, he solemnly swears, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, event half of my kingdom.” Oaths were serious matters in that culture[iii]—even one that we can assume was made while not completely sober. The daughter runs to her mother and says, “What should I ask for?” And Herodias doesn’t even need to think about it. “The head of John the Baptist on a platter.” That will end the threat he poses. The daughter runs back to the banquet and tells Herod what she wants. Mark tells us, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” And the beheading takes place at a rapid pace. Herod sends a soldier to bring him back John’s head. It is brought on a platter and given to the girl who gives it to her mother. This brutal tale ends with Mark telling us that John’s disciples came and took John’s body and gave him a proper burial.
Herod knew it was wrong—not just intellectually, but in his heart. He is deeply grieved. But he does it any way to save face. He’s made an oath in front of all these people; what would they think of him if he didn’t carry it out? He could have done what he knew was right. But for the sake of his reputation, he beheads this man he knows to be righteous and holy, this man who stood up to him and told him he was breaking God’s law.
Let’s go back to the question of why we have this story. What is Mark telling his readers by interrupting the story of Jesus welcoming his disciples back from their missions to tell this story at such length and in such detail? We have this man of faith, God’s prophet, John, standing firm against the representative of the empire. In the short run, Herod wins. John is executed in a brutal, shameful way. Beheadings were like crucifixion—meant to shame as well as execute. But the one who really triumphs is John, who remained faithful. John is the one who is right with God. And Herod knows this, even after John is dead. Why else would he fear that Jesus is John, back from the dead? Jesus’ disciples have just come back from preaching and healing many people. They must have been feeling something of a high. After this horrible tale, Mark picks that story up where he left off. He says the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him everything they’d done and taught. It had been a good mission. People had listened to them and been healed. But it’s not always going to go that well. Inserting this story into the midst of the one about the disciples’ mission and return seems to be Mark’s way of saying there will be great risks in being sent out to proclaim the word. Yes, the disciples just had a successful first mission, but, keep in mind what happened to John when he came up against one in power. He was faithful, he stood up to the rulers of the land, and he lost his life. This story foreshadows what the disciples will face, what Jesus himself will face, and what many of Mark’s readers will face as they remain faithful to God and follow Jesus.
Herod did have a choice. He did not have to behead John. He chose to save face. He knew John was righteous and holy, and he liked to listen to him. If power and reputation hadn’t been so important to him, maybe he would have even become a follower—he certainly didn’t just write off John’s preaching. Herod could have done the right thing, said, “No, this is going too far. I will not take the life of this holy and righteous man.” But Herod’s ambition and reputation were more important. How often does saving face get in our way of embracing faith? How often does our fear of what others might think, of what the cost might be for speaking up, keep us from following through on our faith? How often does reputation, or the fear of looking weak or of not fitting in keep us from saying and doing what we know Jesus would have us say and do? Our world right now desperately needs our voices. Our country needs us to be true to who we are as faithful followers of Christ, to fully embrace our faith and remind our leaders and fellow citizens that scripture calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to welcome the stranger and show hospitality to the aliens in our land; and that how we treat the least of these is how we treat Christ. And yes, that can be very political. You cannot read the Bible and believe that faith has nothing to do with politics. Politics is how we structure our life together, and faith has everything to do with how we live our life together. You cannot read the gospels, you can’t read this passage, and believe that we can compartmentalize our lives of faith and our political life. John died because he spoke up to those with political power and said, “What you are doing is wrong.” This has nothing to do with party politics; I’m talking about living out our faith in every realm of our life, regardless of our political party.
When children are taken from parents who love them so much they undertook a perilous, desperate journey to find refuge, we cannot be afraid to speak up. When people’s rights are infringed upon simply because of their gender, race, religion, ethnicity or orientation, our faith calls us to speak up. The gospel is very clear that how we treat the least of these is how we treat Christ, and that loving our neighbor is akin to loving God. Jesus says, the second commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself, is like the first, to love God with your whole being. In telling us this horrible story, Mark is telling us there are risks to being faithful. But the tone who comes out on the right side of history is the one who embraces faith anyway, not the one who chooses to save face. More importantly, the one who comes out on the right side of God is the one who chooses to embrace faith.
I invite you to look at the art on your bulletin cover for a moment (the same art is featured by the sermon title of this document). I spent a great deal of time searching for an image I thought was appropriate for today. Do you know how hard it is to find an illustration of this story that doesn’t prominently feature John’s head on a platter? Or Salome dancing? It’s not really possible. And I didn’t want those images to be central. Nor did I want young children to come to church and be faced with that violent image. So, I started looking at icons of John. Even many of those feature his head on a platter somewhere in the image. Finally, I found del Biondo’s altarpiece that depicts John surrounded by scenes of his life. The most troubling scenes are so small when printed, that you can’t even tell what’s happening, unless you are familiar with the story. At first, I didn’t notice that John was standing on this obviously wealthy person of power dressed in Florentine garb. I thought, “Huh. I bet that’s supposed to be Herod, dressed in Renaissance clothing.” So, I went back and read more about it, and, sure enough, that central image is described as “St. John the Baptist in the act of crushing Herod at his feet.” [iv]Again, “Huh. Didn’t just the opposite happen? Didn’t Herod behead John?” Yes. But in every way that ultimately matters, John crushed Herod. He remained faithful, he took great risk—lost his freedom and then his life—because he spoke up, but he was faithful to God, and that is what makes him stronger and victorious over Herod. Herod Antipas wasn’t really a king—he was a tetrarch, ruling over only a fourth of the region—but he wanted to be king, and his ambition ultimately got him banished to Gaul. [v]
In the end, Herod won nothing. John was victorious because he remained faithful to God. Mark is urging his readers, Jesus’ early followers, to do the same. There will be risks, he says, but this is what it means to follow Jesus. Remain faithful, even when it means standing up to the Herods of this world. That is what makes you triumphant, what keeps you right with God, and at one with God. May God help us so to live. Amen.
[i] Phyllis Trible entitled her 1984 book, “Texts of Terror.” This ground-breaking work gives a feminist interpretation of some of the more horrific tales of misogyny in the Old Testament. I am borrowing her phrase for this story about John the Baptist’s beheading.
[ii] Mark 1:14
[iii] John R. Donahue, S.J., and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina 2 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002).