This week, Faith in Real Life discussed The story of John the Baptist’s beheading at the hand of Herod and Herodias from Mark’s gospel. Apart from providing context for Jesus ministry, this passage also reveals a proclivity for revenge and vigilante justice in human nature that reveals itself in large and small ways. What can we learn from this story about the nature of sin and the occasional consequences of speaking truth to secular power?
14 King Herod heard about this, for Jesus’ name had become well known. Some were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead, and that is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.” 16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” 17 For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. 18 For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 20 because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.
21 Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” 23 And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” “The head of John the Baptist,” she answered. 25 At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
26 The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, 28 and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. 29 On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
This is a bit of an odd passage. Jesus is not the subject of the passage but it provides context for Jesus’ ministry. He was becoming famous—almost a legend but people did not know quite who he was or how to place him. His own hometown had failed to recognize him immediately (and when they did recognize him, they dismissed him) and now we have Herod speculating that this charismatic rabbi was a risen John to Baptist while others speculated Jesus was Elijah or a prophet. He had a reputation. He could do wondrous things; he’d developed a following but who was this guy?
I can only imagine Herod’s ambivalence as he speculated that Jesus might be John the Baptist. After all, Herod had personally had him beheaded. If Jesus was John the Baptist, had Herod made the biggest mistake of his life? He respected him and protected him for he knew John as a ‘righteous and holy man’. For all of that he had ordered John’s beheading.
There are any number of commentators that explain the passage as Mark foreshadowing Jesus encounter with Pilate. In both cases, righteous men (Jesus and John) are arrested and unjustly killed by wavering leaders (Herod and Pilate) who decided more on expediency than principle. The parallels certainly exist but it is hard to know if the foreshadowing is a function of the general human predicament when the spiritual world confronts the secular world and/or the specific comparisons of Herod and Pilate. For now I will stick with the general problem and use Herod, and by extension, Pilate, as examples.
Especially following the many demonstrations of Jesus’ rising reputation, this passage represents a bit of hard nosed reality. Being right, righteous, a holy man or even the Son of God, does not correlate to a happy ending. You can still have your head handed to you on a platter.
Read in this light, the passage is an elaboration of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth and serves as a concrete acknowledgment of the risks that go with living the gospel. John the Baptist had ‘spoken’ to power. He challenged the legitimacy of Herod and Herodias’ marriage. Marrying your brother’s wife (while he was still alive) is pretty generally frowned upon but by pointing to the obvious, John made a powerful enemy. Secular power does not like being called to task. President Trump has made it clear that if someone hits him, he will hit back ten times harder. By that standard,he has done a pretty effective job. His is an effective way to consolidate and extend secular power. But anyone who challenges such use of power becomes the enemy. This is what people do—on both sides of the political spectrum.
And truth be known, it feels good to many of us. Vigilante movies remain a very popular genre. It is fun to see the good guys triumph and the bad guys punished. I had a couple yesterday who were in conflict because the husband had angrily tailgated a woman who had cut him off in traffic. His wife felt frightened, unsafe and had complained to husband. The husband was indignant. He argued, ‘What am I supposed to do?—just let her cut me off? Who is going to teach her she is wrong?’ He even acknowledged (after the fact) that his driving had been unsafe. But he felt justified because he had been wronged. Whether it is in the first century or the twenty first century, human beings have trouble responding when their position or safety is questioned.
To maintain the faith claim that love will prevail and that God is sufficient is always swimming upstream against real life secular fears and secular values. John swam upstream and it cost him his life. I think Mark uses this passage to make the risks of discipleship perfectly clear.
Another use of the narrative however, is to see how alike we are to Herod and Herodias. It is one thing to understand the realities of discipleship and quite another to realize how deeply we undermine the gospel we profess. The forces that lead to beheadings are incredibly mundane and are present in all of us.
These two are nothing if not ordinary. They were a couple in conflict. Herodias did not like being publicly criticized. (Who does?) Herod may not have liked such criticism but he was more inclined to let it slide. (She would probably say he was conflict avoidant.) He is reported to be intrigued by John the Baptist and, though puzzled, liked to listen to him. We don’t know what went on behind closed doors. Did Herodias cajole, nag, distance herself or simply plot with a smile? Regardless of what her husband thought, John the Baptist was going down. Herod may be the man in charge but it was his wife who wielded the power. She very skillfully manipulated her husband. Underdogs in power relationships must use diverse and cunning means to gain their ends. The aphorism—”If the wife isn’t happy, nobody’s happy”— reflect a practical truth.
Herod, the titular man in power is captivated by Herodias’ daughter’s dancing (at Herodias’ behest?) and makes some pretty remarkable promises. She can have what she wants up to half of the kingdom. There is an indulgent father. What parent among us has not been beguiled by a child. What parent among us has not wanted their children’s pleasure and favor?
Parenthetically, his indulgence has been attributed to the erotocism of the dance but that is actually uncertain. The greek word to describe the daughter is the same word used to describe Jarius’ daughter—a child of twelve. Besides which, she certainly did not ask for much compared to what was offered. Her request seems more to please her mother than to advance herself.
When his daughter requests the head of John the Baptist, Herod complies ‘because of his oaths and his dinner guests.’ He could not lose face and he needed the approval of his wife, his daughter and his guests. It is almost a cheap shot to call him weak because all of us have compromised ourselves to receive approval. When we rely upon others for validation, we expose our unwillingness to trust that we are safe with God.
We seek our God but any honest self examination will expose our willingness to manipulate others and/or accomodate others in order to be admired, loved or to gain an edge. It is easier to point to Herodias’ guile or Herod’s neediness as if we are not guilty of both. But in a secular world that accepts and values people based upon position, success and approval, it will always be true that we will seek to advance ourselves at the expense of others. We live in such a world and we are part of such a world. It is a risk and a struggle to speak to power. It requires a deep reliance upon God. But it is also a struggle to rely on God in the daily anxieties, uncertainties and insecurities of our lives.
As disciples, we are fully warned that the values of world will oppose us, disparage and sometimes hurt us. The forces of self interest and selfishness can be deadly. We must hold fast to that which is good in such a world. And we must confess how often we instead hold fast to position,approval, and agreement for our personal sense of safety and worth. We are all sinners.
Gracious and living Lord, forgive us and sustain us as we struggle to rely on you. Let it be so.