Today’s gospel reading is not a big favorite with most people. We really don’t want to think about John the Baptizer’s head being served up on a platter. Yet the very nature of the Gospel of Mark forces us to think about this story. We know that Mark is usually brief and to the point. It is like the Reader’s Digest condensed version of the other gospel narratives. Mark doesn’t usually spend a lot of time on any one story. Yet there are fifteen verses dedicated to this story of the beheading of John the Baptizer. It seems that Mark had something important to say about this event.
The placement of the story is also significant. It is right after Jesus sent his disciples out on their first mission trip. It seems as though the word about their trip had spread, because Mark tells us that King Herod heard about the preaching the disciples were doing. Jesus was becoming known throughout Galilee, and people were wondering who he is and what is the source of the power that allowed him to preach with authority and to heal those who were suffering.
Whenever the subject comes up of who Jesus really is, people often leap to one of the same three conclusions – either he is John the Baptizer raised from the dead, he is Elijah, or he is one of the other prophets. But King Herod thinks he knows who he is – he is pretty certain this must be John the Baptizer raised from the dead, come back to haunt him. So, it is at this point in his narrative that Mark offers a flashback to the story of how Herod sent men out to arrest John and put him in prison. Herod actually admired John, but the constant nagging of his wife Herodias forced him to do something. She did not appreciate the fact that John kept telling Herod that he had broken Jewish law by marrying the wife of his brother Philip and she wanted Herod to eliminate John. But Herod feared John, he recognized that he was a messenger of God, so he tried to placate her by having him arrested.
That wasn’t enough for Herodias, she kept plotting in the background for John’s demise. The lavish setting for Herod’s birthday party provides her with the perfect opportunity. She arranges that her daughter will provide entertainment by dancing. Although this story is sometimes told with an erotic edge to it, there is no evidence that was the case. The word for her dancing translates as “joyful dancing” and the word used for “girl” indicates she was about 12 years old. Her dancing pleased Herod and his guests, and in the midst of this party attended by all the important people, and probably fueled by a few goblets of wine, Herod offers to give the girl anything she wishes for, even half of his kingdom. That was the perfect cue for her mother, who instructed her to ask for the head of John the Baptizer.
This is the point where we would say, “be careful what you promise.” Herod finds himself in a completely compromised position. He showed off in front of all his guests, in his big blustery way he promised the girl anything she asked for. Now she has requested the one thing he definitely did not want to do – first of all because he genuinely likes John, he enjoys listening to him, and second of all because he is afraid, he senses that John is an authentic prophet of God.
Herod could have stood firm on principle and done the right thing. He could have explained that the life of a person is not to be bartered for or destroyed in the name of a careless promise made at a party. Yet for all his power and authority, Herod, like so many authoritarian personalities, was really weak. He worried more about losing face in front of his guests than about standing on moral principles. He made a boastful promise to the girl in front of all these men that he ruled over and wanted to impress them. He believed that turning back on his promise would make him look weak.
Again, this story is bracketed by the missionary journey of the twelve. They are sent out just before our text and they return immediately following it. Jesus warned them that some may not welcome them nor hear them. The good news does not resonate with everyone — in fact, it actually offends some people. Mark tells us that twice Herod sends out people: first to arrest John and then to behead him. The contrast between these two “sending out” events is that Jesus sends his followers out to bring health and wholeness to the life of others, whereas Herod sends his employees out to destroy the life of another person. Mark’s return to the story of John’s death at a time when Jesus seems to be enjoying success and popularity introduces a sobering note. It serves as a reminder of what happens to preachers who threaten established authorities. The confusion of identity between Jesus and John implies that a similar fate awaits Jesus.
Lamar Williamson, Jr. (Mark, Interpretation) concludes his comments on this section in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark with: “One way to read the passage, then, is in terms of success versus significance. Success, as the world measures it, seen in the court of Herod. There we find the chief of state and his advisers, the military commanders, the leading people of the country; they are the ones who can afford leisure and pleasure; they can get what they want when they want it. John the Baptist, alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life, appears in shocking contrast to the glitter of the successful people of his time. Our minds are perpetually and perversely fascinated by the wealth, power, and intrigue of Herod’s court; yet the significance of the text lies in the death of that starkly simple prophet in Herod’s prison. The Gospel here invites us to look closely at success … and then choose significance as we follow Jesus on his way.”
There is another contrast in this story – Herod can throw a lavish party for important people. The disciples are sent out by Jesus with no bread, no bag, and no money. Herod has everything, at least according to the way the world judges the value of material things. By that standard, the disciples have nothing, yet Jesus would say that they have everything that they need. This story provides us with a good illustration of Jesus’ words: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Ultimately, Herod was haunted by the fact that he ordered the death of an innocent man. John the Baptizer and all of Jesus’ followers are saved by the death of an innocent man. Amen.