Mark 6: 14 – 29 John the Baptist beheaded
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.’
Others said, ‘He is Elijah.’
And still others claimed, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.’
But when Herod heard this, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!’
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. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 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.
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. 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.’ And he promised her with an oath, ‘Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.’
She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’
‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she answered.
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 dish.’
The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a dish. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.
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The first thing that strikes me about this passage is how cruel and arbitrary John’s execution was. There was no judicial process, just a brutal decapitation followed by the display of his head in front of the most important people of Galilee.
It’s disquieting to imagine the malice of Herodias, who was so ready to seize the moment and get John killed. And think what her daughter could have asked on her own behalf; a grand house? Jewels? The income from a productive estate?
Perhaps even more disquieting is that nobody was shocked. The girl looks at the head on the dish, and hands it to her mother. She appears to have no worries at having brought about John the Baptist’s death. There is no record of protests from the guests, rather, it was their presence that sealed John’s fate. They were all agog to see whether Herod would keep his rash vow.
This was the society in which Jesus lived. Rulers had almost absolute power, and they had no hesitation or moral qualms about using it.
If Jesus had any doubts about the risk of his ministry, John’s execution will have dispelled them.
Why does Mark tell us this story about John the Baptist, when the gospel he is writing is about Jesus?
In the first place, John the Baptist and Jesus are linked. They are cousins. John is the forerunner, the ‘Voice crying in the wilderness’, preparing the way for Jesus. Both John and Jesus preached the need for repentance.
In the second place, the story of John’s martyrdom foreshadows the death of Jesus. Mark is showing us in the most graphic way what can happen when somebody is steadfast in proclaiming God’s commandments.
In the third place, Mark is putting a question to every disciple: ‘Would you have been like John standing firm against Herod, or would you have kept quiet about Herod’s sin?’ In modern times that might translate into ‘Do you stand up against injustice? Are you prepared to suffer for your stand?’
Please be with all those in prison, especially those who are in prison for being your disciples. Please help me to be more aware of how I can best show your love to them.
In Jesus’ name, Amen