Beheading John the Baptist

Posted on 15 Jul 2018
  • Mark 6: 14-29

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hat happens when we make reckless promises that have dire consequences and then have to own those consequences?  Well, that has been happening in the world since the beginning of time and people continue to do it today.  For many different reasons it is human nature to want to wield power, save face, show off to friends and family or just open mouth and simply insert foot!

This morning, Mark opens his gospel with King Herod reminiscing about what led up to the beheading of John the Baptist.  And with the words, “John whom I beheaded has been raised,” he takes ownership of a violent and brutal death.

But let’s back up.  Who is this Herod and what has his relationship with the Baptist been about?  Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great.  Matthew describes how he ordered all boys under two years of age to be wiped out after hearing from the Magi that there was a new king born in Bethlehem. He was kind of insecure.  Herod Antipas was one of four puppet rulers of the area that we know today as Israel and Palestine.  He ruled on behalf of the Romans at the time of Jesus’ and John’s ministries.  When Herod Antipas was vacationing in Rome he was totally bewitched by one Heorodias and fell hard for her.  One problem—she’s married to Herod’s brother, Phillip.  She gets a divorce and Herod and Herodias tie the knot. 

This does not sit well with John the Baptist, that that bug-eating prophet who lives near the Jordan and gives daily sermons to throngs of people about turning away from sin and making their paths straight.  John is a little weird with his camel hair clothes and his diet of locusts and honey.  (You need the honey otherwise the locusts tickle as they go down).  Herod knows of John very well, and even though John speaks out against his sinful marriage to Herodias  Herod likes John.  He likes listening to him.  He finds his speeches enlightening.  Herodias on the other hand despises John and works to find a way to have him killed.  And when Herod throws himself a big birthday bash Herodias gets her chance. Her daughter dances for Herod, and although we don’t know the exact nature of the dance, we only know that Herod was very “pleased.”  Enough so that he offered her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom.  So we can guess that it wasn’t the chicken dance!

When the daughter runs to her mother and asks; “What should I ask for?”  That is when Herodias says, “the head of John the Baptist.”  In case you hadn’t guessed, at this point Herod’s stress level just went through the roof. The last thing Herod wanted to do was to kill John.  Even though John was against Herod’s marriage, this ruler could clearly hear what John was saying about him and was intrigued by him.  It sounds puzzling but is it all that difficult to understand?  Haven’t we all experienced someone who we loved to listen to at times and at other times we were frustrated?

I am not going to get into any political diatribe here, but when Mr. Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2016, I really liked hearing that he would ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington and ‘bring back jobs’. It was music to my ears.  However, his thin skin, self obsession and rude behavior are traits I disdain. Yet, every once in a while he may still make me sit up and take notice of something he is saying.  So I can understand how Herod felt the way he did.  It is easy to demonize Herod and dismiss this story as a black and white case of violence.  There is more to it than that. There are two last points I’d like to make about this story.

  1. There is no diminishing the fact that what Herod did was despicable. Herod though was no blood thirsty, soulless man.  He had a conscience and he knew what he did was wrong.  So he is a kind of a Shakespearean character in a sense, a tragic figure.  When he told Herodia’s daughter he would give her what she wanted he failed to see that the outcome could be a tragic one.  He was swept up in passionate desire, thinking only of the moment, of his own bravado.  People can face the same kind of trap in life today.  Sometimes there is such a desire for some thing or some one or to to be something or someone, that we may not think through what the ramifications might be.  Then when it is too late we don’t always want to deal with the consequences or own what we have done.  How many times have a heard an inmate say to me, “Well, it really wasn’t my fault.  I was set up, or things just went terribly wrong after a while.  I had no idea what would happen in the end.”  To which I usually reply, “Uh-huh.”
  2. We live in an age as faithless and corrupt as Herod’s.  We are quick to make big changes in our lives without always thinking it through.  We may think the grass is always greener in this situation or that one with no thought about who it affects.  And I can distance myself from people who say things that I may not be ready to face.  Still today many young girls are still made to feel like sexual objects just there for the desires of insensitive, powerful men.  And, I have certainly said things that have hurt others only because I wanted to save face in front of people I was trying to impress, and felt trapped in the process.

Trapped, unable to change the story of who I am.  When I have fallen prey to this I have felt panicked:  I am afraid someone else in the circle knows full well that I am saving face.  Maybe that is the way I should have felt, because it was not the true me—the true me is hidden behind insecurity and a lack of confidence.

There is no Jesus in this story, so maybe we are left with a sense of dread.  That all there is to this gospel is sin, violence and horrible manipulation.  This gospel is not, however the end of the story.  John’s body is released to his disciples and he is provided a proper burial.  More importantly John kept his reputation, and as a message to us, he is remembered as someone who was never, ever afraid to speak out against injustice.  He is a role model for us, some 2000 years later—not for yelling in the desert against sin, wearing camel hair clothes and eating bugs, but for not being afraid to speak truth to power.  He also unashamedly shared the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who desperately needed a Savior.  John was a man filled with faith and an example for those of us who wish to share our faith with others.  And to that we can say, “Thanks be to God.        Amen