Herod’s inner circle of power made up his birthday guests (v21) and included his courtiers (governmental powers), officers (military powers) and leading Galileans (commercial and financial interest). The daughter in the story belongs to Herodias from a previous marriage to Herod’s brother. According to the 1st century historian, Josephus, her name was Salome. John protested Herod’s marriage because it was forbidden by Mosaic law to marry a living brother’s wife (Lev 18:16; 20:21). As the king of the Jews, Herod was expected to live under the mosaic law. He didn’t, and, being unpopular with the Jews anyway, he feared John’s popularity and criticism of Herod’s marraige could lead to an insurrection by the people. Herod’s rejection of John the Baptizer is the third rejection story in Mark 6 and the only story where Jesus is totally absent.
Prepare to listen. Be still and silent. Pray: Help me, O Lord, receive your words in my heart and hear them with my ears so that I can speak them to others. (from Ezekiel 3:10-11)
Read Mark 6:17-29
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ 23 And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ 24 She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The story of John’s death at the hands of Herod is described by Tom Wright as “sordid, shabby and shameful—exactly the sort of thing that everybody likes to hear, however much they pretend otherwise” (2004, p. 75). John’s cruel and senseless death at the hands of a weak and arrogant leader horrifies us. It didn’t help Herod in any way. Within a decade he’d been banished to Gaul where he died in disgrace. Within a generation Mark wrote John’s story, honoring him as a great prophet and we continue to read the story of his death today (Wright, 2004, p. 75).
The detail Mark records of John’s death is fascinating, revealing more about how John died than how he lived. It’s prominence in Mark seems out of place in his general storyline, yet it does prepare us for the ultimate story of his Gospel, the passion (suffering and violent death) of Jesus. John’s death is a mini-passion story, possessing several similarities with Jesus’ passion narrative. Both include an arrest, an execution (without a trial for John), a burial in a tomb and, a resurrection, although this is only implied for John by Herod (6:14).
Not only does the story prepare us for Jesus’ passion, it also cautions followers of Jesus about the cost discipleship. John, the truth-telling prophet, stood up to the arrogant political leader and paid a costly price. Jesus, the truth-telling Prophet-King, will pay the same price when he too stands up to the arrogant religious and political leaders. By making this subtle identification of John with Jesus, Mark makes us aware of the fact that, as Myers notes, “the political destiny of those who proclaim repentance and a new order is always the same. Now we see why the John story has been inserted into the narrative of the apostles’ mission: insofar as they inherit this mission, they inherit its destiny” (Myers, 2016, p. 217). This identification with Jesus’ suffering will become more obvious when Jesus teaches about the cost of discipleship in the second part of Mark’s Gospel.
I’ve omitted a lot in this sordid story. What most intrigued you in it and why? What do you think Jesus is calling you to today?
Respond to Jesus in prayer
I pray today, Lord that, like John, I too will be willing to accept my inherited destiny and stand up and be counted as a lover of truth; may I stand up and discern lies and refuse to fall for the arrogance of the liars, accepting my inherited destiny. For the sake of your name, Amen.
Go and live obediently in the world, accepting you inherited destiny.