John the Baptist Beheaded
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, the man 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.
It seems to me that we tend to assume that when people in the Bible do things, they do them for important and theological reasons. But when you really look closely at the stories in the Bible, a surprising number of them show people doing things for selfish, and even petty reasons. This story is an example – it’s a story of a powerful man indulging his girlfriend who had an axe to grind with someone who made her feel threatened.
This reading tells the story of the death of John the Baptist on the orders of Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. It seems that Herod Antipas had stolen the wife of his brother. Herod wasn’t a Jew, so presumably he didn’t worry too much about obeying God’s laws about this kind of thing. But this adulterous behavior had drawn the public condemnation of John the Baptist, who was known to be pretty blunt in his criticism of the nation’s leaders. So Herod had John thrown in prison.
Herodias, the woman in the story, wanted John executed. But Mark reports that Herod “feared John,” because he understood him to be “a holy and righteous man.” And what’s more, although Herod found himself “greatly puzzled” by what John the Baptist had to say, he apparently found him fascinating and he “liked to listen to him.”
Which is really interesting, when you think about it. The Herods had a reputation for ruthlessness that bordered on bloodthirsty, but here we find Herod Antipas intrigued by a strange Jewish preacher who had actually denounced him in public. Instead of having John executed as his girlfriend wanted, Herod was keeping him alive and listening to him. Surprising behavior for someone like Herod. It probably speaks to the spiritual charisma that John had.
Eventually, though, Herodias got her way. Herod threw a birthday party for himself, and invited all of his friends and advisors. In the course of the evening, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced for the assembled party guests, and her dance impressed the men so much Herod offered her any reward she could name, even up to half his kingdom. (Apparently it was a pretty good dance.)
My assumption is that Herod and his friends must have been pretty drunk by this point. This is an absurdly extravagant gesture — offering a young girl any reward she wanted, even half his kingdom. Apparently Herod was feeling especially full of himself on the occasion, because as an appointed Roman official, he wasn’t really a king. So he had no kingdom to give away.
But in the story, the girl consults with her mother, and then demands the head of John the Baptist. Herod finds himself trapped. The birthday party must have fallen silent. Herod was faced with the choice of either murdering a holy man or being embarrassed in front of his friends and irritating his girlfriend. Tragically, but maybe not surprisingly, he chooses murder over embarrassment. And to preserve his own reputation as ‘Mister Big,’ Herod commits one of the most shameful crimes in all of the New Testament.
Of course, Herodias winds up with blood on her hands, too. And why? Because her resentment of John’s condemnation led to such cold-blooded hatred that she was willing to demand a murder to silence a voice that called her to account for her behavior. Some commentators portray Herodias as a victim in the story, but that seems pretty bogus. If she were just a helpless pawn in the story, the voice of John would have been a comfort and encouragement to her, not a cause for murderous hatred.
I guess from a certain perspective, we could see the death of John the Baptist as consistent with the rest of his ministry. John went before the Messiah when he came into the world, and he went before Jesus to his death at the hands of the powers of the world. Like Jesus himself, John stood in the face of the powerful and called them to account for their sins. Both were killed in part because those in power are usually perfectly willing to respond to the challenging word of God by killing the messenger.
It’s every bit as true today as it was in first-century Palestine: It takes a lot of courage to speak for God in the halls of power. But people of faith still name their children after John the Baptist, and Herod Antipas is a nobody on the trash-heap of history.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for the bold witness of John the Baptist as he called the world to repentance and prepared the way for Jesus. We pray for your strength for those followers of your Son who stand in the face of power as John did, calling it to account for its sins and often suffering for their faithfulness. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 57 and 145; II Samuel 2:1-11; and Acts 15:36 – 16:5.)