A palace; a party; drunken revelry; a provocative dance; a rash promise; a scheming partner; a dungeon; a beheading. It is said that there are three things which sell newspapers:
● Stories about the royal family ● Sex ● Crime This story we have just heard, the story of the death of John the Baptist, has all three elements. It is set in a palace, at a party thrown by a king. It included (and let’s not be coy about this) a dance by a barely dressed girl. And it ended with a summary execution of an innocent man. Is this why Mark included this grisly tale in his Gospel? Was it to titillate his readers? To sell more copies? I think not! But this is the longest passage in any of the Gospels which does not feature Jesus. So Mark clearly felt it was important, that it was part of the Good News and needed to be told. But where is the Good News in this sordid tale? ✦✦✦✦ Let us row back a little, and take a look at the context.
How did John come to be in prison in Herod’s palace?
Herod’s family was immensely complicated. It seemed that everyone was having an affair with everyone else and there were very few sexual boundaries. At this point in the story Herod had seduced Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip, and had persuaded her to leave her husband and marry him. Herodias was therefore Herod’s sister-in-law, and if that wasn’t bad enough, due to the complexities of the family tree she was also his niece! This marriage was therefore a breach of Jewish law something which it appears John the Baptist felt compelled to denounce. But why did John particularly single out Herod, among all the other immoralities he would have encountered? There is, I think, one simple reason: John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ. He was the voice crying out in the wilderness, the herald of the coming of the Messiah, who was the true King of the Jews. In contrast, Herod had styled himself as the king of the Jews. His father, Herod the Great, had attempted to kill Jesus as a baby, by the slaughter of the innocents, to protect his position, and his son Herod Antipas, the Herod of this story, had inherited this sense of grandeur and entitlement.
Thus John was beholden to denounce Herod’s behaviour, to draw a contrast between the corrupt and immoral kingdom of Herod and the pure and righteous Kingdom of the true King of the Jews, the Messiah. And of course, Herod couldn’t let that go; he couldn’t have a prophet going around denouncing him and his family, so he had John arrested and put in the palace dungeon. But Herod didn’t dislike John; it seems he was fascinated by him and afraid of him. Mark describes how Herod liked listening to John, to hear the words of truth from John’s mouth and that following his death he was still afraid of him, fearing that Jesus might be a resurrected John the Baptist. Indeed our Gospel passage describes Herod as being ‘deeply grieved’ when he kept his promise to his daughter and had John killed. A promise made by a vain man, who had sworn an oath in front of his guests, and was afraid to lose face by failing to honour it. The Greek word for ‘deeply grieved’ here is περιλυπος, and the same word is used by Mark to describe Jesus’ anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of the Last Supper. Herod was more than just disappointed or regretful; he was indeed ‘deeply grieved’ at having to have John killed. It was never his plan; never something he intended, but a consequence of his foolishness and vanity, his fear of losing face in front of his guests. ✦✦✦✦
So let us return to the question of why Mark included this tale in his Gospel. Why did he consider it so important that he gave us the whole tale, rather than just a brief mention in a few lines? And where is the Good News in this sordid tale of royalty, lust and murder? I think there are three possible reasons why Mark included this tale in so much detail, and they all point to the Good News of Christ’s kingdom. The first reason we have already touched upon, - the importance of John the Baptist’s role as the herald of the Messiah. Mark begins his Gospel with John’s ministry - the voice crying out in the wilderness. The voice telling us to wake up and listen, for there is Good News! It is time to get ready - the action is here! Such an important figure in the story of the coming of the Word made flesh, doomed to die in a palace dungeon at the whim of a vain and cowardly man. The story deserved to be told! The second reason Mark may have included this tale is linked with this first reason, and is about the nature of John’s death. John died a violent death at the hands of a capricious and vain ruler, who was afraid to stand up to pressure and spare his life, and who was curious about the truth. Remind you of anyone? “What is Truth?” asked Pilate,
shortly before he handed Jesus over to be crucified. There are clear echoes here between the two stories of the execution of John and the crucifixion of Our Lord. Thus John was not only the herald of Jesus’ public ministry, but also the forerunner of the manner of His death. The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection is our Good News, it is the foundation of Mark’s Gospel, so Mark was bound to include details of John’s death, as a precursor to the passion narrative. And I think the third reason for including this passage can be found in its location in Mark’s Gospel. It is immediately preceded by the Gospel reading we heard last week, in which Christ sent out the twelve two by two, to carry out His ministry. And the story is immediately followed by the feeding of the 5,000. These are two stories about the work of the Kingdom, that in the face of tyranny and murder by the State, the work of the Kingdom continues. In the narrative of the feeding of the 5,000, Mark describes Jesus as having: ‘compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd’. What a contrast between the self-styled king of the Jews in the palace, ogling his dancing daughter and killing a prophet, and the true King of the Jews, feeding his hungry people on a hillside.
✦✦✦✦ So Mark had three possible reasons for including this tale:
● The importance of John as Jesus’ herald;
● As a precursor to the manner of Jesus’ death; and
● To contrast earthly kingdoms with the Kingdom of God. And thus for us, therein lies the Good News of this passage. Good News, but not necessarily comfortable news. The Good News is that God’s Kingdom is here. It is a Kingdom that will grow and grow despite earthly powers and tyranny. It is not subject to earthly rule and never will be. The words of Christ to Pilate come to mind, as recorded in John’s Gospel: ‘You would have no power over me, unless it had been given you from above’. But the less comfortable news is that as baptised Christians, as the body of Christ, we are called to be the prophets of that Kingdom. We are a Kingdom people. And sometimes, that means speaking out the Truth. Not my truth; not your truth; not someone else’s truth, But the Truth. The Truth of God. The Good News of Christ.
You have probably heard the expression ‘speaking truth to power’, This is exactly what John the Baptist and Christ did, and what many Christians have done down the ages. some suffering martyrdom for their efforts, and gaining their eternal crown of glory. Some still speak out, and risk persecution and death for the faith. We may be fortunate that we rarely if ever, have to risk our lives for the Gospel, but we can earnestly pray for those who do. And we can still, in our own way, cry out against injustice, like that voice which cried out in the wilderness long ago. ✦✦✦✦ A story of lust, vice and murder against which the coming of the Kingdom of God shines out like a beacon of light. The Good News is everywhere, if we only pause to look. Amen.
Rev'd Joe Padfield - July 11th 2021