The preacher’s head at the king’s birthday feast

This Sunday, the lectionary invites us to reflect on Mark 6:14-29. The English Standard Version supplies the passage with the title “The Death of John the Baptist.”

Mark puts this passage right after his account of the twelve apostles, the twelve members of Jesus’ inner circle, returning victorious, happy, from their mission trip. He puts it immediately after verse 13, which tells us:

“… they [had] cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.”

Mark was writing the facts. The truth. The Twelve had been victorious. They were happy.

But Mark was writing for readers who were being punished daily because of their profession of faith in Jesus. Because they refused to let the religious leaders off the hook for the death of Jesus. Because they refused to bow to Caesar. Because they proclaimed Christ.

They expected to be stoned. Crucified. Thrown to wild animals.

Often, those who bring healing don’t receive it themselves.

I often think about how famous charismatic healers, people who deliver miraculous healing by laying hands on sick people, die. Like David Watson in the UK and John Wimber in the USA. Both were evangelists, authors, preachers, and teachers. They ministered around the world.

Watson died aged 50-years. In 1984, after battling cancer for ten months. Wimber died aged 63-years. In 1997, after a fall which caused a massive brain haemorrhage.

Mark placed his account of John’s beheading immediately after his account of the joyous return of the Twelve, after their first mission trip, in order to warn us against triumphalism. To warn us not to talk and act as if abundance and success are the only things we will experience. In the expelling of darkness, in the announcing of the kingdom, there will be casualties.

Herod Antipas arrested and put John Baptist in jail in the fortified palace of Machaerus. Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great who had tried to kill baby Jesus.

Herod Antipas was one of four successors to Herod the Great. He was appointed Tetrarch, governor of Galilee and Perea, by Caesar Augustus in Rome.

Herod was popularly known as “king.” He was insecure. Always suspicious. Always thought someone was gunning for his job. Or throne, as he saw it. He was a tyrant. He often made a show of his power over life and death.

Herod’s half-brother Philip was Tetrarch of another region.[1] Philip’s wife, Herodias, divorced him and married Herod after he’d divorced his wife. One commentary says the family tree of Herod the Great was “as twisted as the trunk of an olive tree.”

John Baptist railed against the marriage of Herod and Herodias. Because it was against God’s laws. The “royal” couple didn’t like it. Herodias fumed against John.

Mark writes about Herodias in ways that make us recall the most wicked woman in the bible: Jezebel, wife of King Ahab. Jezebel who gunned for the prophet Elijah. Elijah, a prophet who, like John, called for people to repent, to submit to God’s laws.

Mark evokes Jezebel because people thought John was Elijah,[2] a 9th century prophet. Elijah, whom prophet Malachi said would return to “turn the hearts of the children” “before the great and awesome day of the Lord.”[3] Even Jesus had suggested this.[4]

At the time, John had been preaching for many years. He demanded that people repent, and act justly in all things. John was famous. Like Coca Cola. Jesus was just beginning his public ministry. What John said mattered. What John said influenced public opinion.

What John said about the “royal” couple shamed them. They arrested him and put him in prison. But Herod was smitten not only by Herodias. He was also smitten by John. He liked to listen to him. He sensed something in him. Herodias wanted Herod to put John to death. Herod refused. This caused tension in their marriage.

Then came Herod’s birthday. He celebrated it grandly. In Machaerus. One party for the men, another for the women, as was common in those days. But there was something most unusual at this party. Herodias’ daughter, “princess” Salome, did what only lower-class women did. She danced for Herod and his upper-crust guests. Bollywood style.

Herod and his guests were enthralled. Herod wanted to make a grand gesture. To show how rich and powerful he was.

Herod offered Salome anything she cared to ask for. Up to half his kingdom – though it was not his to give, since he was only the governor. Herod acted like he was king. Like the Persian King Ahasuerus who offered half his kingdom to his Jewish queen, Esther.[5]

Salome, a teenager, didn’t know how to answer Herod. She knew that if she asked for half the kingdom, she’d be dead before morning. So, she stepped out. She asked her mother, Herodias.

Herodias saw her chance. She said, “ask for John’s head.”

Salome asked Herod to give her John’s head on a platter. Probably, a silver platter.

Herod’s guests watched. They were the elite of the day, the powerful, the generals, the bankers, the rich traders, the “nobles.” They didn’t protest. They watched to see what Herod, the man caught in a trap set by his wife, would do.

Herod issued the order. The preacher’s head was cut off. Delivered. To the girl. She took it to her mother. The party continued. More drinking, dancing, devouring, boasting.

Herod had killed a man the people celebrated. But the death of John was in God’s plan. And God had a plan for Herod too. I don’t have the space to go into that here.[6]

John’s disciples heard of it. They came and took John’s body. And buried it. Mark wants us to notice this. He wants us to remember it when, later, he tells us that Jesus’ disciples, the Twelve, who’d been so victorious in their mission, abandoned Jesus.[7]

What’s the lesson Mark wants us to take away from this passage?

Mark wants us to expect great things from God, he wants us to expect victories, just like John saw in his ministry, many people turning their lives around. And just like the Twelve saw in their ministry, healing people, casting out demons, many people turning their lives around.

Mark also warns against triumphalism. We must not talk or act as if there will be no disappointments and sorrows in the lives of Christians. Beheadings still happen.

Brother Luc was a medical doctor. A monk. In his eighties. He served poor Muslims around his monastery, in Algeria. For over fifty years. He was easily angered. Humourless. But he had a golden heart. He would treat anyone. Even soldiers and resistance fighters. He was much loved by the villagers. He had a beard. One time, some boys pulled his beard. They taunted him. They asked, “Aren’t you afraid of losing your head too?” They knew the army cut off the heads of medics who treated terrorists. Luc growled at them. He said “I don’t care. They can have it.”[8]

Brother Luc was one of the seven Monks of Tibhirine[9] who were beheaded in 1996. We still don’t know whether he was a victim of the terrorists or of the army. Let’s not forget that non-Christians have also been beheaded when they upset the power crazed.

I end with the vision of John, recorded in Revelation 20:4

I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image …

Peace be with you.

[1] Iturea and Trachonitis, Luke 3:1

[2] Verse 15.

[3] Malachi 4:5-6.

[4] Matthew 11:11-14; Matthew 17:12.

[5] Esther 5:3,6

[6] We read in Luke 23:1-12 that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, because the charge against Jesus was that he claimed to be king of the Jews. And because Jesus was a Galilean, he was under the ‘authority’ of Herod. Herod put a purple robe on Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. From extra-biblical sources, we know that in 39 AD Herod and Herodias were banished from the land by Emperor Caligula. This was the ‘reward’ Caligula gave Herod after he applied to have himself designated ‘king,’ like his brother Herod Agrippa I.

[7] Mark 14:50 “And they all left him and fled.”

[8] From Chapter 16 of “The Monks of Tibhirine: Faith, Love and Terror in Algeria,” a 2003 book by John W Kizer.

[9] A movie about them was released in 2010. It’s called Of Gods and Men. Click here to watch the trailer.

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