June 2nd Mark 6b “A Corrupt Ruler Kills an Honest Man: The Death of John the Baptist”

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

Today, we have the gruesome story of the death of John the Baptist.  This passage serves to tell us of the ruthlessness of the enemies of Jesus and underscores the fact that stories of government corruption haven’t changed much in twenty centuries.  

This story gives a glimpse at the corruption in King Herod’s court.   As I have stated before, he seems more like a crime boss than a king.

King Herod was not a practicing Jew.  His family had ruled the kingdom of Edom, just north of the Dead Sea.  It was by the power of the Roman Empire who set up the Herod family as rulers of Palestine… and they were still required to serve the Emperor (Caesar).  Because the people of Israel distrusted the faith of the Herod family, the Herods put tremendous effort into building projects like the restoration of the Temple. 

We get a little confused because different members of the same family are identified as King Herod.  “Herod” in Mark is “Herod Antipas,” the son of “Herod the Great,” who was king when Jesus was born.  “Herod Agrippa” is mentioned later in the New Testament and was a nephew of Herod Antipas and grandson of Herod the Great.   The family was known for back-stabbing and being puppets of Caesar.

The story begins with Herod hearing about Jesus and wondering if Jesus is John the Baptist come back to life.  We are then told of the execution of John the Baptist in a sort of “flash back.”

Mark 6:14-29

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.”

Others said, “He is Elijah.”

And still others claimed, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of long ago.”

But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!”

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.  For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”  So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, 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.

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.  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.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?”

“The head of John the Baptist,” she answered.

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.”

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother.  On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

As I said it is a grisly story. He is married to his brother’s widow (who was named after his father). Many people have read it through the centuries and assumed incest regarding Herod’s relationship with his niece and other depravities are suggested here.  Herod shows both mental and moral weakness.  In fiction and film, he is often depicted as a schemer who is both a glutton regarding food and wine. 

Perhaps because violence was prohibited in most art of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (except for battle scenes) this story is depicted in many paintings with grisly detail; with the girl holding John’s severed head on a silver platter.

The enemies of Jesus were corrupt men, and they had the power to have him killed without any concern for the law.  As far as Herod was concerned, Jesus was protected by his popularity.  As long as Jesus was popular with the general public, Herod was not going arrest or kill him, because it might drive public opinion against Herod. Herod might have sent an assassin to kill Jesus when he was alone, but Jesus was usually in a large company of followers.

John the Baptist is often seen as the last of the Old Testament prophets.  In Matthew and Luke, Jesus likens John the Baptist to the prophet Elijah.  In the Gospel of John we are told that John the Baptist and Jesus are distant cousins (through their mothers Mary and Elizabeth).

Apart from Jesus, John the Baptist is seen as the most righteous man in the New Testament.   He is arrested and killed for speaking the truth.  Then, as in all ages of history, speaking or yelling the unvarnished truth can get you killed. John the Baptist was critical of bad behavior wherever he found it and he died for it.  

Tomorrow’s passage returns to happier thoughts.

Questions to Ponder:  When have you gotten in trouble for speaking the truth?  It is okay to leave some things unsaid to spare people’s feelings, but have you ever kept silent about the truth because of fear?


Pastor Rick