July 10, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Mark 6:14-16 (NRSV)
King Herod heard of Jesus and his disciples, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
Read the rest of the story here.
There does not seem at first to be much redeeming about this story. But following it out to the end, I think we find a thread of hope and redemption. Terrible things happen, to us and to others. Tragedy abounds. Treachery weaves its way through many stories. But in the end, it is Jesus, not Herod, who will have the last word.
If we thought yesterday’s Bible story was a difficult one, then today’s is even worse: the beheading of John the Baptist. Mark starts us in the middle of the story, when King Herod Antipas (the son of the bad guy in the Nativity story) gets the news of Jesus. People are advancing various theories as to who Jesus is—a prophet, Elijah returning, or perhaps even John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod subscribes to the John-the-Baptist theory, in part because he has a guilty conscience. He killed John himself.
We then learn in a flashback in Mark 6:17-29 how John’s death came about. Herod Antipas had put him in prison because John had been preaching against Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife (Mark 6:17-18.) Both Herod and Herodias had divorced their first spouses to marry each other, which had not only angered a lot of people on a personal level but also caused political complications by angering King Aretas IV of the Nabataeans, the father of Herod’s first wife Phasaelis. (Eventually, though it doesn’t form a part of this story, Aretas invaded Herod Antipas’s territory and conquered his army.)
Despite having put John in prison, Herod rather seems to have liked him, considering him a holy man and frequently summoning him for conversation (Mark 6:19-20). Herodias, on the other hand, sought a way to kill John. Finally, the opportunity arose. Herod gave a birthday banquet for his court and the local “leaders of Galilee” (Mark 6:21), and as part of the entertainment, Herodias’s daughter from her first marriage, Salome, danced before the guests.
Herod and the courtiers and the leaders were pleased with the dance of Herod’s stepdaughter. As a result, Herod made what seems in retrospect to have been a very foolish offer: whatever Salome wanted, he would give her. Her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter—immediately. So, it seems, while the banquet was going on, Herod—though realizing right away his grave mistake (Mark 6:26)—sent his soldiers to behead the great prophet and bring his head to the banquet. And it was so.
John’s disciples buried the body of their leader. In a beautiful and sad human moment, Matthew 14:12-13 gives us the added information that when John’s disciples told Jesus that his cousin, friend, and fellow prophet had died, Jesus “left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.” I would have too. (Jesus didn’t get to be alone on that occasion in the end, but that’s another story.)
Just like the story of David and Saul and Michal, the story of John the Baptist’s beheading is a story of treachery, violence, manipulation, and political scheming. Nobody, except John the Baptist and Jesus, has much of a leg to stand on here. Quite a lot of people, involved in things they know to be wrong, do them anyway. Mistakes were made, as the political saying goes.
This was not quite the end of the story of Herod Antipas and Jesus. Luke tells us (Luke 23:7-15) that during Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, Pilate decided that Jesus actually ought to be under Herod’s jurisdiction, and sent him to see Herod for trial (both Pilate and Herod were in Jerusalem at the time). Herod hoped to see a miracle from the holy man, but when Jesus refused to answer him, Herod mocked him and sent him back to Pilate. Again: mistakes were made.
Eventually, around the year 40, Herod Antipas, having once more played a political game (with Emperor Caligula and his nephew Agrippa) but this time lost, died in exile. By that time, the prophet Jesus whom he had mocked had been crucified, as the creeds say, under Pontius Pilate.
And, unlike John the Baptist whom Herod had killed, Jesus had not stayed dead. He had risen to usher in a new world and a new Kingdom where death, treachery, violence, manipulation, and political scheming would have no dominion—and, eventually, a new age where all those who had died in hope, not least John the Baptist, would rise from the dead as well.
There does not seem at first to be much redeeming about this story. But following it out to the end, I think we find that thread of hope and redemption. Terrible things happen, to us and to others. Tragedy abounds. Treachery weaves its way through many stories. People we love die, are even murdered. But in the end, it is Jesus, not Herod, who will have the last word.
Where have you seen forces like Herod’s at work?
Where have you seen Jesus at work?
What can you do, even in the face of tragedy and loss, to be a part of where Jesus is at work?
The lyrics, video, and music of the song “We Labor Unto Glory” by The Porter’s Gate can all be found here. It is a song of longing for the Kingdom where Jesus will have the last word. Listen, worship, and seek from the Lord how you might “labor unto glory until God’s Kingdom comes.”
Jesus, we trust you even in the face of tragedy. We trust that you will ultimately triumph. Amen.
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project. She is a priest in the Episcopal Church and an adjunct faculty member at Asbury Theological Seminary. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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