Summary: Those who bear the good news, who proclaim the glad tidings, need be aware that it will not be easy to be a truth-teller who is preaching the need for repentance and asking for God’s forgiveness.
Little Emily, the minister’s daughter, ran into the house, crying as though her heart would break.
"What’s wrong, dear?" asked the pastor.
"My doll! Billy broke it!" she sobbed.
"How did he break it, Emily?"
"I hit him over the head with it."(1)
I just returned from a week at Junior Camp at KBY with 10 and 11-year olds. We had a good week. Among the things I did, I was cabin counselor for five boys, and I can tell you that sometimes, they don’t intend to tell the "whole truth," but it often just comes out, just like this story. Children learn to deceive. They learn to not tell the whole truth, and they eventually learn not to give themselves away. Yet, they start out as "truth tellers." How many a birthday present or Christmas gift secret has been revealed by the four-year old?!
Our passage in Mark today immediately follows the account of Jesus sending out the twelve disciples two by two. News of Jesus’ ministry and the ministry of his disciples is spreading. People are talking and excitement is growing.
Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and brother of Herod Archlaus, was the tetrarch, governor, of Galilee and Palestine as Jesus began his ministry. He was also called king by his subjects. He was first married to Phasaelis, a daughter of Aretas IV, an Arabian leader. Later, he divorced her in order to marry Herodias. She had been the wife of Herod Antipas’ half-brother, Philip. Marriage to the ex-wife of one’s brother was not uncommon, but Herodias was also the daughter of another half-brother, Aristobulus. Marriage to one’s niece was also permitted, but marriage to a woman who was both one’s sister-in-law and one’s niece was unusual.
According to the Gospel of Mark, John the baptizer criticized the king, saying the marriage was unlawful and was consequently killed.(2) As today’s reading begins, Herod is hearing people’s comments about Jesus. Some are saying that he is John the baptizer and has been raised from the dead. Others say Jesus is Elijah, and still others say that he is a prophet. But Herod said, "John, whom I beheaded has been raised." Mark tells about Herod’s flashback and guilty conscience over John’s death before he tells us the details.
Herod Antipas had a nasty reputation. Though he was born a Jew, he remembered his Jewish faith and its worship only when it was convenient for him. John had been telling Herod that his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, was unlawful. John was a truth-teller. Herodius was enraged by John’s truth-telling ways. Herod was uncomfortable but intrigued at the same time. Herodias got Herod to arrest John to shut him up and get him away from the people.
Herodias wanted to have John the baptizer killed, but she couldn’t quite get Herod to do it. Mark tells us that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. Herod liked to listen to John, and one can imagine that he would have John brought to him from prison for some late night talks. Yet, Mark says that Herod was perplexed and disturbed by John, even though he continued to have John brought to him. It is as though Herod becomes aware that he has a conscience in John’s presence, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
At other times Herod lived a very bawdy, raucous and self-centered life. He apparently gave what would be called stag parties today. On his birthday, he had a big party where everyone ate and drank to excess. The daughter of Herodias, whose name was Salome, came in and danced for this less-than-civil gentlemen’s club. This was something that no self-respecting Jew nor caring father would do, but Herod brought her in for the crowd. And she apparently really put on a show. She really pleased Herod and his whole crowd of guests.
In Herod’s "banquetized state" he said he’d give her anything she asked, even up to half of the kingdom. She wants to get this chance of a lifetime right. So, she goes to ask mom, a.k.a. Herodias. Hate can really cripple and distort our judgment. When she could ask for half the kingdom, Herodias tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the baptizer.
Mark places this odd, gruesome story of the beheading of John in an interesting place, just after the sending out of the Twelve. He uses this story as a somber reminder of the cost of discipleship. John faced mortal danger, as will Jesus, as will all who bear the gospel.
Throughout his gospel, Mark presents the confrontation between these powers. Those who bear the good news, who proclaim the glad tidings, need be aware that it will not be easy to be a truth-teller who is preaching the need for repentance and asking for God’s forgiveness. It will be dangerous to proclaim the reign of God. It will not be safe to speak the truth.