Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
This story of the beheading of John the Baptizer functions as a kind of flashback for Mark’s storytelling, sandwiched between the story of the disciples being sent out two-by-two and returning with their stories of healing and exorcism. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus exhorts the disciples to come away to a deserted place in order to rest and, perhaps, escape the gaze of those with Herod’s ear bent to their whispers?
Undoubtedly, this story, sandwiched between the sending of the disciples to preach repentance, cure, and cast out, is meant to warn the growing church of Jesus’ disciples of the real danger implicit in the church’s ministry. But perhaps more compelling is the contrast between the powerful “King” Herod and the Lord Jesus presented in this sandwich narrative.
In this flashback, we see the chasm that exists between the powerful ruling class and those subject to their whims. John the Baptizer is Herod’s prisoner, and the text tells us that Herod is intrigued by John, if not a little fearful of him. Who can blame him? John doesn’t exactly have a nursery-rhyme message, especially for those with a Herodian moral compass. But John’s powerful message of repentance also means he is well acquainted with the powerful means of enfranchised retribution wielded by Herod. Yes, Herod is intrigued and a little fearful. But Herod is also the strong man in this story, as of yet unbound in the household of Israel, and he has the means of controlling the narrative as he sees fit with the power of incarceration and, as we will see, death. The powerful so often demonstrate their fear by brandishing these powers, both then and now.
Nevertheless, it seems as though Herod has no interest in killing John the Baptizer. But his spouse does have said interest.
I want us to consider the sheer banality of John’s death; consider how absolutely tragic and stupid it is that this great prophet, who stands as the signpost at the crossroads of history, is murdered by an indifferent ruler as a birthday present. It is almost as if Mark is holding this great figure in front of us, showing him to be the forerunner of the Christ, the inaugurator of the message of repentance and the forerunner of the Kingdom’s Gospel proclamation, and the one with whom we have now closely identified the ministry and message of Jesus, and he is killed as a party trick for the ruling class. Such is human life in the hands of those far removed from the common life of the underclasses.
There might be some question of keeping oaths, here, but we shouldn’t be too caught up in Herod’s insistence on keeping his oath. Remember the folly of Jephthah, who swore an oath to God: “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judges 11:30-31). Perhaps these stories are precisely why Jesus commands his disciples to abstain from oaths: “But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” If we take this teaching from Jesus applied to this story, we can see that Herod’s oath goes hand-in-hand with his megalomania and self-interested “regard for his oaths and for the guests.” (Read: He did not want to look bad.) What does it take to regard one’s oaths and peers above the life of a fellow human being? Such is the value of the Forerunner’s life to this ruler; such is the value of so many lives to the rulers of this world.
We should take notice, here, of the ways in which an oath (of office?) seemingly gives Herod a sense of absolution in this gratuitous violence. It is, after all, for the purpose of seeming true to his word, whatever his own feelings might be. He will stand by his decision, even if that means “collateral damage” is done. As a ruler, one cannot become attached, after all; ruling requires breaking a few eggs with dispassion for the sake of order. What would they all think if he broke his oath now? Would he make the tough decision when the time came, or would he let his passions get in the way of ruling efficiently and effectively? The king cannot be concerned with the fate of the pawns, anyway.
But Jesus receives the disciples and invites them to rest (Mark 6:30-31), understanding that their ministry in the towns and villages has likely left them exhausted and in need of recouperation. This is the beginning of the contrast between Jesus and Herod for this sandwich narrative. If we read on into the story, the disciples are unable to escape the crowds following them. Mark tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). How far removed is this from the rule of Herod? Compassion is impractical. The disciples see this, and they suggest the people go buy their own food. Jesus will instead enlist them in the work of the Gospel: “You give them something to eat.” Perhaps this is but another way of saying, “Feed my sheep.”
This is the way of the Reign of Jesus: the compassionate lamb among his sheep, the shepherd who lays down his life, the King who elects shame for the sake of each little one. As the rulers of this world hold humanity at arm’s length, the Lord Jesus embraces humanity as his own, and with the solidarity borne of compassion, feeds his sheep until each is filled with more to be shared.