King Herod heard of it, 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.” 15 But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
17 For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 18 For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 19 And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 20 for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. 21 But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. 22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” 23 And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” 24 She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 25 Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” 26 The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. 27 Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, 28 brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. 29 When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
This episode breaks the narrative flow of Mark’s Gospel. The event of Johns beheading does not take place as the disciples are sent out on their first discipleship journeys. The flashback to the beheading takes place because of the growing popularity of Jesus’ movement.
Word about Jesus has spread and is no longer confined to the backwater towns and rural byways. The ripples of Jesus’ ministry and the momentum of the kingdom of God is being felt by the rulers and authorities in the power centers of the region. Herod, the puppet king of Judea, has now heard of Jesus and he had flashbacks to the ministry of John, whom he had killed.
The Beheading of John: A Parody on Politics
Mark takes us back to the moment when Herod has John killed. It is important to note that Mark is not interested in reporting historical fact. Mark is not constructing a documentary. Mark has an ideological point to make about the politics of his time.
Ched Myers argues that there are political overtones to this episode.
“First, we must remember that intermarriage was a matter of politics among royalty, fundamental to the building and consolidation of dynasties (Myers, 215).” The issue of marriage is a key point of tension between Herod and John. Herod marries to maintain power, but breaks the Torah. John points out that Herod, who confessed to be a Jew, broke the law and this created tension in the John-Herod- Herodias triangle.
“Secondly, the issue of the relationship between political authority and the Jewish law within the neocolonial formation of Palestine at the time was also volatile. The part-Jewish native kings of the Herodian dynasty conformed to the requirements of the Torah only when it was politically convenient or expedient (Myers, 2150.”
Herod claimed to be Jewish only when he needed to claim his power over his Jewish subjects. He plays the power game well, but the reality of the situation should not be ignored. Herod is only king because Rome allows him to be king. Herod only has the power that Rome gives him.
The stage is set for the political parody. Herod has gathered people together for a great feast. Lessons about table fellowship, patronage, and the honor/shame culture are all in play at this banquet. Herod throws the banquet to demonstrate his power, the guest list provides a clue. Mark tells us that Herod “gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee (verse 21).” Those gathered at this party represent the government, military, and commercial interests. Herod is demonstrating his power and influence to the main power players in society. His honor and patronage are on full display. Enter the dancing girl and the grudge of Herodius.
Herod’s drunken oath to the young girl in verses 22 and 23 should not be taken lightly. Herod swore an oath, making a binding contract to the girl in a very public spectacle. To go back on the sworn oath, even to spare John’s life, would put Herod’s honor and patronage in question. Herod would loose power and standing in the community. The stakes are high for his political career and even higher for John whose life is at stake.
Chen Myers reflects: “The dilemma created by the oath is a parody on the shameless methods of decision-making among the elite, a world in which human life is bartered to save royal face: Herod trades the ‘head’ (symbolizing his honor) of the prophet to rescue the integrity of his own drunken oath (6:24-28) (Myers, 216).”
John is killed as a part of the political game. His life is meaningless to those in a struggle for power. The kingdom of God, the ministry of Jesus, will demonstrate the exact opposite. In God’s kingdom, all lives matter. All have a place at the table. Human beings are not bargaining chips.
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- What systems do we participate in that gamble with human lives?
- How can we redeem such broken systems?
- How do we participate in God’s kingdom and demonstrate that all lives matter?