The Gospel passage requires that we ask and attempt to answer some questions before we are really able to ascertain what the meaning might be. Dropping this story into the narrative of Mark’s Gospel seems to defy logic. In fact, if you simply skipped vs 14-29, you really wouldn’t miss a beat in the way Mark is laying out the story. It makes sense that Jesus would send out the 12 Disciples and then move to the report of said going out in vs 30 and then the continuing of the narrative with the story of the Feeding of the 5000.
It may simply be the rendering of Mark’s Greek into English, but the start of the story about John seems rather disjointed with a seemingly weak linking of Jesus rise in popularity to a reason to tell the story of John’s death.
We also must deal with the fact that Mark has the most detailed version of this story, which is somewhat odd in that in most cases, Mark has a more bare bones story and Matthew and Luke build upon it. Matthew cuts down on the details of the story while Luke includes only the briefest of mentions, seemingly to connect Herod’s discomfort at hearing about Jesus with the fact that Herod had John beheaded.
It is even more significant that Luke, who has the story of Mary visiting a pregnant cousin Elizabeth, who’s miracle child John, leapt in the womb as Mary, now carrying Jesus, approached Elizabeth and a detailed account of the birth of John the Baptist, would for some reason ignore this account of how Herod had been tricked into killing John. One would expect Luke to put the story of John’s demise front and center. Both Matthew and Luke place this story of John’s death at the hands of Herod at a different point in the narrative than Mark.
So, to focus the questions – why did Matthew and Luke make the choice to shorten the story, when the norm was for them to provide more details? Why does this story seem to be misplaced between two passages of Mark’s narrative? There are many opinions on what the answers might be, but none that would seem to be the right and only one. When we add in that the Roman historian, Josephus, whose work is used to independently corroborate much of what we know in the Gospels, indicates that Herod killed John the Baptist simply because he was a threat, leaving out the Herodias saga, we are perhaps headed toward making an educated guess about what is going on here.
Mark interrupts his narrative to tell us a fable, a myth, a story that while not literally true gives a broader understanding of just what is meant. Once the point is made, Mark goes back to his story.
Given that none of this story is attributed by Mark as any kind of a direct quote from Jesus; we can be rather certain that this is an aside, a moment in the drama where the deep voiced narrator comes in and provides a dramatic story to spike our attention. What is being shared here is that it wasn’t safe to be seen as an ally of Jesus. It wasn’t safe to step into the muddled and murky world of politics, power and control. It shows that something as simply as a huge ego trying to save face could cause the death of someone good, who was speaking on God’s behalf. Many commentators will draw a connection between the Herod/John story and the Pilate/Jesus story in which power was used to cast aside one who would raise a voice for righteousness. So what does this say for us today. There are some eerie parallels in our world. Power and control are wielded, leadership wants to preserve position over supporting righteousness.
Slander and libel are weapons to keep the truth at bay and backroom deals with promises of unearned wealth and power as a reward. It is never safe to preach the Gospel. We need to know and understand that, as the writers of the Gospels show us clearly from the time of Jesus. History tells the same story over and over again.
As the disciples were called and sent out in our reading from last week, Mark is clear to point out that they would not be popular, that they would need to risk much, that those who hold power are not likely to appreciate people who do things like ask about fairness, righteousness and justice.
When the church takes on the mission given by Jesus, the church must risk, must stand tall. To be honest, I’d like more of the church where we sing nice songs, drink coffee and have potluck dinners. But that isn’t faith, that isn’t why we follow Jesus. For centuries the Christian community seemed to walk hand and hand with the secular authorities. Their interests where the same. Today, a strong case can be made that authority has little use for faith, because it calls them to be honest and above board. We can ignore the call to justice, we can continue to huddle Sunday morning with like minded people and be afraid of the world, or we can join with, as Micheal Curry the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal church calls it, the Jesus Movement.
In several places lately I’ve encountered the following – it’s written in different ways and about a vast array of different issues – but people are suggesting that we stop hiding behind what used to be, and realize that it is the Spirit of the Living God that is in work in the socio/political/cultural contexts of our worlds. As God called the Prophets to speak for justice, as God called John the Baptist to stand for repentance and forgiveness, as God called us to love one another, and as the Church has always recognized that we are called by God to make a difference; we see more clearly everyday that society seems headed in the wrong direction and we as the Church are called to be part of the solution, calling all God’s people home to what the Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to be on earth and in heaven.