How sordid. How tawdry. How stupid. How tragic. It’s all here in Mark 6 where we learn to our shock and sadness that the last great Old Testament prophet and the first great New Testament gospel herald, John the Baptist himself, was done in because of a boozy promise made by an oversexed older man who had been turned on by a scantily clad teenager who did a dance for him and his equally besotted party companions.
Having kept his hands off of John the Baptist out of fears of a Jewish reprisal in case some harm came to John—and anyway Herod also found himself oddly drawn to John’s words—Herod even so now seals John’s fate after all because of a moment of weakness in which he promises to give a pretty young girl just about anything she wants. (“What’ll it be, you hot little thing? You want the moon? I’ll give ya the moon . . .”)
How can it be that so vital a figure in salvation history gets murdered on account of so tawdry an event? This is no glorious martyrdom. This is not Stephen testifying to God’s grace and seeing Jesus just before the fatal stone strikes him in the head. This is a silent beheading in a prison cell, as swiftly enacted as it was stupidly arranged.
Only the back-story here provides a glimmer of something positive to say about how it all came about. According to a very helpful article by Craig Keener in The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans, 2001), John the Baptist was probably the only figure who had the courage (and the holy pluck) to stand up to Herod Antipas. This is not the Herod who was around when Jesus was born nor is this the Book of Acts Herod who later persecuted the church and killed, among others, James. But what this middle Herod shared in common with those other two was a real nasty streak of immorality, self-aggrandizement, and corruption.
He had been married originally to a Nabataean princess whom he later dumped in favor of marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. As Woody Allen might say, the heart wants what it wants, and Herod’s heart wanted Herodias. So even though it made him guilty of multiple sins (adultery and incest among them) and even though it angered the king of the Nabataeans (to whom Herod’s first wife fled in humiliation after Herod took up with his sister-in-law Herodias)—and even though this later led to a military conflict with the Nabataeans in which Herod was roundly defeated and embarrassed—nevertheless Herod married Herodias, and no one save John the Baptist had the moral fortitude to point out how wrong it was.
Had John just stuck to baptisms and some harsh pronouncements about the Pharisees and such, he would have been OK. But John landed in prison because he had the temerity to question the morality of Herod the Tetrarch (he never was actually designated a king and when he petitioned Rome for the title, Caesar Gaius Caligula banished Herod and Herodias to Gaul for the rest of their lives). As has too often been the case in history, the powers that be are content to regard religion as a kind of hobby that seems to satisfy certain needs people have. And so long as it stays in the realm of “hobby,” religion and the people who practice it are left alone. But when the religious start to stray out of that designated realm, that’s when things get ugly fast.
So John questioned the king’s morality, even rebuking him for his deeds. This landed him in prison. But then, as though to prove John right that it’s both wrong and foolish to cross certain moral boundary lines, the tangled web Herod wove ensnared both him and John the Baptist on the occasion of that fateful party when Herod’s lust for his niece (turned stepdaughter) and the evil machinations of Herodias behind the scenes all caught up with Herod, leading to John’s summary and ignominious demise.
Well, that’s the story and if it’s a vignette of evil and tawdriness you’re looking for, you could hardly do better than Mark 6:14-29. But to return to the earlier point, what if it’s the case that what you’re looking for is a Gospel text to preach to God’s people? What if you’re aiming for an instructive passage on gospel hope and grace? This passage doesn’t fit the bill!
Maybe as good a way as any to approach this homiletically is to use this as an example of why the world needs the gospel to begin with. Yes, you could make the bottom line of this sermon something along the lines of, “And so we, too, need to be morally courageous in denouncing the evil we see around us also today.” You could use this as a bolster to the conducting of the various “culture wars” in which many today participate with holy relish and verve.
But suppose you prefer not to end your sermons with a moral “To Do” list in which people feel that the main facet of the Christian life is how well we behave and so earn our place in God’s good graces. Maybe one way to avoid preaching a finger-waving “Go and do likewise” message is to let the tawdriness of the story remind us that if ever we needed a reminder of why only the death of God’s Son can save this sorry old world, this story provides that reminder. The world is locked in endless cycles of death and destruction. We are quite literally hell-bent on messing up, on following the desires of our hearts into all kinds of dead-end alleys that lead only to suffering.
Something has to break through to this world of ours. Something has to snap these destructive cycles. Something has to narrate a different story and point in a different direction. Thanks be to God that we know what that “Something” is: it is the gospel of Jesus Christ our Lord, the Son of God who became the servant of all. Because of Jesus, the bottom line of our lives does not need to be something like the sad spectacle with which this story ends as John’s devastated disciples sadly bury his headless corpse. Because of the gospel, the end of the story is finally resurrection, restoration, and the clarion cry, “Behold, I make all things new!”
As this sordid story makes clear, only the gospel has the power to let us hope for such a vision of restored humanity.
And it’s no accident that the very next story—and the next lection in Year B—is the story of Jesus’ being revealed as the Great Shepherd of his sheep who feeds his people with life abundant even in a desert waste of a place. That’s the hope that bookends this sad, sad story in the middle of Mark 6.
Why does Mark seem to back into this story about John the Baptist’s death? It’s an odd way to tell the tale. He does not tell this story at this juncture in his gospel because it fits chronologically. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that John’s death had happened some while back, well before Jesus sent out the twelve disciples for their first-ever solo ministry experiences.
It creates a bit of a jolt for the reader. Suddenly we hear that some people, Herod Antipas included, were concluding that John the Baptist was back from the dead. But when you hear that, you’re shocked.
“Dead!!?? John is dead? I didn’t even know he was sick! What in the world happened!?” And then it’s as though Mark says, “Oh, that’s right—I haven’t told you that part of the story, have I? Well, it went down this way . . .” and then Mark launches into this grim narrative.
Why does Mark tell it this way? Why did he plunk this grim narrative right in the middle of the otherwise highly encouraging story of the disciples’ success in ministry and the miraculous (and much-loved) story about Jesus’ Feeding of the 5,000? Those other stories are so positive, so full of light and hope. So why does Mark darken the narrative horizon here with a story that, all things being equal, really does not need to be relayed at this particular moment?
It seems as though Mark is not only darkening the atmosphere here but that he is quite probably intentionally darkening it. Maybe part of the reason is that Mark knows that the cross is the key to the gospel. That’s why in Mark Jesus’ true identity is perpetually hushed up until the moment Jesus is dead on the cross and the soldier nearby declares Jesus to be the Son of God. The so-called “Messianic Secret” pervades Mark until Jesus may safely be identified only after he is dead. Until then, Mark never wants people to run ahead or assume anything resembling a triumphalist air. We have to follow Jesus all the way to Golgotha if we are really going to understand who he is and what the gospel brings.
So maybe Mark is tempering things a bit by inserting this sad reminder of sin, evil, and death. Lest we readers conclude that ministry is only about the kinds of success and excitement the disciples encountered—and lest we think that it’s only all about getting our needs met (as in Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 that follows)—we are reminded that faithfulness can bring suffering and even death. We are reminded that what will finally cure what ails this sin-sick world will be something far more startling than healings, exorcisms, and miracles of feeding. What a world as sordid as this one needs will be, finally, the death of God’s beloved Son. Things are that bad in this world, as the story of John’s beheading may remind us.
One wonders at times how many bad things have happened in history because certain leaders dared not appear to be weak. In his most recent volume on “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” premiere biographer Robert Caro makes it clear that much of what drove and animated Lyndon B. Johnson was a deep-seated fear of never looking like a failure, of never being seen as a failure the way his own father had been.
So even though he was determined to become President of the United States one day, in 1959 and early 1960 LBJ doggedly did not put himself forward as a candidate for the 1960 Democrat nomination. He wanted it desperately but dared not say it out loud for fear that then if he did not get the nomination, people would look down on him. That was bad enough but Caro tells us that when his fifth and final volume on Johnson comes out, it will become clear that this fear of failure—the fear of becoming his father all over again—is also why so many tens of thousands of young men would lose their lives in Vietnam. Johnson could not back down—not even when backing down was the most eminently sensible thing to do as most people could see clearly.
In Mark 6, Herod has some of this going on, too. He can’t be seen as a failure. He can’t let go of power, even when that power overtakes his better judgment and results in an innocent man’s beheading. Ah, the tangled webs we weave . . .
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 11, 2021
Mark 6:14-29 Commentary