Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 14, 2024

Mark 6:14-29 Commentary

It’s been a while since the lectionary has included a story about John the Baptist, and here it’s more of a memory than anything else. Herod thinks of John because of the stories coming out about Jesus’s disciples. They’ve just returned from their missionary journey and they displayed a lot of familiar influence. Not only did they proclaim a similar message of repentance, but they also cast out demons and cured the sick. John was considered the greatest religious figure of the time, and Elijah one of the greatest of all time. Both were itinerants who drew crowds to themselves and their message—just like this Jesus and his disciples. Accounts of such power could only be made sense of in the context of such legends.

Herod might represent the State, and John’s death might have had some underlying political motivations, but the manner of John’s death was a sordid and shameful affair. No wonder Herod is haunted by John’s memory and suspicion of his resurrection. Could this “Jesus” actually be Elijah, or even more frightening, John?

Most of our text is spent explaining how John died at Herod’s hand. Note how at each stage of the story, Herod is culpable and heavily influenced by other people. Herod was the one that ordered John arrested and bound because of the way John challenged Herod’s marriage with Herodias. Herodias’s grudge against John meant a murderous end was likely from the start as John was a threat to their power and it was personal.

It was personal to Herod, too, but in a much different way. Herod was both intrigued and challenged by John, curious and confused by his own attraction to the holy man. For a time, Herodias’s personal vendetta was held in check by Herod’s protection because, as the text says, Herod liked to listen to John. In other words, he wanted to hear and think more about what John was saying.

But alas, the seed fell on among the weeds where it was choked out by Herod’s proud disposition and immoral company. For at Herod’s birthday party, almost assuredly drunk and reveling in being fawned over as the most important man in the room, Herod’s wife, Herodias, gets her revenge on John by taking advantage of Herod’s need to save face and show off power. Though Herod is very sad about having to end John’s life, fear for his own reputation and influence leads him to quickly keep his ill-made promise and John’s head is made a trophy for Herodias.

It’s a story that begs the question of what might have been had Herod been able to follow the Spirit’s invitation to him through the prophet John. And yet, Mark includes this vignette because of the way John’s story precursors Jesus’s experience. Like John, Jesus is brought before a mixed-up political figure, Pontius Pilate, who is intrigued by what he hears from the holy man but who acts as though his hands are tied by his circumstances. Like John, those who hold a grudge against Jesus want to see him dead because Jesus is a threat to their own power and influence. And like John, when Jesus is put to death, his disciples come and take his body and lay him in a tomb.

And perhaps even more so, like with John’s death, Jesus’s death may seem like a victory for evil, but evil must fear the resurrecting power of God! Herod is terrified at the prospect of John resurrected from the dead because Herod knows he chose the wrong allegiance and followed the wrong path. And how much greater is God resurrected?

The truth of the matter is that Jesus is not John resurrected, though the same Holy Spirit was at work in both of their ministries. Similarly, cutting off the head of the greatest religious figure of the movement will not end the movement because the Holy Spirit will continue to blow and breath and build upon the graces already bestowed on the world. That’s what should really make the forces of evil and its minions afraid. Herod’s right to fear the power of resurrection—he’s just got his fear about who misplaced.

Textual Point

Commentators point out that this is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that the story turns away from Jesus. Though there is an implied message about Jesus, Herod’s flashback is squarely about John the Baptist to show, yet again, that John is Jesus’s precursor in so many ways.

Illustration Idea

Herod is both culpable and susceptible. He is a man of power which makes him a man with responsibility for how he wields it. And yet, his weakness and need to save face speaks to human nature and the struggle to act with conviction when things are difficult or peer pressure is intense. You’ve probably got a story appropriate enough to share about something you regret doing but did anyway. One of mine has to do with a canoeing trip I went on in college with a group of newly-minted dorm leaders. (It was one of those community building trips where you bond and learn leadership lessons before the school term begins.) We had reached the end of the first day of canoeing the river and were taking a break before setting up camp and supper and everyone was taking turns jumping into the river to cool off. I didn’t want to do it, but the peer pressure started to mount and the adult leader said, “If we’re all sitting around the campfire tonight talking about how great it was to jump in the river, aren’t you going to regret not doing it?” I told him, no, but that I’d do it anyway. Well, as I walked towards the embankment to jump in, my foot slipped and I slammed my wrist onto the ground causing it to immediately swell up. It was bad enough that that same adult leader and I had to hitchhike back to our vehicle and go to the hospital. I spent the rest of the trip in a cast, both of us regretting our decisions.


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