Church people are used to contending with John the Baptist in Advent. Every December while we try to do our Christmas shopping, John holds forth, telling us and everyone with ears to hear to repent. So it feels more than a little strange to encounter news of John in July, and startling news at that.
The man who baptized all of Jerusalem in the River Jordan is dead. The thundering prophet has been beheaded, a sure way to silence a noisy man. Mark throws the announcement down in front of us with a thunk, like a wet newspaper: Some were saying John the baptizer has been raised from the dead. What!? John dead? Mark has gotten our attention and the details follow.
Sure enough, it was John's prophetic voice that got him into trouble. He charged the highest ranking local bureaucrat with making an unlawful marriage, which put him on the fast track to prison. The bureaucrat in question is Herod Antipas, who put aside his legitimate wife to marry his half-niece, Herodias, daughter of one of his half-brothers and the ex-wife of another. It's both complex and sordid, the kind of plot we expect from a soap opera. But Herod is employed by the Romans to be tetrarch of part of Galilee. He's somebody, and his new wife doesn't like being scolded by a lunatic nobody. So John lands in jail.
Imprisonment ought to have been silence enough, but Herodias, Mark tells us, wants John dead, and we already know she's going to succeed. We listen to the rest of the story the way we sometimes watch a trashy movie or a television show, a little ashamed of ourselves for staying put but not able to pull ourselves away.
For his part, King Herod was both puzzled by John and attracted to him. Apparently, he wasn't too afraid to listen to what John had to say, the way a smaller man might have been. Perhaps this Herod was more secure than his father, the Herod who ordered the wholesale slaughter of male infants when he learned of Jesus' birth. Herod the younger is content with imprisoning the holy man, but we know his wife is up to something, and so we lean in close when we hear there's going to be a birthday banquet. Banquets mean drinking and dancing and a loosening of the kind of control that can keep an innocent man alive. Almost as soon as we hear that Herod is going to give a banquet for all his underlings in Galilee, we know the date of John's death.
The rest of the story reads like a folktale: The dancing daughter whose name is the same as that of the unlawful wife. (Whose daughter is this exactly? It's never really explained.) Next comes the foolish promise of a besotted man, besotted with power, besotted with wine, besotted with food, and with the youth and beauty on display. The words Herod uses when he makes his fatal promise are identical to words used by a foolish ruler from an earlier time, a time that was also dangerous for innocent people. They're the words spoken in the Book of Esther not once, but three times, by King Ahasuerus to Queen Esther, his wife. Mark seems to be suggesting by this subtle link that Herod is as foolish a king as the famously weak Ahasuerus. Esther used the drunken promise of a king to save her people. The queen in this story uses the promise to ensure a murder.
Once the dancing daughter has done her job, she has to run out of the room to ask her mother what to ask for. It's a little detail that heightens the suspense and raises other questions while we wait. Why did she have to run out? Were there only men in the room with Herod? Did she have to run far or was the Queen waiting behind the nearest door? When the request is finally spoken, the words "the head of John the baptizer" are made more horrible by the wait. But even that's not all. The girl may have been a pawn up to now, but this little queen-in-waiting adds a gruesome detail of her own. She is the one who asks for the head of John the Baptist "on a platter."
What on earth is this awful story doing here? There are a number of possibilities. The story starts with questions about who Jesus really is. One answer is that he is one whose way is prepared by John in life and death. Again and again their stories touch. John has a message and dedicated disciples; Jesus' ministry follows a similar pattern. The innocent John is killed by powerful people who are threatened by his truth telling. Jesus, too, dies at the hands of anxious political authority. Herod knows that John is not deserving of death; Pilate tries to derail Jesus' execution. John's followers come to take his body to a tomb; there is a tomb waiting for Jesus in Jerusalem as well. The point is not so much that John and Jesus are the same in some ways, but that speaking truth to power leads to the same kind of danger no matter who you are, master or disciple.
Once when I was a little girl, I saw news footage in which grown men and women screamed and ranted at another little girl outside a school in Mississippi. When the newsman said that she was 12, my age at the time, something inside me broke. In my sheltered world, so-called colored children and white children had always gone to the same schools, and grown-ups didn't threaten kids. "Why are they yelling at her like that?" I asked my mother in tears. "She's only a little girl." My mother made the sigh adults make when children learn things no one should have to learn. "Because they're ignorant," she said finally, my family's catch-all phrase for explaining things that will never make sense. It wasn't enough of an explanation, and that was a first lesson, too.
But the real lesson was that doing good and right things cannot protect you from being badly hurt. There is real danger in naming what is wrong in the world and trying to change it. Even the way the story is placed in the Gospel makes the point. It's sandwiched right in the middle of the sending of the twelve. Just before John's beheading, Jesus sends the twelve out to teach, preach, and heal with nothing to sustain them but their faith. After the gruesome platter is brought into the banquet, the disciples return to Jesus and report their success. Good and successful ministry, it seems, happens right alongside violent opposition. It's enough to make one choose a safer course in life than being a disciple of Christ.
And that's the other reason for the story. It just might be that some of us who try to follow Christ have been following too safe a course, sitting in mighty comfortable seats at the banquet, so much so that we need this awful story to help us ask if we are following the One whose way was full of danger and whose final destination was a cross.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that Christians manufacture confrontations to ensure that we are faithful folk, although that does happen sometimes. The kind of dramatics, for example, that so often take place around sexual morality strike me as battles in which some people make a lot of noise without putting their own lives on the line. Christians fight a lot about sex, about which very little is said in Scripture. We almost never fight about money, about which the Bible says a great deal. If the only confrontations we've ever engaged in over faith have been about what other people are up to, we might be more like Herod than we think, attracted to the holy but not changed much by the association. If nothing else, this disturbing story reminds us that it's terribly easy to dis-member our faith in order to look good in front of our peers, or at least not risk standing out. By the same token, we decapitate what we say we believe in when we compartmentalize it into a Sunday ritual that has little or nothing to do with the rest of our lives.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to be jolted out of such complacency, if you want to call it luck. Poet and essayist Kathleen Norris tells a chilling story about a young man named Willie, who after rough years working oil rigs, met some drug dealers putting together a new network. He fell in with them and thought himself lucky to be working with experienced people. Then one day as he was driving with his new partner outside a particular city, the man suddenly pulled the car onto the side of the road. He had seen someone driving past in the other direction and was wondering whether to turn around and drive after him. "I need to kill him," the driver said deliberately, and he reached down under the seat and pulled out a gun Willie hadn't known was there. "I need to kill him, but he's with someone and I don't know who, so it'll have to wait." "This was way over my head," Willie told Norris. He got out of his new business as soon as possible. Norris tells Willie's story as a story of salvation. "He was glad," she writes, "that he had been able to name something as wrong and walk away from it."*
We're glad, too, when we have a clear choice to take a meaningful stand. But clear choices in life are few, especially if you spend at least some of your time living in a banquet hall where there is so much power and so much entertainment and so much to eat and drink that the faithful choices can become hard to see--until distant lives have been harmed or even lost and we are somehow involved, if not directly responsible.
The story of John's beheading is shocking, and it's meant to be--to shock us out of complacency in a faith that comes at little or no cost. Relatively few Christians, thanks be to God, are called to be martyrs. But all of us who would follow Christ are called to confront, as well as we can, the wrong we see around us, and confrontation is never comfortable. To pay that price is to stand with many who followed the path that John prepared for the One who came after him. Amen.
Let us pray.
You call us, O Lord, to live what we know, to challenge injustice, and speak the truth, even when speaking out brings us suffering. By your Spirit give us grace to remain faithful to you in all things. We pray for those who suffer persecution because of their faith, for all who are oppressed, and for those whose voices have been silenced. Give us the courage to tell their stories and witness to your love, for we pray in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.