Head on a platter
August 15 2006
Mark 6:14-29 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 I 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 is a strange story. It is not about Jesus. It seems out of place. I suspect it disposes of John the Baptist, while giving him his due. It is also a warning of what awaits Jesus.
There are still those who believe John the Baptist was the true prophet. ''... Mandaeans study and respect the teachings of Jesus, but regard him not as the son of God, but as wise messenger - one who may have been a follower of John the Baptist.'' In the time Mark was written, one suspects this was not have simply a matter of academic interest. So in this story John is shown as inferior, and predeceasing Jesus, who did much greater works.
John's death is appalling, not so much because of the barbaric beheading, but because of the circumstances that lead to his death. He was imprisoned to placate the whinging of an embittered spouse. And then he was unjustly killed, ''the king was deeply grieved,'' in a perverse parody of honour. Honour, which should reflect the ultimate reality of God, was dis-honoured by pride, foolishness, and embarrassment. The same kind of toxic corruption would lead to Jesus' death. So early in the gospel, as the disciples' mission begins, we are shown how it will all end.
The story is a fine description of the human condition. It portrays rejoicing, generosity, the desire to have self respect, and a determination to honour one's promise. It shows the constant clashes and tensions our ethics face. And it shows how easily our selfishness can disregard a wider vision of justice, leading to utter perversion and corruption of our standards.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.