Passion of St John the Baptist
Ancient society existed upon reputation as much as brute force. Scholars have labeled their culture "honor-shame." This notion was on full display with the passion of the Baptist. We should feel shock at the utter depravity the scene presented. First century Jews did.
First Reading and Psalm from Daily Readings
Gospel: Mark 6:14-29
14 King Herod heard, for HIS name became famous and (some) said, "John the baptizing (one) has risen from the dead and, through this, (mighty) powers are active in him." 15 Others said, "(HE) is Elijah. (Still) otters said," (HE) is a prophet like one of the (ancient) prophets." 16 Hearing (this), Herod said " John whom I beheaded, has been raised."
17 For Herod himself sent (an arrest party) to seize John and bound him under guard according to (the wishes of) Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because (Herod) married her. 18 For John kept telling Herod, " It is not Lawful for you to have your brother's wife." 19 Herodias held a grudge against (John) and wished to kill him but was not able 20 for Herod (deeply) respected John, seeing him (as) a righteous and holy man, (so the king) protected him and, listening to him, (the king) was greatly confused (by the prophet's words but the king) gladly heard him.
6:14-16 "(some) said...others said...(still) other said" This succession of speakers implied a royal court discussion about the identity of Jesus and his mission.
6:14 "John the baptizing (one)" Mark referred to John's activity in a participle ("baptizing") than his title as a noun ("Baptist").
6:15 "(HE) is a prophet like one of the (ancient) prophets." This sentence held Jesus had the status of the Hebrew prophets. On one level he had a mobile ministry like that of Elijah. On a higher level, he would be Elijah incarnate The popular view wondered if he would fulfill Malachi 4:5:
"Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes."
6:18 "It is not Lawful" The marriage of Herod to Herodias did not violate Roman law or Hellenic custom. Instead, John claimed it broke the Torah (see Lev 18:16, 20:16). According to ancient Jewish custom and legal opinion, a man's wife had the status of property. So, the marriage represented theft, even though Herodias divorced Philip (not the other way around).
At worst, the common people considered Herod an apostate. Herodias feared her husband might divorce her to appease popular opinion. If John's assertion took root, it could become an excuse for civil unrest which would invite Roman military intervention and lead to Herod's removal. Herod was hesitant about mob politics.
6:19-20 This long and confusing sentence laid out the contention between the royal couple. Herodias wanted the prophet eliminated, implicitly assuming his death would relieve popular pressure. Herod had arrested John but kept him around as a court play thing. John was the holy man Herod put on a pedestal. The king enjoyed listening to the rantings of John in prison but did not absorb the meaning of the prophetic message, like listening to popular music without really understanding its lyrics.
21 An appropriate day arrived when Herod threw a feast on his birthday for his lords, military commanders and the leaders of Galilee. 22 When the daughter of Herodias entered (the festivities) and danced, (she) pleased Herod and the (guests) reclining at table, (so) the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you want and I will do it for you." 23 (He) declared a [solemn] oath to her, "Whatever you ask of me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom!" 24 Exiting, she said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" (The mother) said, "The head of John the baptizing (one)." 25 Immediately entering, she quickly asked the king, saying, "I wish that (right) now (you) should give to me on a platter the head of John the baptizing (one)." 26 Becoming grieved, the king because of his oath and his guests did not want to reject her. 27 Immediately sending out the executioner, the king ordered (the soldier) to carry (in John's) head, so departing, (the executioner) beheaded (john) in prison. 28 (The executioner) brought in (John's) head on a platter and gave it to the girl and the girl gave it to her mother. 29 Hearing (the news, John's) disciples came and took his body and placed it in a tomb.
6:23 "(He) declared a [solemn] oath to her" The word [solemn] is actually [great]. It appears in brackets to indicate it was a scriptural variant. In other words, it is questionable that the original text included it. More likely, a later scribe added it for dramatic emphasis.
In Mark 6, John found his demise at the hands of Herod Antipas. The reputation of Jesus had spread, for many compared him to the Baptist in message, possibly amplified with the Lord's healing ministry. Notice the comments others made about him would be echoed in response to the question "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:2729) Also notice Herod's reaction to the ministry of Jesus foreshadowed the Master's own fate, implicitly in his death, explicitly in his Resurrection.
The story of John's death was familiar but that fact masked the utter shame and depravity of the Antipas, Herodias and Salome. Antipas divorced his first wife, Phasaelis for Herodias; she climbed the social ladder by divorcing one brother (Herod II) to marry another. The Baptist objected to the remarriage not because it directly broke the Law, but because the adulterous affair the king and queen had before the marriage was so public, it scandalized the populace.
To silence John, the king arrested him. At the birthday party of Antipas, Herodias' daughter danced implicitly in a lewd manner, so as to become an object of desire. The craven Antipas promised anything to girl, even before those in his court! With that promise in hand, the girl consulted with her mother who insisted on the execution of John, a prospect he feared due to the threat of revolt. The incident proved the king was so weak, he was not even master of his own family, much less the court and the kingdom. Lust, not status, drove him.
The story of John's death only heightened his honor, compared with the shame of Antipas, his wife and his stepdaughter.
What does the message of the Baptist mean to you? How does Jesus help you to live out that message?