The lectionary breaks up the flow of the gospels so that some pronouns, especially at the start of the day’s gospel appear to have no antecedent nouns. This is the situation in this morning’s gospel which begins, King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known.
The it, refers to the previous section in this chapter in which Jesus had gone through the villages in Galilee where he taught and cured, then he sent out his disciples two by two, and they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons and anointed …many sick and cured them. Jesus’ fame had spread, and his followers carried his message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. But, as with Jesus’ own extended family in Nazareth who thought he was out of his mind, Herod did not welcome the news.
Like John the baptizer who had appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4) Jesus’ own disciples preached the same repentance.
Some were saying about Jesus, that, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” In their attempts to identify who Jesus was (a continuing theme in Mark’s gospel) some referenced Elijah who lived in the 9th century BCE and who threatened and admonished royal power (1Kings 17-19 and 2 Kings 1-2). or another, generic, prophet. Clearly, they regarded Jesus as a holy man. But for Herod, the similarities in the message of repentance reminded him of someone more recent… John the baptizer, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
Jesus’ and John’s stories were linked. John had been Jesus’ forerunner. Their messages of repentance were similar. God had identified Jesus with the words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” when John had baptised him, but the message was yet to be heard and understood by others, including Herod.
At this point, Mark provides a flashback: 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. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not, 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.
One gets the impression of Herod as a person torn between his appetites and his understanding of what was right. He recognized John as someone who was righteous and holy. Still, he did not like John telling the world that he had done wrong by taking the wife of his brother and marrying her. And, when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, yet he liked to listen to John. At one level, he knew that he had offended God and societal norms, and he was trying to ‘square the circle’. Mark’s portrayal shows Herod as a classic case of the divided self.
But then Herodias reappeared. An opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When the daughter of 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.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” 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.”
Herodias appears as a gruesome and self-centred person, willing to redirect the extravagant offer that Herod had made to her daughter to her own interest of revenge, even if that revenge had the potential to later traumatize her own daughter. (Giving a child the head of a man whose life she had asked for certainly had the potential for nightmares.)
The king was deeply grieved; The request was a surprising redirection of his expectations. He had likely thought that the girl would ask for jewelry or perhaps an exotic pet. He may have also recognized that if he fulfilled the request it would burden her with guilt.
Herod had been content to hold John in prison, because doing so curtailed John’s ability to speak publicly and harm his reputation. As the gospel had noted earlier, Herod feared John…a righteous and holy man... When he heard him talk he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.
One imagines that Herod had John brought to him from time to time, probably in chains, then he dismissed the guards and spoke with John. John, for his part, may have set aside speaking in fiery condemnation and used scripture and pleading to try to persuade Herod to change his ways.
Despite being deeply grieved, out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, Herod did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.
When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Herod’s inability to do what was right mirrors the attitude of the rich young man who turns away from Jesus when he is invited to sell all he has, give it to the poor and come follow me. But when he heard this he was sad…(Luke 18:22-23)
This episode anticipates Jesus’ own crucifixion. Death was sometimes the price of truth-telling to authorities, whether they were public or religious authorities. The moral conviction of John and Jesus had the twofold effect of convicting the authorities and resulting in their deaths.