One of the blessings modern commentators on the gospels offer is an understanding that a human author is at work along with the Holy Spirit in composing the story. We’re reading today the dramatic story of the death of John the Baptist from the Gospel of Mark. I’m following Fr. John Donahue’s commentary on Mark’s Gospel in the Sacra Pagina series published by Liturgical Press.
As the story of John’s death begins, Donahue sees Mark still aware of the rejection Jesus experienced in his hometown of Nazareth. Now, Herod Antipas “has heard about Jesus, for his fame had become widespread and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.’” Others were saying, “He is Elijah,” still others, “He is a prophet like any of the prophets.” But when Herod learned of it, he said, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” (Mark 6:14-29)
The people of Nazareth may dismiss Jesus but Herod Antipas, who’s got his ear to the ground and agents everywhere, does not. Jesus was someone to be reckoned with.
“No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said at Nazareth.
Mark places John’s death at this point in his gospel to indicate that the rejection Jesus faces at Nazareth and other Galilean towns will culminate in his death. The leaders of the people will decree it. Some like Pontius Pilate and Herod himself do it hesitantly.
Herod, in fact, “feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” (Mark 6:20) Some in his court became followers of Jesus. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward, Chuza, followed Jesus to Jerusalem (Luke 8:3),
Others in Herod’s circle, however, became his enemies. Early on, the Pharisees seek out “Herodians” as allies to put Jesus to death, Mark notes. ( Mark 3,16) Then there are Herodias and her dancing daughter.
John’s death foreshadows that of Jesus. He’s taken prisoner to Herod’s fortress of Macherius near the Dead Sea and his disciples scatter. He’s beheaded, without a fair trial – an innocent man dies alone. “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb,”
John’s death was also reported by a contemporary Jewish historian, Josephus, and according to him Herod, alarmed at John’s popularity with the people, “decided to strike first and be rid of him before it led to an uprising.” ( Antiquities18.118) It’s simply a pragmatic political decision.
Mark’s account, a favorite of artists and filmmakers and one of the great stories of literature, rises above politics. Venerable Bede says that John’s death is like Jesus’ death because they both embraced the same values. If John stayed silent about Herod’s conduct, he may have gained a few peaceful years of life, but he was more concerned with what God thought than what powerful people on earth thought.
“His persecutor had demanded not that he should deny Christ, but only that he should keep silent about the truth. Nevertheless, he died for Christ. Does Christ not say: I am the truth?
“He preached the freedom of heavenly peace, yet was thrown into irons by ungodly men; he was locked away in the darkness of prison, though he came bearing witness to the Light of life.
“But heaven notices – not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.” (Bede, Homily)
In contrast, Herod careful about the opinion of his guests, weakly gives in to Herodias’s vengefulness. Human sinfulness is on display in this banquet at court. The artist above describes it rather well. The women smugly presenting John’s head. The man pointing his finger at Herod and Herod denying it all. John’ eyes are still open, his mouth still speaks.
Wonderful line: “Heaven notices – not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.”