We’re reading today the dramatic story of John the Baptist’s death from the Gospel of Mark. (Mark 6:14-29) It follows the rejection Jesus faced 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.”
“No prophet is without honor except in his native place,” Jesus said at Nazareth. The people of Nazareth may dismiss Jesus but Herod Antipas, who’s got his ear to the ground and agents everywhere, does not. For him Jesus was someone to be reckoned with.
Mark places John’s death at this spot in his gospel to indicate that the rejection Jesus faces at Nazareth and other Galilean towns will culminate in his death. The powers that be decree it, even though 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 even 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 a simple pragmatic political decision.
The site of John’s death, east of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Jordan, was lost for more than a thousand years after it was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 71/72 A.D. It was definitively identified in 1968, when a German scholar discovered the remains of a Roman siege wall. Since then, the Hungarian architect and archaeologist Dr Győző Vörös has been excavating the site.
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’s more concerned with what God thinks than what powerful people think.
“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 noting only the opinion of his guests, gives in to Herodias’s vengefulness. Human sinfulness is on display in this banquet at court, which the artist (Above) describes very 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 from Bede: “Heaven notices – not the span of our lives, but how we live them, speaking the truth.”