By Jared A. Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
Mark 6:14–29 (NRSV) 
The Death of John the Baptist
(Mt 14:1–12; Lk 9:7–9)
14 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 The king was deeply grieved; 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 week has been interesting for me. It was not because I have been abnormally busy, or less busy. It has just been different. I watched a friend get recognized for his accomplishments, I helped a few people, and basically tried to not get overly worked up about much. Of course, the news tends to get my mind going, which is not always a good thing. I notice when I spend too much time with the news my stress level increases, I get irritated and annoyed. Mainly because there is always an opinion and my opinion is often not popular among my friends.
Today we meet with Jesus after his trip home, after the trip across the sea to the Hellenistic portion of Palestine, and his return to Capernaum. During this trip he had cast out troublesome demons, healed the sick (some of which had chronic illnesses), and even raised one little girl from the dead. This sort of thing would cause many people to talk. These sorts of things do not happen often, so when the news of a person doing these feats begin to circulate there tends to be opinions circulating with it. It did not take long for the news of Jesus to get to the highest levels of society.
It is not hard to believe the types of stories that would circulate around the activities of Jesus. Some had already begun to speak out against him, the crowds were so large at one point that prominent members of society were not able to get to the table. This hangry lawyer cried out that Jesus was not a righteous person but the prince of demons. This of course was not the overall theory of the masses. There were other ideas floating around. Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, had zeroed in on one of the ideas. Herod believed that Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead.
Before we get too far into this I find it odd that this was one of the top opinions among the first century Jewish community. We often have this idea that the Jewish community was this unified religion, but it was not. They like many institutions had various factions. We know of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and have heard of the Essenes. We had even heard about the religious/political faction called the Herodians. This group was a Hellenistic Jewish group that sought for an independent Jewish nation under the leadership of the Herodian dynasty. There is not a great deal of information about this group, and some historians believe that they were the Essences. These historians say this because Herod was said to have enjoyed listening to the teachings of this group. If this were true, and if John the Baptist was an Essene as other scholars believe, Mark does say that Herod did enjoy listening to John. I do not agree with this idea, because much of the Essene thoughts seem to be opposed to the popular philosophies.
The family of Herod were not birthright Jews. They were from Edom. Herod and his family were converts to the faith, they were God fearing outsiders that were intrigued by the ancient faith. The Greeks were also intrigued, they formed a hybrid of faith and philosophy. And that faith became championed by one of their own, the converted king of the Jews. The things about converts is that at times old superstitions creep back. Herod thought that Jesus could be the reincarnation of John the Baptist. Herod was fearful of this because if John the Baptist left the afterlife to return to earth, he would have left for a reason, maybe to seek out revenge. The idea of reincarnation was not widely accepted in Jewish tradition, but it was there.
They hybridization of philosophy, religion and politics. It is something that goes to the dawn of civilization. It was something that Jesus and those in the first century endured, and it continues to this day. All the major sects under the Hebrew umbrella had some twist on the recipe, and as a result were chastened for it. The danger of the union of these factors is that often we forget where the line between the three is drawn. We have a philosophy and we think that that idea or system of thought is equal to our spiritual practice. Or we have a political stance and we feel that it is a God ordained stance, even when that stance is contrary to the words of scripture. We are faithful to our religion but is that of God or man?
This is who Herod is. He has a group of religious zealots that do all they can to maintain his political power and he encourages them and uses them for his benefit. He allows them to twist sacred documents to suit his needs, and if there is opposition he takes a play out of his father’s playbook, he removes the opposition by force. The marriage of philosophy, religion and politics often results in that end. It often is based on power and control over others, and the only way to maintain control is to wield fear. This is why Jesus says his kingdom is not of this world. Jesus was building a kingdom of love and says that perfect love cast out all fear. The lives lived under the influence of Jesus do not fear the world, but they change the world out of love.
John the Baptist opposed Herod, he called Herod an adulterer. He said that it was not lawful for him to be married to his brother’s wife. John the Baptist threatened the power and influenced of the sitting political entity and those involved in this scandalous relationship were not pleased. Yet, Herod did not oppose John. Mark tells us that John perplexed Herod, and the king enjoyed listening to John, though he did not always agree. But his wife, held a grudge against him. She wanted the prophet dead, but Herod knew that John was a popular figure, so he instead imprisoned the teacher because to execute a popular figure could bring negative consequences.
Herod was intrigued by the religious teaching, but the words he heard did not reach the depths of his soul. Herod was interested in power and influence. He would use religion as a tool in his quest for power, but lust held sway over his heart. He married his sister-in-law who was also his niece, and he enjoyed the provocative dancing of his step-daughter. He exploited his step-daughter to expand his influence. Herod was a twisted man. He manipulated everything with the hopes of increasing his power.
Exploitation and fear, these are not the tools of the righteous but tools of the adversary. John spoke against this man for this very reason. It is not lawful for him to be married to his wife, it is incestuous and adulterous. Though John spoke out against this man, Herod continued to use his skills to manipulate and garner influence. He had a party to celebrate his birthday, and the most influential leaders where present, both secular and religious. For the entertainment he brought out his daughter to dance. The term used to explain the daughter is one that implies that she is too young to marry, she is a child. In ancient times this would mean that she was around twelve, and this twelve-year-old girl is performing erotic dances for the men of power in Galilee. And they were very pleased with her dancing, so much so that Herod pledged to her anything she wanted up to half of his kingdom. I want us to stop and consider this statement for a moment. This type of pledge was given to others in Jewish history, Esther was promised anything up to half the kingdom. This statement implies that Herod was willing to make his step-daughter his queen if she so desired. The thought of that sickens me.
Luckily, she was too young to realize what her step-father was saying, so she sought the advice of her mother. And her mother, who held a grudge asked from the girl to demand the head of the Baptist. The mother sought to silence the dissenting voice that threatened to topple their religious political machine. And Herod obliged.
There is much we can learn from the martyrdom of John the Baptist. The first is that our faith cannot be wedded with political systems. Faith must be free from political influences. Because faith is to be the aspect of our lives that causes us to stop and think, to examine our intent when it comes to politics. Often on the radio and internet I will hear commentators saying that social justice is a code word for socialism. I say no. Social Justice is ministry. If we are being true to our faith, if we are truly following the life and lifestyle of Christ, we should be active in providing justice to the least of these among us. We should be feeding those who are without food and ask for help, we should clothe those that are lacking proper attire, we are to give water to the thirsty. If we do these things we are bringing light to the injustices of our society and raising awareness of the areas our society often fall short. I have seen political philosophy enter religious institutions and silence stop these ministries making the institution nothing more than a political pawn to power instead of a center of hope and mercy.
The second thing we can learn from the death of John, is that there is a time where we must speak out against the powers of our society. Herod was a corrupt and evil man parading around as righteous. He had an entire sect within the Jewish culture that believed he should be and was their God ordained king. God does use the kingdoms of this world, he does ordain governments for reasons. But at times those ordained powers of this world are not always in place to dictate faith. Sometimes God ordains human governmental structures to highlight the corruption and sinfulness within a culture. Our job as disciples and Friends of Christ is to discern the difference. If the words and actions oppose the ways of God, we must protest and speak out against the injustice. John spoke out against the lust of the king. He cried out to Herod and the rest of the Jewish faithful to repent for the kingdom of God is near. And in those sermons on the banks of the Jordan he spoke of the injustice of those occupying the seats of power.
The third thing we can learn from John is that we should not be afraid. Lucretia Mott was a Quaker activist and preacher prior to the civil war. She was an advocate of the abolition of slavery and a supporter of women’s rights. She was even part of a delegation that went to England to promote the abolition of slavery. She once said, “If our principles are right, why should we be cowards?” There are things important to God, and there are things important to those controlling seats of power. If we are focused on what is important to God, why should we be afraid of man? Fear and force are the tools of the adversary they are contrary to God. God stands for justice and mercy. God stands for equality. Ms. Mott stood up for those that were oppressed in our nation. She spoke boldly at a time when women did not even have the right to vote and she made a difference. Her boldness inspired others, including her cousin Levi Coffin to do more. And Levi put his money and life on the line, he was a conductor on the underground railroad, and refused to sell any good that benefited from the labor of slaves. Meaning he found cotton that was produced only by free men, he would only use dyes that were produced only by wage earners and produce that was not harvested by people in bondage. John the Baptist saw that Herod was exploiting and manipulating and he spoke against it. He saw that Herod was claiming righteousness yet living a lifestyle fulfilling the lusts of his heart, so John boldly spoke against it. God desires justice and mercy, not exploitation and manipulation. God rules with love, not fear.
When Herod heard of Jesus, he was filled with dread. He thought that Jesus was John reanimated. He thought that through Jesus John would have his revenge. As a result, Herod began to watch the news to keep tabs on this traveling preacher. What would Jesus do, what would he say? Would Herod’s dynasty come to an end because of a revolt lead by religious zealots he could not control?
As we enter this time of open worship and communion in the manner of Friends, I encourage us all to consider who leads us. Are we being led by worldly concepts and desires or are we being directed by the Spirit of God? Are we using our politics to manipulate the faithful or are we listening to the Spirit of God to boldly stand and minister to those in need? If our principles are right why should we be cowards? Will we like John, stand for what is right even in the face of death?
Image from: http://livingthelectionary.blogspot.com/2012/07/pentecost-7b-mark-614-29.html Viewed July 15, 2018