The story of the death of John the Baptist is like something out of Game of Thrones: a senseless death, the result of manipulation and revenge with a little lust thrown in.
The gospel of Mark tells how John had been arrested by King Herod because he spoke out against him, particularly being critical of Herod marrying his brother’s wife Herodias. Herod was a little fearful of John, being a holy man with the support of the people, so he held him prison, but wouldn’t execute him.
But Herodias had other plans. At a party, Herod asks Herodias’s daughter Salome to dance for him but she refuses. He promise her anything she wants and she agrees to dance. She asks her mother what she should ask for and she says “the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” She does and, not wanting to be embarrassed in front of his guests, Herod reluctantly agrees. No more John. (Mark 6:17-29)
The author of Mark introduces this story with a “who is Jesus?” moment (Mark 6:14-16). Jesus had been touring around the countryside, ministering to people, healing, casting out demons and performing many miracles. He’d become something of a celebrity – except in his hometown – and people were wondering who he could be: a prophet, Elijah returned or perhaps John “who has been raised from the dead.” Herod, it seems, believed that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” The story of John’s death follows.
This is the gospel that gives us the word “gospel,” opening with “the beginning of the good news [literally, gospel] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” It is tirelessly about Jesus, the work of Jesus and only things of direct impact on Jesus, his ministry and its meaning and here’s a pretty lengthy passage that has nothing at all to do with Jesus. It seems to be a senseless and undeserved death. So why the elaborate story? I’m not questioning that it’s “true,” I just wonder why the author took the time to include it.
I think the answer is power. The kind of power to which Jesus, like John, lived to speak truth. Remember, Jesus wasn’t the kind of messiah everyone might have expected. They were hoping for a great warrior king – one like David would be good – who would lead a mighty army against the Romans, throw off the shackles of an oppressive occupier and restore the glory of Israel. They got Jesus. Someone who, just a few verses before this story, was described by his hometown as a local carpenter, the son of poor people, who couldn’t possibly be capable of the wisdom or gifts he claims. (Mark 6:1-6) Jesus was about a different kind of power.
And in this story, who really has power? Is it the one with the soldiers, the one we keep calling a “king” but isn’t really? Herod only had power because the Romans allowed it. And he wasn’t a king, he was a local ruler called a tetrarch – literally, “ruler of a quarter.” The Romans subdivided the territory into quarters and Herod had one. But in this moment, even that kind of power is useless to him. He is powerless with Salome. She has something Herod wants. Herod has nothing she wants, but perhaps the feeling of power over him is enough to act. And then she is persuaded by her mother to ask for John’s head.
Despite John having a little power of his own – that Herod is afraid of him – it is not enough to match Herodias’s desire for his death. Perhaps that was inspired by malicious revenge or a calculated fear of his outspoken criticism of her and her husband, either way, she uses her power to ensure that Salome uses her power to end John.
And here’s two thoughts about power that make this story valuable.
First, Herodias and Salome didn’t end John. Right away, some believed (including Herod) that Jesus was John risen from the dead. And long after Herodias and Salome were gone and forgotten, except as a footnote in the story of John’s death, people were still telling stories about the Baptizer who proclaimed the coming of the messiah. The power of John’s message long outlived them.
Second, this kind of power is not defeated by force of arms, finances or status. It’s defeated in the kind of life Jesus teaches: love, respect and compassion for our neighbour, repentance, forgiveness and grace and, most important of all, a willingness to risk speaking truth to that power.