The cost of discipleship

Pentecost 6
Mark 6:14-29
Marian Free

In the name of God who calls us to serve, regardless of the cost. Amen.

Though the account of the death of John the Baptist stands as a story on its own, when seen in context, it reads as if it is an interruption to Mark’s narrative. Mark has just described the sending out of the twelve disciples. The story of the Baptist’s death is introduced in relation to Herod’s hearing of what Jesus was doing. However verse thirty continues on from verse 13. The disciples return from their mission and report to Jesus about their experiences: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught.” Mark fills in the time between the sending out of the disciples and their return with the gruesome story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist.

Herod who has heard what Jesus is doing is apparently struck by a guilty conscience. Could this miracle worker be Jesus is John the Baptist now raised from the dead? Though Mark reports that there are a number of explanations for Jesus’ power – he is Elijah returned, or simply a prophet – Mark returns to Herod who is obviously convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist whom he executed.

Mark interrupts his story about the disciples’ mission, because – to this point – he has made no mention of John’s death. John can only be raised if he has first died, so the author of Mark needs to record how John died. John has to have died, if he has now risen. Mark also uses this opportunity to introduce the anti-Herodian sentiment that existed among the Jews.

Herod’s family would make good content for a soap opera. Herod is one of Herod the Great’s ten children. Herodias is the granddaughter of Herod the Great. This means that Herodias is not only the wife first of one and then another son of the same father, she is also the niece to both of them. Her daughter, presumably from her first marriage, then marries a third of the brothers – Phillip (her great uncle). No wonder the Jews were affronted. Herodias has divorced a husband to marry his brother. This, to the Jews, is akin to committing adultery.  The ambitious behaviour of the women of this family was a further cause for offense. Not only does Herodias abandon her husband, but she apparently encourages her daughter (a princess, no less) to degrade herself by dancing before an all male company including her step-father. (Respectable women did not join men at a banquet, let alone dance for them.)

It is not surprising then, that John should have taken it on himself to call Herod and Herodias to account. Nor is it surprising that Herodias in particular should have taken affront. The couple had reason to feel insecure enough to want to silence John. When Herod divorced his first wife, she fled to her father Aretas IV of Nabatea. Nabatea bordered Herod’s territory and Herod was worried that Aretas might launch a revenge attack. The last thing he needed was a disturbance at home, whipped up by a troublesome prophet.

Herod and Herodias differed as to what should be done. According to Mark’s account, Herod was both attracted to and perplexed by John’s teaching, he wanted to avoid riots, but not to the extent of killing the Baptist. Herodias, perhaps worried that Herod would divorce her, in order to avoid the Nabatean attack, wanted the Baptist dead. She bides her time and then seizes her opportunity which comes when Herod holds a banquet for leading figures in his court and in the community. Perhaps she knows his weakness for a pretty face. In a move that would have been considered quite improper, she sends her daughter to dance for the men. Herod is so captivated that he offers an extravagant reward (probably not half his kingdom, but something extremely generous). The daughter appears not to have been fully let into her mother’s plan. She needs to seek her advice. Herodias is ready – she wants John’s head. To this request the daughter adds that John’s head be brought on a platter, a particularly gruesome detail in the context of a banquet.

Herod is caught. If he breaks his promise not only he will lose face but he faces the risk of incurring a curse and so, reluctantly, he complies with the request.

There are a number of details about Mark’s account which have been called into question its historicity. Compared with the Jewish historian Josephus, Mark has a number of inaccuracies – the place of death, the name of Herod’s brother, and the likelihood of a princess dancing at a banquet. In addition, the story has elements of folk-lore. It is reminiscent of Old Testament stories like that of Elijah and Jezebel, and also of Greco-Roman stories of love, revenge, rash oaths and women asking for what kings would rather not give in the context of royal banquets. While we can’t vouch for its historical accuracy, what we can say for certain is that Herod had the Baptist arrested and that Herod executed John.

Coming as it does after the account of the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth, Mark’s record of the Baptist’s death alerts the reader to the fact that should Jesus continue his current trajectory, he too risks causing the degree of offense which could lead to death. In fact there are a number of similarities between Jesus’ passion and that of Jesus’ death. The weak Herod is mirrored in the weak Pilate. Both are anxious to avoid a riot, both know that the accused do not deserve death and yet, they do not have the courage to stand by their convictions. The deaths of both John and Jesus are a public affair, and in both cases their disciples recover their bodies to give them a decent burial.

Throughout the ages, saints and martyrs have discovered that there is a cost to speaking the truth and that challenging unjust or repressive regimes can lead to imprisonment and even death. Those who have gained power by devious or irregular means do not take easily to criticism or confrontation and will try to eliminate any opposition. Despite the risks, prophets in every age have had the clarity of vision, the certainty of purpose and the courage of our convictions to identify injustice and to confront it, to discern moral laxity and to challenge it. You and I may or may not be called to put our lives on the line for what we believe. That does not mean we can afford to be complacent. We are called, in every circumstance to seek the will of God and to strive to fulfill it in the face of opposition from family and friends and the society around us. We pray that God will not bring us to the time of trial. Let us also pray, that should the occasion demand it, we will not shrink from speaking and living the truth, no matter what the cost might be.

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