The Gospel passage for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost in Year B is Mark’s rather gory story of John’s beheading at the request of Herod’s wife via Herodias, his daughter. (The identities of Herod, Herodias [the mother] and Herodias [the daughter] are titles. For “Herod” we can read “the king” and for the two “Herodias,” “the queen” and “the princess.”) The mother despised John because John told Herod that “it is not lawful to have your brother’s wife.” And Herod listened to John. What might have happened if he had not executed John? What did happen in his heart when he thought John, whom he had executed, had been raised?
After John was executed, his disciples “came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” This is language used in the passion and death of Jesus. It is a foreshadowing of things to come. As with John, Herod was complicit in Jesus’ execution. He let it happen rather than directly ordering it. Is that what hardened Herod’s heart? He did recognize John as righteous and seemed to se him as a rabbi. Yet he had John beheaded and still proclaimed that John had been raised. Was Herod’s “heart hardened” thus later leading him to dismiss Jesus so easily?
Mark opens the passage telling us that Jesus was being called Elijah, who had returned to save his people. Others thought Jesus was John the Baptist, who had been raised. Others said Jesus was a prophet “like one of the prophets of old.” So, there was much confusion among those who had heard of Jesus as to his identity
So Mark is asking the question, “who is this man?” He is asking it of all who hear his Gospel. He raises the question in the context of telling us the details of John the Baptist’s execution, The part of the story about John the Baptist is also a flashback. For what purpose? It is the story of executions of prophetic rabbis within Judaism of that day. And it is the prophetic story of the cost of Judeo-Christian discipleship.
There is bargaining in this story, just as there is bargaining around Jesus’ execution. Here, it is the princess bargaining with the king. In the story of Jesus death, it is Herod bargaining with Pilate. Who would order and take responsibility for Jesus’ execution? In both cases, Herod is reluctant to be part of the execution. In the case of John, he orders it and directly sees the consequences. In the case of Jesus, he lets Pilate order it and, probably, hears about the consequences.
So what is Mark saying to us? What do we get out of the story? One way of approaching it is by assuming one role or another while reflecting on the story. Am I the passive John the Baptist? Am I the troubled Herod whom, Mark implies, has a troubled conscience over what he has ordered? (Does that troubled conscience extend to his part in Jesus’ death?) There is Herod’s wife and his daughter. And there are John’s disciples. (Do some of those become Jesus’ disciples?). There are the guests, who are there to celebrate Herod’s birthday?
Whom do I initially identify with? (Here is the personal question.) I am one of the guests. I stand by in the midst of the celebration, too frightened to say anything even as I have been one of those with questions about the wild prophet. John, as prophet, risks his life to remind Herod of the seriousness of the Law. I am a Jewish friend (because Herod was Jewish). But I am a friend with insufficient commitment to my religion and to the Law to courageously join John. I do not stand and join John in proclaiming Truth to Power. I do not stand in support of John in his prophetic role. In this weakness I too ignore the Law, the Way to which I am called. Mark is telling us of the tragic consequences that can result from this way of living. Perhaps, in this flashback, he is telling us that we need to stand with the prophet.
However, this story of John the Baptist’s beheading is so graphic and captivating that we forget the preamble: the mystery of who Jesus, the healer, is. Is he John the baptizer, or Elijah, or a new prophet in the line of the great prophets of Israel? Just as the story of the beheading of John is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own passion and death so too is this preamble a foreshadowing of Mark 8: 27- 29. Here the question is left open as we move into the drama of John’s beheading.. In Mark 8 we get the disciples’ report of what the people are saying. In Mark 8, Peter answers the followup question: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter gives the answer that Jesus’ disciples give if they are truly his disciples. He is the Messiah. In this preamble Jesus cannot and does not order his disciples not to tell anyone of this revelation. Neither Jesus nor the disciples are directly part of the story. In Mark 8, they are and so we are left with another instance of the messianic secret.
Because of the drama of the story, it is easy to focus on John’s beheading in today’s reading. (That is where my thoughts focused.) Perhaps the preamble is more important. It does not involve Jesus’ disciples and their realization of Jesus as the Messiah. But we do have two foreshadowings in this passage: that of Peter’s confession of Jesus as messiah and that of Jesus’ passion and death. The entire story of Mark 6: 14-29 is about John the Baptist, who is not the Messiah. Mark 8: 27 – 30 and the story of Jesus’ passion and death are about Jesus. In the first the people mistakenly identify Jesus as John. In the latter, Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Messiah. In the first, the people do not get it but nonetheless a prophet is beheaded. In the second, the people still do not get it but Jesus is executed because he, like John, is dangerous to the established order.
Both are dramatic illustrations of Mark’s previous commentary that prophets are not appreciated in their own land.