Jesus’ name became well known, and reached the ears of King Herod. ‘It’s John the Baptist,’ he said, ‘risen from the dead! That’s why these powers are at work in him.’ Other people said, ‘It’s Elijah!’ Others said, ‘He’s a prophet, like one of the old prophets.’ ‘No,’ said Herod when he heard this. ‘It’s John. I cut off his head, and he’s been raised.’ What had happened was this. Herod had married Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John regularly told Herod it wasn’t right for him to take his brother’s wife; so Herod gave the word, arrested him and tied him up in prison. Herodias kept up a grudge against him and wanted to kill him, but couldn’t; Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a just and holy man. So he protected him, and used to listen to him regularly. What he heard disturbed him greatly, and yet he enjoyed listening to him. And then, one day, the moment came. There was a great party. It was Herod’s birthday, and he gave a feast for his leading retainers, militia officers, and the great and good of Galilee. Herodias’s daughter came in and danced, and Herod and his guests were delighted. ‘Tell me what you’d like’, said the king to the girl, ‘and I’ll give it you!’ He swore to her, over and over again, ‘Whatever you ask me, I’ll give it you – right up to half my kingdom!’ She went out, and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ ‘The head of John the Baptist,’ she replied. So she went back at once to the king, all eager, and made her request: ‘I want you to give me, right now, on a dish – the head of John the Baptist!’ The king was distraught. But his oaths on the one hand, and his guests on the other, meant he hadn’t the guts to refuse her. So he sent a gaoler straight away with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought the head on a dish, and gave it to the girl. The girl gave it to her mother. When John’s followers heard about it, they came and took his body, and buried it in a tomb.
People sometimes have the idea that the world of the Bible is rather like the world of some old churches: quiet, serious, a bit old-fashioned, with nobody ever doing or saying anything to shock or frighten people. Sometimes, indeed, those who organize the biblical passages that are to be read out in churches seem deliberately to miss out the bits that might show how wrong that view is.
Certainly it’s a good job we haven’t missed out this passage, partly because it is indeed everything that people sometimes think the Bible is not and partly because it is quite important for the overall story Mark is telling us.
To begin with, of course, the behaviour of Herod and his family reads, even at two thousand years’ distance, like the sort of thing you’d find in the gossip pages of a trashy magazine. A newspaper reporter once told a friend of mine that the stories that sell best include sex, royalty and religion; and this one has them all. In spades.
To begin with, we have the puppet monarch Herod Antipas. He was not a patch on his father, Herod the Great (the Herod who, in Matthew 2, had the babies in Bethlehem all killed). Like many second-generation pseudo-royalty, Antipas had discovered that he could basically organize his little world however he wanted . . . and so he did.
Trouble was, what he really wanted were two things: one, to be recognized as the true ‘king of the Jews’; two, to have his brother’s wife, Herodias. He got the second: he obtained a quickie divorce from his first wife, a foreign princess, and presumably there was some trouble with his brother, but it was that kind of family anyway. But, once that was fixed, there was no way he could ever be recognized by any but the most cynical Jews as their long-awaited rightful king.
This is where John the Baptist came in. He had been announcing that God’s true king was on the way. And he made it only too clear that whoever this king might be it could not be old what’s-his-name up the road, because God’s anointed would never behave like that. So John was in trouble. Royalty, sex and religion: explosive.
But, like many men who act in haste and then have time to reflect, Herod found holiness and prophecy compelling. John fascinated him. Verse 20 may sound paradoxical, but it makes good psychological sense: Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a just and holy man (so unlike the people he normally associated with!); so he kept him safe and used to have him in and let him talk. ‘What he heard’, says Mark, ‘disturbed him greatly, and yet he enjoyed listening to him.’ That sounds like genuine court gossip to me; we can imagine the servants shaking their heads and saying, ‘Don’t know why he still asks for John – he always upsets him,’ and ‘Well, maybe, but he really enjoys listening to him. Must be a treat to hear someone telling the truth for once.’ And so on.
Until the fateful day. Here Mark is a little more coy: he only says that Herodias’s daughter ‘came in and danced’. But granted the reaction of Herod and his guests (all male, of course), we may imagine that she wasn’t just doing a sedate waltz round the room and back again. One thing leads to another, and, as the ancient Greeks knew, the twin forces of eros and thanatos – sex and death – seem to be all too close to each other. Herod loses his head, metaphorically speaking, and John loses his, literally.
Mark has not included this tale just to boost sales of his book. There are at least three jobs that this story is doing at this point within his narrative.
First, it highlights a key moment in Jesus’ own public career. It wasn’t only grief at the violent death of his cousin, though no doubt that was there as well. The rest of Jesus’ family didn’t seem to believe in him, and even John had had his doubts, but at least they were both firmly into the business of announcing God’s kingdom. John had prepared the way. Now, with him gone, Jesus was out on his own; and he must have seen John’s fate as a signpost pointing towards his own. That, no doubt, was what he wanted to ponder when he tried, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to go away for a while with his closest friends (verse 31).
Second, this story, with John’s denunciation of Herod’s marital arrangements, prepares us for the implications of the discussion in chapter 10 about ‘divorce’. This wasn’t an abstract question of ethics. Jesus’ questioners were trying to get him to say the same kind of thing that John had done, perhaps with the same consequences. In refusing, Jesus nevertheless managed to give some extremely clear and crisp teaching on marriage, which to this day slices through sloppy and self-serving ‘thinking’ with the sharp knife of a genuinely creational message: this is how God made us, this is how we should be (10.2–12).
Third, Mark is contrasting the genuine kingdom-work of Jesus and his followers (verses 7–13) with the horrible parody of ‘kingdom’ you could find then, and can still find, in the palaces of the irresponsible rich, where women are cheap and human life even cheaper. Some people think Mark has written up this story so as to place all the blame not on Herod, but on his wife and stepdaughter. Poor old Herod – led on by a seductive dancer and outwitted by a scheming, vengeful spouse! But this misses the point. Herod remained in charge. His father hadn’t stopped at killing his own wife if she offended him, and he himself hadn’t stopped at divorcing his previous wife when he tired of her. Herod could do what he wanted. He is the villain here all right.
And he shows, in all its typical gory detail, what the wrong sort of kingdom looks like. Mark allows the story to make its impact, not least to highlight, in the passage that follows, what the true kingdom is like. When he says that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were ‘like a flock without a shepherd’ (verse 34), this is a deliberately pointed comment. There was already an official ‘shepherd’, that is, a ‘king’, but he was far too busy ogling women and killing prophets to take any notice of the hungry crowds.
Give us, sovereign Lord, leaders in church and state who will serve your people rather than themselves, and who will listen to the challenge of your word.