A dish not on the menu – Friday, 4th week in ordinary time – Mark 6:14-29
Today’s Gospel finally answers a question that has been holding the reader in suspense since Mark 1:14. Mark who had hinted at the political arrest of St John the Baptist earlier saved the full report until chapter 6. In Mark chapter 1 he had reported, “now after John was arrested…” after that we do not hear of John the Baptist till this moment. Now having heard of him and his gruesome death we are bound to ask the question; where is the good news in Mark 6:14-29? The passage is sickening even when told as a flashback. This was certainly a b-day; not birth day but beheading day.
The text of today is sandwiched between the mission of the twelve (6:6b-13) and its conclusion in 6:30. Mark sandwiches the martyrdom story within the mission story for a reason. The disciples’ mission is quite successful (6:12-13). Mark wants to reassures us that God’s work continues unabated even in the face of the martyrdom of a great servant like John the Baptist. More than any one, Mark’s church needed to hear this because they too were suffering through a great persecution. We need to hear it too, because we, like God’s people through the ages, are prone to interpret difficult times as a sign that God is either impotent or uncaring.
The villain here is quite obvious. Herod Antipas is not really king, but a tetrarch. That term originally meant “one of four rulers,” but came to mean a governor with limited authority. Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea (Matthew 14:1; Luke 9:7). His brother, Archelaus, ruled over Judea and Samaria and a half-brother, Philip, ruled over Gentile territories on the far side of the Jordan River and northeast of Galilee.
Herod Antipas ruled at Rome’s pleasure, and was subject to Rome’s guidance. He reigned from 4 B.C., but was finally deposed and sent into exile in 36 A.D. Herod’s forty-year reign came to an ignominious end not long after his involvement in the deaths of John and Jesus. Most people, like Herod, think they can mess around with people lives till they meet their Waterloo! Herod who thought he was invincible, met his!
The reason given by Mark for John the Baptist’s killing differs considerably from that of the Jewish historian Josephus. According to the latter, Herod was alarmed at John’s popularity and feared a rebellion if he were not stopped. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising.
Now, what Herod was hearing about Jesus disturbed him. Once again, his fears got the better of him. In less than two years he was to be complicit in the death of Jesus. When Pilate tried to evade responsibility for the execution of Jesus, he sent him to Herod, the ruler of Galilee, to try him.
The Gospel of today also tells us that Herod made an unwise promise and his pride would not let him back down. As a result, John’s head is served up on a dish as if it were part of the menu. John the Baptist was a channel of grace for King Herod, and the king ‘liked to listen to him’. But the people around Herod, and his own unruly appetites, got in the way. Doesn’t that sound so familiar? Do I get trapped too, and then act out of my lack of freedom?
So, what can we learn from today’s Gospel?
1. The passion of John, the precursor, ends in death. The passion of Jesus, the Messiah end in resurrection. The last word for a Christian is not good Friday but Easter Sunday. We are not called to stand around and sigh at the foot of the cross but to walk in hope to the empty tomb.
2. The Gospel tells the sordid story of the final hours of John the Baptist, beheaded for a frivolous promise of Herod. St Paul in his letter to the Hebrews reminds us to ‘remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them’. We remember Fr Stan Swamy and the many political activists who stand for justice and truth.
3. All of life is a choice and what we choose to focus can motivate us or demoralize us. Herod’s banquet is only the first of two in Mark 6. Jesus hosts the second, in the middle of nowhere for thousands of nobodies with nothing to offer save five loaves and two fish. At that feast greed and fear have no place. There all are fed to the full, with leftovers beyond comprehension (6:30-44).
4. Finally, this story serves another purpose as well. John the Baptist speaks the truth, and this account tells us the consequences of pronouncing those truths. So, even while we affirm with Jesus that the truth will make you free (John 8:32), we also must recognise that it may get you arrested and killed. The deaths of John and Jesus warn us that God does not always reward faithful discipleship with an easy life. The prophetic Christian might be beheaded, crucified, thrown to the lions, expelled from college, fired from a job and may be required to apologize for having only spoken the truth. The truth-teller’s road is narrow and filled with potholes. We should not expect applause for preaching prophetically.
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