“For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man” Mark 6:20
We read the Gospel passage from Mark Chapter 6 and we say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord” and there must be at least a few people who ask, “How on earth is there any good news in that story? What good news can there be in the brutal decapitation of John the Baptist?” Four words beginning with “H” help reflection on this ghastly story: horrible, Herod, Herodias, and hope
When Herod hears of Jesus, he says in Saint Mark Chapter 6 Verse 16, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” The death of John is a horrible story, but it is told because at the heart of any good news, there has to be truth, and one of the things this story does is to tell the truth about human nature.
Pursuing its own inclinations, human nature leads to brutal killings. The story reflects the reality of the world: the world where ruthlessness triumphs, where cold calculation and indifference to the needs of others are recipes for success.
Jesus is fully conversant with the realities of the world. He does not send his disciples out as a group of well-meaning innocents. “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves”, he says in Saint Matthew Chapter 10 Verse 16. Jesus wants his followers to use all their intellect and all the skills at their disposal. He wants them to be people of decency and honesty and integrity and kindness, but at the same time he wants them to be hard-headed realists who can hold their own in a hostile world. Read the story of the murder of John the Baptist—this is the reality of human nature in the world. This is the world into which Christians are called to carry the good news of Jesus.
The world is one in which horrible things happen. Unless there is a preparedness to face up to that which is horrible, people are not going to be very good followers of Jesus.
Herod is the worst of rulers, a bully who is lacking in consistency and lacking in integrity. Herod marries his brother’s wife and John the Baptist has condemned him for breaking the law. In Saint Mark Chapter 6 Verses 17-18, it says “For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.'”
Like any bully, Herod is frightened by those who stand up to him, but he is also fascinated by John. Verse 20, Mark writes “For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
Herod is a man of no consistency, he gets drunk and makes a rash promise to Herodias’ daughter, in Verse 23, “he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.'” When he realizes what he has promised he is upset, but he has not the integrity to refuse, so in Verse 26-27, there is the grim outcome, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head.”
Herod is a lesson that Christians are people who should be consistent, that they should be seen as people of integrity.
Herodias is a ruthless woman. Herodias has gained her position of power by illegal means. She was Herod’s sister-in-law and has contracted a marriage to Herod that has been declared unlawful. Herodias knows that John the Baptist carries great sway with public opinion. She knows that he has capacity for causing her great trouble. Verse 19 says, “And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not.”
Herodias is a political opportunist easily able to outwit Herod, Verse 21 tells of Herodias seeing her chance, “But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee.” Herod is surrounded by his cronies and promises Herodias’ daughter, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” The daughter is as calculating as her mother, “What should I ask for?” she asks in Verse 24, and Herodias replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” The daughter is even more cruel than her mother, Saint Mark writes in Verse 25, “Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'”
Herodias is a reminder that there are people in the world of whom Christians should be wary, people whom they should not trust.
Horrible, Herod, Herodias: if this is a Gospel story, there must be hope. It ends sadly in Verse 29, that when John’s “disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” Herod himself points towards the possibility of hope in Verse 16 when he says, “”John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Even Herod believes God will raise people.
Christians must always be people of hope because no matter what happens, no matter how horrible things may be, no matter how many people like Herod and Herodias there are, this is not the end, there is an eternal life in a world to come, a life no-one can take away.