John the Baptist was a wild person, unafraid and single-minded in his message: the Kingdom of God has drawn near, repent and believe in the Good News! And like many who are bold and unafraid to speak their truth, it cost John his life. The broad strokes of the story are well known; Salome dances and Herod makes foolish promises and John the Baptizer loses his head. And while this story appears in the other later gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark’s telling of the story is altogether more primitive and strange. With the sparse, teasing, enigmatic storytelling that epitomizes Mark, we hear of a truly perplexing relationship between a king and his enemy. This is a story of the opportunity for repentance and what happens when that opportunity is refused. And this is a story of a most unlikely witness to the gospel, a person who is able to foretell the good news of God’s victory over the powers of death. And remarkably, that witness to God’s power is … King Herod. But to get there, we need to back way up to get perspective on the story. It begins as so many stories do, it begins with a woman.
The man called King Herod in this passage was a man who ruled the Northern part of Israel, called Galilee. And he was caught up in a national scandal because he had divorced his wife and married a woman named Herodias who had been married to his brother Philip. People as far away as Rome were talking about it, it is even recorded in extant histories written by a historian named Josephus, and the whole tawdry affair was being made worse by a popular prophet named John the Baptizer. John had been publicly declaring that it was unlawful for Herod and Herodias to be married. And John was right, there was no question that Jewish Law strongly forbid what Herod had done. It was considered incest for Herod to me married to Herodias as long his brother Philip was alive. But this was no abstract point of the law, no minor infraction of cleanliness or Sabbath rules. John the Baptizer had been saying to anybody and everybody that Herod’s marriage was invalid, which would mean that his children would be illegitimate, which would mean they couldn’t succeed Herod on the throne. John, by publicly calling Herod’s marriage unlawful, was undermining the legitimacy of his rule. That kind of talk was poisonous, seditious, even treasonous and Herod could not let it go unpunished. So Herod sent some of his men to arrest John and locked him up in the palace.
Once John has been arrested, Queen Herodias wanted to have him killed (which is a perfectly sensible thing to do to someone who is trying to topple your government). But then something unexpected happens: nothing. Nothing happens. Herod won’t execute John. In fact, verse 20 says that Herod protected John the Baptizer. Mark’s explanation is too good to paraphrase, so I will quote it directly: Mark chapter 6, verses 19 and 20.
“And Herodias had a grudge against John, and wanted to kill him, but she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and Herod protected him. When Herod heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to John.”
“When Herod heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he liked to listen to John.” Why was Herod talking to this seditious prisoner at all? And what did John have to say that Herod liked to listen to? It couldn’t have been “your marriage is invalid according to Leviticus 16”. What did John say and where did they talk? Did Herod go visit John in secret, perhaps sitting listening to John in his prison cell late at night? It is that ‘When Herod listened to John’ part that gets me, because to me it sounds like something that had become a regular occurrence. “When Herod listened to John he was greatly perplexed, and yet Herod liked to listen to him’. Very strange.
But this arrangement couldn’t possibly last, not with Queen Herodias looking for a way to kill John the Baptizer. Sure enough, she found her chance to end this laughingstock of a king conferring with a conspirator—a madman really—who had shown up wearing camel’s hair and raving about the stories written in the scrolls of the prophets all coming true. John the Baptizer was dangerous, holy or no, and this banquet for Herod’s birthday was the perfect chance to do what needed to be done. Wine was flowing and all the upper-crust were in attendance. And then Salome, that brilliant girl, Salome danced so beautifully, so alluringly that Herod forgot himself. He started making foolish boasts in front of the guests, in front of the whole court! He promised to give the girl anything she asked, even half the kingdom! And Salome who was twice-wise, Salome ran to her mother to confirm what she would say and then quick as a rabbit she was back in the banquet hall with everyone still there, dessert not even served, Herod’s boasts still fresh in their ears. And beautiful young Salome all sweetness, all innocence said: Give me John the Baptizer’s head on a platter.
Herod was up against it now. He had made all those foolish oaths, and everybody who was anybody in his Kingdom was sitting there waiting to see what he would say. And what could he say? I want this man alive, even though he disputes my rule, because I like what he has to say? No, Herod was well and truly stuck. So he ordered his soldiers to go kill John the Baptizer and with a speed that could only come from an unceremonious execution, the soldier brought John’s head into the banquet hall on a platter like it was another piece of meat for the feast.
And as Herod looked at that grizzly scene, he could have no one to blame but himself. John’s death flowed from Herod’s sins as surely as night flows from the day. Yes, Herod had been tricked into killing his prisoner-confidante, but John was only in danger because Herod arrested him. Yes, John had been saying some uncomfortable things, but he never would have come around if Herod hadn’t stolen his brother’s wife. One sin required another, which then itself required a yet more grievous sin, and then another, until finally Herod was faced with a choice. A choice between breaking an oath in front of every big-wig in Galilee, or killing a holy and righteous man whose only crime was having the bravery to say something in public that others only gossiped about in private. Herod chose the latter. He had many chances to change course, but he let them all pass him by. Herod did the wrong thing, knowing it was wrong, because he thought doing the right thing would be too costly.
Time passes, perhaps weeks, perhaps months. And then some strange stories started to reach Herod, rumors coming not just from the common people so susceptible to superstition but from the synagogue leaders and the tax collectors. They said there was a man going throughout Galilee teaching. And ordinary people loved to listen to him teach, yet he perplexed even the scholars of the Law. And they also told darker tales, that this man had confronted demons, and that his words had returned terrifically possessed demoniacs to their right minds. There was power in the words this man spoke. People had all sorts of theories about this man. Some people said he was Elijah finally returned to earth, some others said that the man was possessed by Beelzebub, some others said that God must have raised up a prophet like the prophets of old. But read what verse 16 says: “When Herod heard of it, he said ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised”. John, whom I beheaded, he has been raised.
For Herod, there can be only one explanation. The man he had unjustly executed in an attempt to hold together his life as it threatened to fly apart under the force of sin, that man had returned to life. Herod believed, he firmly believed that John had passed through the waters of death only to be raised back into life. And I return to my earlier question with yet more urgency: What had John the Baptizer said to Herod? What had he said in that dark prison that had Herod convinced that death could not hold him? Had John talked to Herod about the Kingdom of God, was that what was so perplexing for Herod, the testimony that it is God’s passion that the world be organized for the good of the last and the least? John surely had talked about the Kingdom of God, because announcing that the Kingdom had drawn near was the purpose of his life. Did John talk to Herod about repentance, was that what Herod had so enjoyed hearing about, the testimony that it is possible to turn around and live a new life not bound by past mistakes? John surely had talked about repentance, for his was a message of new beginnings, a call to live differently because the new age had dawned. Did John offer Herod baptism?
Whatever had passed between them, this much is clear, Herod became deeply convinced that the power he wielded as an unrighteous king, the power to deal death, he became convinced that that power was not the greatest power in the world. There is another power that Herod glimpsed in John, the power of life and light and truth, a power born of repentance and sealed in baptism and strengthened by faith. Herod glimpsed the power of God in John the Baptizer and he knew that it was too great to be swallowed by death for long. For this reason he believed that the man everyone was talking about who was teaching and casting out demons in Galilee must have been John.
Of course, the final irony of this story shot through with odd twists is that King Herod is wrong, John had not come back from the dead. But Herod’s testimony is so wrong, it’s right. It is so wrong it’s right because the man who was travelling through Galilee teaching and healing was not John the Baptizer come back to life, but Jesus Christ whom John had been preparing the world to receive. Herod seems to have learned something fundamental about God. And in his belief that John must have come back from death, he became a kind of proto-evangelist, announcing the resurrection even as Jesus was alive. John was a faithful witness to the Word, shining the light of the good news of the Kingdom of God into the life of an adulterous and murderous king who did not even respect the bonds of family. And through John’s words and through his example he showed Herod that while sin leads only and ever into deeper and darker sins, doing what is right even though it is frightening, especially when it has costly, doing what is right has the power to create new life where there had been only a spiral into death before. So if you encounter a time in life when you must choose between what is easy and what is right, say a prayer for John the Baptizer. Then do what’s right.