The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist – Readings

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:17-19; Psalm 70; Mark 6:17-29

The story told in today’s Gospel comes from Mark. Not altogether coincidentally, it is sandwiched between Jesus sending his disciples out on a mission to do the same work he was doing and their coming back full of enthusiasm for what they had been doing. As Jesus would tell them, the day would come when they, too, would be ‘handed over’:

Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues… (Matt 10:17)

After he had sent them out, Mark tells us that King Herod was getting reports of the wonderful things that Jesus was doing – healing the sick, liberating people from evil powers, even bringing people back to life. Herod, however, thought it must have been John Baptist come back to life with new powers who was responsible. Other opinions were that Jesus was really Elijah, who was expected to return to earth on the eve of the Messiah’s coming. Others were saying that Jesus was just another prophet. However, Herod was convinced that Jesus was John come back to life:

But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised. (Mark 6:16)

It was clear that his killing of John the Baptist was a source of great disquiet to him.

It is then that Mark relates how this killing took place and it is the reading for us today. John the Baptist had been put in prison by Herod because John had criticised the king for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias. This was a clear act of adultery and clearly condemned by the Law of Moses. John had said:

It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.

Herodias was deeply resentful of John for this and wanted to get rid of him. Herod, however, respected John as a good and holy man and would do no more than keep him in prison. Although John was critical of Herod’s behaviour, the king could not resist listening to him speak.

Then, one day, Herodias saw her chance. On his birthday Herod threw a large party for his courtiers, his military officers and leading citizens of Galilee. During the meal, Herodias’ daughter came in and danced (while she is not named, by tradition she is called Salome). The king and all his guests were completely won over by her performance. The king, undoubtedly having had a few tankards of wine too much, promised to give the girl anything she wanted, even if it were half of his kingdom.

Excitedly, the girl went to her mother. “What should I ask for?” She may have been somewhat disappointed or perhaps bemused when her mother suggested: “The head of John the Baptist.” However, she went straight back to the king and said:

I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

Herod was horrified but he had made his oaths and could not lose face in front of his guests. An executioner was sent to decapitate John and bring the head back to the assembly. The head was then given by the executioner to the girl, who in turn handed it over to her vindictive mother. Later, John’s disciples took his body and buried it.

John is often called the Precursor, literally, the one who runs in front of. John prepared the way for the coming of Jesus. Yet he was really a man of the Old Testament, the last of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus would say that even the least in the Kingdom of God inaugurated by him would be greater than John.

In fact, John first appears in Mark’s gospel just at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. As Jesus began his mission to proclaim the Kingdom, John had already been arrested and had left the public scene. But John was a precursor not only in the sense of preparing people for the coming of Jesus, he also was a man of complete integrity and was ready to give his life for truth and justice. Hence, he was the first of those who would be ‘handed over’ (Latin: tradere) and who would be ready to die for his God. In this he prepared the way for Jesus and those of his followers who would be handed over and give their lives. And of this we are the beneficiaries. Each one of us, too, needs to be ready hand over our lives for the work of the Kingdom.

The First Reading are words of encouragement for the prophet Jeremiah as goes out to face great hostility from the kingdoms of the north in his proclaiming of God’s message. Yahweh says to his prophet:

Do not break down before them, or I will break you before them.

For Yahweh has made Jeremiah:

…a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests, and the people of the land.

They will attack Jeremiah:

They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the Lord, to deliver you.

John the Baptist too had to stand up to a king and his wife who thought they could take God’s law into their own hands. John may have died, but he won the moral victory and for that we still recognise and honour him today.

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