Friday of Week 4 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

Commentary on Mark 6:14-29

Jesus was now becoming well known over a wide area. There was much speculation as to who he was (a major theme of Mark’s gospel). Some were suggesting that he was John the Baptist (who had by this time been executed) come to life again, or that he was the prophet Elijah, who was expected to return just before the coming of the Messiah, or that he was a prophet in his own right, “like the prophets we used to have”. We know, of course, that all those speculations were wrong. The true answer will emerge very soon.

King Herod, steeped in superstition and full of fear and guilt, was convinced that Jesus was a re-incarnation of John the Baptist, whom he had beheaded. We then get the story as to how this happened.

Herod Antipas, also known as Herod the Tetrarch, was the son of Herod the Great, who was king when Jesus was born. When the older Herod died, his kingdom was divided among his three surviving sons. Archelaus received half of the territory, Herod Antipas became ruler of Galilee and Perea, while Philip (Herod Boethus) became the ruler of the northern territory on the east side of the Jordan. The title ‘Tetrarch’ indicates that he was ruler of one quarter of the whole territory.

It is clear that Herod had great respect for John, as he would also have for Jesus later on. The problem arose because John had denounced Herod’s taking the wife of his half-brother Herod Boethus. This was in clear violation of Jewish law. The historian Josephus also says that Herod feared that John, so popular with the people, might instigate a riot against him.

It was this woman, Herodias, who now wanted to be rid of John, but could not do so because of Herod Antipas’ respect for him. Herod had gone as far as arresting John, but even when John was in prison, Herod loved to listen to him even though he was puzzled by John’s preaching.

Herodias saw her opportunity when Herod threw a party for his court to celebrate his birthday. She knew her husband’s weaknesses. Herodias’s daughter was brought in to dance and utterly captivated Herod. Deep in his cups, he made a rash promise. He would give her anything, even half of the territory he governed. Under the prompting of the mother, the girl makes the gruesome request for John’s head on a dish.

Herod was aghast, but because of his oath in the presence of his guests, he dared not renege on his promise. John was beheaded, and the head given to the mother. Afterwards, John’s disciples came and took his body and gave it a decent burial.

We might notice some similarities between this story and the passion of Jesus. Both Herod and Pilate recognised in John and Jesus, respectively, people of obvious goodness of life, wisdom and integrity. The hatred of Herodias for John parallels the hatred of the Jewish leaders for Jesus – both called for execution by the ruler (Herod in one case, Pilate in the other). After the deaths of John and Jesus, disciples asked and received permission for a decent burial.

John is the precursor of Jesus, not only in announcing the coming of Jesus, but also in giving his life for the integrity of his beliefs and in bringing God’s message to the people. We are called to do the same. To prepare the way for Jesus and his message must become an integral part of every Christian’s life. Without our cooperation, without our going ahead of Jesus, his message will not be heard.

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