Note: This is an ongoing series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B, 2015.
This Sunday’s gospel is Mark’s account of John’s execution by Herod (that is, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilea and Perea from 4 B.C.E.-39 C.E.) This “flashback” belatedly explains the circumstances surrounding John’s arrest, which was reported in passing at the outset of the story (1:14). Mark tells us that Herod believes that Jesus is John coming back to haunt him (6:14-16). Insofar as Jesus took up the Baptist’s mantle (preaching repentance and the Kingdom of God), Herod is not wrong. But the disturbing implication for the king is that this proclamation persists despite his having gotten rid of one of its messengers, suggesting that there was a more serious popular movement to be reckoned with. It is to the sordid tale of John’s demise that Mark now abruptly turns.
The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Mark, writes that Herod executed John the Baptist for plainly political reasons: his preaching was stirring up a popular insurrection. This has led many scholars to dismiss Mark’s story of the king’s moral predicament as merely pious legend. But this misses the point of Mark’s critique. First, intermarriage was fundamental to the building and consolidation of royal dynasties, so John’s objection that Herod should not marry his brother’s wife could scarcely be more political (6:17f). Second, the half-Jew Herod conformed to Jewish law only when he deemed it politically expedient. Otherwise he aggressively promoted Hellenization, since his provincial power was dependent on the good favor of Rome, a policy that was resented by Judean nationalists. By insisting that Herod be accountable to Torah (6:18), then, John was raising a volatile political issue in colonial Palestine.
Mark’s portrait of Herodian court intrigue is clearly folk parody (6:19f). The king is portrayed throwing a dinner party that includes every stratum of the Galilean ruling class—a plausible enough scenario (6:21). Despite this impressive gathering of political, military and economic leaders, however, it is a young dancing girl and a drunken oath that finally determines the fate of the Baptist (6:22-25). This sardonic caricature of the murderous whims of the powerful faintly echoes the story of Esther and Ahasuerus (Est 1-7).
John’s burial prefigures that of Jesus (6:29), and on its heels Mark returns to the story of the apostolic mission, completing the sandwich (6:30, see 6:13). Mark has woven together three stories of “truth and consequences”: Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth (6:1-6); the disciples’ apostolic mission (6:7-13,30); and here, John’s fate. This sequence suggests that a common destiny awaits those who preach repentance. Later Jesus will announce that the fate of “Elijah” (a.k.a. John) will also apply to the “Human One” (a.k.a. Jesus; see 9:11-13). But followers of the Way, too, must face this music (13:9-11). Mark’s story is transparent about the cost of discipleship.
It is surely significant that of all the mentors Jesus might have chosen to “initiate” him, he makes his way to John to be baptized (1:4-11). That Jesus publicly identifies with this politically notorious figure, whose vocation of speaking truth to power sealed his fate, connotes a sort of “passing of the torch” in a prophetic revival/rebellion.
An analogy to Martin Luther King can shed light on the importance of Jesus’ “alignment” with John—and their common prophetic fate. Mark wrote roughly forty years after the political deaths of both John and Jesus. While that world seems remote to us, the world of Memphis in April of 1968 does not. We are living a half-century after King was assassinated, in what we now know was a government conspiracy to silence his prophetic voice. So what might it mean for American Christians to align ourselves publicly with this Dr. King—not the domesticated saint, but the radical critic of racism, poverty and militarism? Recovering such a prophetic genealogy in our context would reflect the lesson of Mark’s narrative here.