Trinity 6. Proper 10. Year B 2021
What to make of today’s Gospel – the sensational, gruesome story of the beheading of John the Baptist?
It’s a story about the wrong kind of celebration. A birthday banquet, an invitation-only occasion at which Herod is entertaining family, friends and members of the local elite. A lavish affair, and a very exclusive one. The Herod referred to isn’t the Herod who questioned the Wise Men and ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, but one of his sons, Herod Antipas. There was clearly some good in him. We are told that he feared John the Baptist, that he acknowledged him as a righteous and holy man, that he protected him and that he liked to listen to him. All this, despite the fact that John had publicly criticised him for breaking Jewish law by marrying his dead brother’s widow, which would have been fine had she been childless, but was not, given that she had a daughter. His family tree was complex, for his wife was also his half-niece and his stepdaughter, the dancer in today’s Gospel, went on to marry one of her father’s half-brothers, so that her husband was the half-uncle of both her parents.
Herod Antipas was a pleasure seeker and a lover of sensation. Having your stepdaughter dance for your guests at a banquet was a scandalous thing to do. He was also a weak man, and the weakness becomes clear when, delighted with her dancing, he made the rashly generous offer: “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half my kingdom.” He knew that executing John the Baptist was wrong. Yet he shed innocent blood to save him from the embarrassment of breaking a foolish promise.
Very much the wrong kind of celebration, then – a banquet held by a man devoted to pleasure and sensation who ended up doing something that he knew to be evil.
The German scholar Martin Kähler described the Gospel of Mark “a Passion narrative with an extended introduction.” The execution of John the Baptist is included at this point in the story to let the reader know that Jesus lives in a corrupt and cruel world in which those who challenge the authorities risk death. The incident points forward to the Crucifixion. Last week’s Gospel emphasised that prophets are often rejected in their own country, and this week’s reading reinforces that point, for John the Baptist was a powerful prophet.
The story of King Herod’s birthday banquet leaves a very unpleasant taste in the mouth, but if we read on in St Mark’s Gospel, we discover that Mark has used the story to point up a contrast, for the next thing he tells us about is Jesus feeding the five thousand, a miraculous sharing of food with a large crowd of people. They were not there by invitation, and they certainly weren’t members of the ruling elite. All who were present were fed. Lavish generosity, available to all, with no questions asked about their beliefs or their behaviour.
The compilers of the Lectionary chose well when they coupled today’s passage from Ephesians with the Gospel account of the death of John the Baptist, for Paul wrote this letter from a prison cell in Rome and, like John the Baptist, he would eventually be executed by beheading. Paul’s prayerful writing offers both a contrast with the corruption and violence in today’s Gospel story, and a foretaste of next Sunday’s Gospel. He writes of a God who is generous and loving and who, in Jesus, ensures
“…the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace which he lavished on us.”
A God who meets our needs, as Jesus met the needs of a hungry crowd. The simple meal that made clear the overflowing generosity of God’s love and forgiveness.