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"The Death of John" (Mark 6:14-29)
The following sermon was delivered at St. John the Baptist Church, Maadi, Cairo, Egypt on Friday 13 July.
"The Death of John”
Grace and peace to you from the God and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Wow – what an uplifting text! What a joyous story! This is like something out of a Francis Ford Coppala God-Father movie!
What we have here is a classic “flashback. ” After our reading from last week, where Jesus sent out his disciples to teach and heal among the fellahin of the Galilee (6:12-13), their work draws the attention of the king – the local political ruler -- Herod Antipas.
We cut to the court of Herod who is hearing reports of this wandering teacher, healer and miracle worker. (That is what the “this” in verse 14 is referring to.) This Jesus is reported to have power [dunamis] Power is something that only political rulers are supposed to have! So, naturally he takes notice. And the power of these miracles reminds him of the handiwork of another wandering preacher – John the Baptist. One can almost see Herod, sitting on his throne, hearing these reports and then thinking about John, and what he had done to the Baptist. “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised from the dead” (6:16)! In his mind, he knows exactly what is happening. His past actions are coming back to haunt him.
Perhaps Herod has a moment of guilt about what he did? Probably, not. After all, the Herods as a family were quite well known for their ruthless politics. Herod Antipas’ father – Herod the Great is reported to have slaughtered all the infants of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16). He also had two of his own sons executed for suspected treason.
No. Antipas was his father’s son, and came to the thrown through just as much deceit and violence as his father.
There’s no indication anywhere that he had any shred of moral decency, as we know it. In fact, the story for this morning is riddled with typical Herodesque escapades – adultery, betrayal, the public display of power, and murder. The only time he demonstrates any hesitation in his actions is when he is overcome with – passion shall we say – as his daughter danced. He was carried away and promised her anything. Then he was “greatly distressed” [perilupos] when Herodias’ daughter called his bluff. He had publicly offered her anything, and so now, in order not to lose honor – he must respond – and he does. To waive off this request would be to be publicly embarrassed. So, even though he had feared John’ power, he was more afraid of losing face in public. And now, because of his actions he is more than likely afraid: afraid that John was somehow going to bring just retribution or revenge on him.
Mark doesn’t go into any further detail here. In fact, this flashback is suddenly and interestingly dropped into this sixth chapter of Jesus and his minsitry. The question is why in the world would Mark put this story here?
This account is also told in Matthew in much the same manner (14:1-11). In the Gospel of Luke, however, Herod hears of the power of Jesus and thinking that it might be John raised from the dead, is intrigued. He wishes to see Jesus out of curiosity (9:7-9). In Luke there is no dancing girl, no beheading, and no flashback.
Interestingly enough, this record of the killing of John is also located in both Jewish and Muslim sources; one very close to the time of Mark, the other quite late during the 14th century. If we look at these sources, we see that Mark has some very important things to say about the matter, which differ from the other two.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus, writing a little later than the Gospel of Mark, records Herod’s killing of John. Josephus, however, is interested in the larger geo-political ramifications of this act. You see, according to Josephus, Herod Antipas was married to the daughter of the King of Nabatea – the Arab kingdom of Petra in what is today Jordan. It was a political marriage for the sake of an allegiance. According to Josephus Herod was on a visit to Rome, where he and his two other brothers had spent most of their youth. During this trip to Rome he stayed with his stepbrother Philip (who was the ruler of the territory just north of the Sea of Galilee). It was there in Rome that he had a tryst, a love affair, with his brother’s wife, Herodias.
Josephus writes that after this affair, Herod Antipas decides to ship his Nabatean wife away silently to a solitary fortress in the middle of the desert in Jordan, and then marry Herodias. (He doesn’t tell us what he was hoping to do with his stepbrother, however. One wonders about that!)
John the Baptist hears about this – and like in the Gospel of Mark – publicly denounces Herod for his infidelity. Herod, the ruthless God-Father who he is, has no qualms about putting John out of the way.
For Josephus, this story has larger geo-political consequences. Once Aretas, King of Petra, finds out his daughter has been dishonored and shipped off to some “convent” in the desert, he naturally becomes infuriated. His honor has now been trashed, and so he reacts – and starts a war. It’s amazing how powerful a motivator public honor is for rulers.
Josephus tells us that Aretas, the king of Nabatea, goes out to battle Herod’s armies and defeats them. According to the rumors among the Jews of the Galilee – Herod was defeated precisely because he had put John to death – and so he was being punished by divine retribution. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2.)
So, perhaps this whole event in chapter six has larger implications of which Mark is not telling us about. Unlike Josephus, however, Mark is not interested in the international issues going on. Mark has a different message to tell.
In the Gospel of Mark, as in the other Gospels, the lives and stories of Jesus and John the Baptist – the namesake of this congregation – are intertwined. It is John’s baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan that anoints Jesus’ public ministry (1:9-10). In fact, Mark says soon after this baptism John was arrested, and that Jesus then began his public ministry.
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:14-15).
John ultimately defers to Jesus – the one to whom he has come to point the way. He says
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8).
This relationship between the cousins John and Jesus is highlighted among our Coptic brothers and sisters who honor John by placing his icon – like the one here in our sanctuary - on the iconostasis above and before the altar. It is as if to say, in a very visible way, “Here again is John pointing the way to Christ – the body and blood, the bread and wine.”
And so in our reading for today word comes to Herod about this Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples, who has been roaming HIS countryside in Galilee, from village to village, picking up where John left off. His popularity had preceded him and people were beginning to try to understand who this wandering teacher, preacher and healer was. Some said it was John the Baptist raised from the dead; others said it was Elijah – a messianic figure who would return to mark the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Others just said it was like “one of the prophets of old” (6:15)!
Last week I spoke about how the Islamic tradition has developed a whole collection of stories on the ministry of Jesus. The Islamic stories of Jesus and John run, in many ways parallel to Mark. The two are both wandering prophets, and Jesus IS the greater, or more important, of the two. However, these Islamic stories are put together, not to point the way to Jesus as the savior of the world, and of God manifest for us and for our sin; but rather more literally in response to these fellahin from the Galilee who say, “He is one of the prophets of old!” The Islamic stories go to prove this.
There are many sayings of Jesus, recorded in this Islamic body of literature, more than likely coming from medieval Middle Eastern Christian oral tradition. They are very late. Nevertheless, in this literature Jesus has some things to say about rulers like Herod:
Jesus said, “A ruler should not be vicious since it is him that mankind looks for self-restraint; nor should he by tyrannical, since it is from him that [humanity] demands justice.” (al-Turturshi, Siraj al-Muluk)
Whether such a saying is accurate or not, who knows? Nevertheless, it is quite wise. Who of us now doesn’t want leadership that has self-restraint and can undertake justice for ALL people?
Another story about Jesus as recorded by the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn Kathir, seems to follow directly along with the Markan narrative – but to make a different point. Ibn Kathir, in his Stories of the Prophets [Qisas al-‘anbiyya], recalls the relationship between Jesus and John. He notes that on the very night that John was killed, that it was at this moment that Jesus received a revelation from God that he was to begin his public ministry.
Here John’s death by Herod, becomes the moment in which one John’s prophethood had ended, and Jesus. One prophet’s career has ended, and now the next has taken up his place in line to continue God’s work. This is the classic Islamic view of Jesus as “one of the prophets of old.” And Jesus has a particular prophetic role to play here.
Ibn Kathir writes this:
In the face of a materialistic age of luxury and worship of gold, Jesus called his people to a nobler life by word and deed. … Jesus’ call, from the beginning, was marked by its complete uprightness and piety. It appealed to the soul, the inner being, and not to a closed system of rules laid down by society. (Ibn Kathir, Qisas al-Anbiyya)
Jesus in this tradition has a positive ethical and spiritual role to play.
So now we return to Mark, and the particular Christian claim – our claim – about Jesus and John.
Just as there are all kinds of rumors among the Galilean fellahin here as to who Jesus is here – John returned from the dead, Elijah or another prophet – we hear of this same confusion later in Chapter 8. This time Jesus asks his disciples directly, “Who do you say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets” (8:28).
It’s a direct parallel. The disciples know exactly what rumors are out there about Jesus. Then he asks them:
“But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah” (8:29)
And then he taught them that he must suffer many things… He must be killed and after three days rise again (8:30).
In the Gospel of Mark both John and Jesus are both public preachers; and both receive the same fate at the hands of the authorities. Both are killed and both are laid in a tomb (6:29: 15:46).
In the Gospel of Mark, John precedes Jesus and points the way to Jesus. Yet, while John’s life and death should be celebrated as a noble and faithful venture; Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was for the benefit of the whole world.
This is the Good News of which Mark speaks: that God does what no ruler, no disciple, not even a prophet can do. God offers himself for the forgiveness of sin – your sin and my sin. Here is the difference. While John’s death may have had political ramifications according to Josephus. While John’s death may have had Prophetic ramifications in Ibn Kathir. While John’s death may have had social ramifications for John’s followers. Jesus’ death and resurrection has, for us, salfivic ramifications. It is the giving of God’s very self to and for us.
This morning, once again John points the way for us – pointing to the altar, to receive this gift once again, that we might truly believe one more week. Thanks be to God that it is so.