The Christian story is the story of Jesus and so the Gospels are tellings of Jesus’ story and focus almost entirely on him. It is always noteworthy, then, when they shift the focus away from Jesus and onto another character. Today’s Gospel reading is one of these occasions, telling the story of the beheading of Jesus’ cousin, the prophet John the Baptist. It’s a strange incident and it’s fair to ask why Mark would devote the time and space he does to it in his short Gospel, and what it could possibly tell us about our own lives today.
First, let’s remind ourselves of the basics of the story. John was an important man of his day. He was understood in his own time to be a prophet, and people flocked to hear him preach his powerful message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and to undergo his ritual washing of baptism in the Jordan River. Several religious sects emerged in the first two centuries of the common era that were devoted to him as the greatest of the prophets, and one of these, Mandaeism still exists today in parts of the Middle East. All this is to say that John was a big deal. In our story today, John has been arrested for speaking out against King Herod’s sketchy marriage to Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother and rival, Philip. While Herod is in awe of John — equal parts intrigued and angered by what he has to say — Herodias wants him silenced once and for all. So, she schemes with her daughter (the text refers to the daughter as Herodias, just like her mother; extra-biblical sources refer to her as Salome and she is better known by this name) to trap Herod by getting him to make a rash promise in front of his court:
She danced and she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.” And he solemnly swore to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the baptizer.” Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head.
What sticks out to me is that the story of John’s execution parallels that of Jesus. Both John and Jesus raise the ire of powerful people by speaking uncomfortable truths. Both are arrested under questionable charges. In both cases, the man in charge doesn’t want to kill the holy man, but in both cases, he ultimately gives in to outside pressure. As the great French intellectual René Girard wrote on the parallels between John’s and Jesus’ deaths:
Their details are quite different. It is their internal mimetic character that renders them similar, and this is represented in a manner as powerful and original in one case as in the other. At the anthropological level, therefore, the Passion is typical rather than unique: it illustrates the major event of the Gospel anthropology, namely, the victimary mechanism that appeases human communities and reestablishes, at least provisionally, their tranquility. (I Saw Satan Fall like Lightning)
What Girard is saying in this admittedly dense language is that the ways the themes of John’s death are repeated in Jesus’ death reveal a typical pattern of human behaviour, namely that doing good and speaking truth are the quickest ways to make enemies.
Some Christians might find this a troubling idea. After all, don’t be believe that Jesus’ death was unique? To that, I think, the answer has to be ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Yes, we believe there is something particularly meaningful and revelatory about Jesus’ death; but also no: part of the reason Jesus’ death is able to be meaningful and revelatory is that it reveals the pattern that befalls holy men and women in every day and age, from the prophets of Israel and Judah through to St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Romero, and Alexander Men — all just in the last century. This is by no means a ‘new’ reading of Jesus’ death. Jesus himself saw his rejection and ultimately his death as continuing a pattern started in the prophets (see for example the Parable of the Wicked Tenants in Matthew 21.33ff). And, in the Sermon on the Mount, he indicates that persecution is the pattern for all the saints:
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5.11f).
If we insist too much on the uniqueness of Jesus’ death without also remembering its typical nature, we lose this connection between Jesus’ ministry and his death, and separate Jesus from the very suffering of the world He was sent to reveal, join with, raise up, and heal.
John’s death, no less than Jesus’ death, reminds us that the whole scapegoat mechanism is a real and powerful force in our world. It should remind us that we can expect opposition when we seek to follow God’s ways and bear good fruit in the world. And it should also remind us that this mechanism is alive in all of us too, so that we too must be careful not to employ it against others. It is a call for us to look out for who the world is trying to discredit and ‘pile on’ and to resist joining the mob.
May we all, this week, and throughout the rest of our lives, be brave enough — like John and like Jesus and all of those who have taken up their crosses to follow him — to speak uncomfortable truths and bless those the world would rather curse. And may we also be brave enough — unlike Herod and unlike Pilate — to stand up against the mob seeking to silence truth-speakers and peace-makers.