Sunday’s lesson on the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14-29) is one of the great tragedies of the New Testament—not only because of the death of a great prophet but also because of the Shakespearean nature of the death. Herod was angry at John for publicly criticizing him for taking his brother’s wife as his own, so he had him imprisoned. But there was something about the prophet’s message that fascinated Herod, so he kept him around for a while. Then, one night, during a booze-fueled dinner party, Herod promised his attractive, seductive stepdaughter (and niece!) anything she wanted, and, after consulting with her mother, demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Grieved by the choice but unwilling to embarrass himself in front of his guests, he ordered that John be executed, and the prophet/martyr died because of the collective pride of a drunken man and a cruel woman.
What in the world can we learn from a tragedy like this? I could craft a sermon condemning any number of sins—pride, lust, greed, gluttony—but that seems to sell this passage short. This is more than a morality tale. It’s a psychological thriller.
The opening lines set the stage as an intellectual drama instead of a simplistic teaching: “[Of Jesus], some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”
This is a story about guilt—not a cautionary tale but an investigation of its cause and profound effect. Herod was so consumed by the untimely, unplanned death of John that he jumped to a ridiculous conclusion—that Jesus’ prophetic and powerful ministry was God’s way of punishing him for his misdeed. So beautiful was the flower that he cut down that the memory of it haunted him every day. So clear and kingdom-coming was Jesus’ ministry that Herod knew in his bones that God was coming to get him.
There’s a quickening associated with Jesus and his ministry that seems old-fashioned and unpopular in the twenty-first century. Confronted with the gospel, the burden of our sin is brought to the surface. We know that Jesus is here to proclaim God’s love and to reconcile us to the Father through his death on the cross, so it perhaps surprises us to feel that Jesus’ presence draws our guilt and shame and remorse up from the recesses of our subconscious. Why is that? It’s called repentance.
The gospel is not a Get Out of Hell Free card. Forgiveness and salvation are costly—just ask the one who died on the cross. Yes, God’s love is unearned. We call it grace because it comes to us without price. But, when that free love or grace works its power on us, it exacts an emotional price. It calls us to repent. It calls us to reject our sinful selves. It calls us to confront the totality of our misdeeds and accept the darkness of our humanity in search of something better.
Herod isn’t a good guy. He doesn’t repent. There’s no dramatic conversion. But in this tale we see the seeds of repentance being sown in his heart. Jesus’ ministry had an effect on him—an agonizing, excruciating effect. May we pray that the same would happen to us on the path to forgiveness and the redeemed life.