The head of John the Baptist

October 30, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is a long passage from Mark 6:17-29.

Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he like to listen to him. She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. Herodias’ own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” He even swore [many things] to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison. He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

This is the most grisly passage I can remember from the Greek scriptures. We like to think of ancient times as much more brutal than our own. However, the recent beheadings of the journalists in Syria by the State of Islam terrorists are proof that we really aren’t much more civilized today — maybe even less so. According to the historian Josephus, Herod considered John to be a dangerous rebel whereas the recently murdered journalists were simply observers and reporters purposely abducted to be used to terrify us in the West into submission.

Moloney in The Gospel of Mark believes that mark included this account to make clear to those who considered themselves disciples and followers of Jesus that it comes at a cost, a “cost of no less than everything,” perhaps even the cost of a ghoulish death. Further, as followers of Jesus, they were “called to share in the destiny of Jesus.” Of course, at the time Mark was writing the Christian Jews were being persecuted and being a follower of Jesus literally risked death. They were prepared to lose everything as the cost of carrying on his mission, as the cost of salvation. Mark wanted to stiffen their resolve.

Barclay adds, “[T]he man who speaks for God must always take his life and his fortune into his hands.” Sometimes I wonder just how committed I am. I’m reading The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser, a priest of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He quotes Jaime Lachica Cardinal Sin, deceased Archbishop of Manila, that speaks to my commitment as a Christian. “Strength without compassion is violence. Compassion without justice is mere sentiment. Justice without love is Marxism and love without justice is baloney!” I am called to not merely mouth my compassion, how sorry I am about the general state of affairs or the plight of a particular individual, I am called to actually do something about it — effect justice — with a loving heart. That’s what John did and that’s what Jesus did. And it cost both of them everything.

What am I willing to risk to enter the kingdom of God today and to open the door for others? Not everything! I’m sure of that. Some money, some time maybe. Rolheiser brings it down to my everyday life, to the specific rather than the abstract. He writes, “In essence, Jesus is saying: You cannot deal with a perfect, all-loving, all-forgiving, all-understanding God in heaven, if you cannot deal with a less-than-perfect, less-than-forgiving, and less-than-understanding community here on earth. You cannot pretend to be dealing with an invisible God if you refuse to deal with a visible family.” Ouch! That means I can’t turn away or run away when things are disagreeable or painful. So, am I willing to risk rejection by someone I love or encounter? Am I willing to risk stirring someone’s anger? Am I willing to risk losing the relationship with someone I want in my life? Am I willing to forgive? I’m called to take those chances, to be Jesus, the loving presence of God on earth. To reach out to, to touch, to act from the source of love within me, from God’s spirit within me. That’s the commitment He asks of me.



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