Off with his head!
Not the words of King Herod from our gospel reading. But the words of the Queen of Hearts from that wonderful book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
If you are familiar with the book you will recall how through much of the book the Queen has her own way of dealing with difficulties which was to order the execution of everyone concerned.
The Cheshire Cat is accused by the King of Hearts of being impertinent. The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small. “Off with his head!” she said …
And shortly after, during the croquet game being played with hedgehogs as balls and flamingos as mallets, Lewis Carroll tells us:
All the time they were playing the Queen never left off quarrelling with the other players, and shouting “Off with his head!” or “Off with her head!” Those whom she sentenced were taken into custody by the soldiers … so that … all the players, except the King, the Queen, and Alice, were in custody and under sentence of execution.
The Queen of Hearts only wanted those around her who would flatter her and not answer back. Being around the Queen of Hearts was a risky business!
A bit like King Herod, really. And his wife, Herodias. Except that bad as King Herod was, he wasn’t quite as bad as the Queen of Hearts. Not everyone around King Herod ended up under sentence of execution. Only some. And in today’s gospel reading we hear how one sentence of execution is carried out. In fact, it’s Herod’s wife Herodias who has been shouting, “Off with his head!” though without any success so far.
We need to start with a bit of family history – a bit like the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? It’s slightly confusing, but bear with me! The King Herod in our gospel reading today is the son of King Herod the Great. Herod the Great is the Herod who was ruling at the time of Jesus’ birth. The Herod in our reading today is actually Herod Antipas. He had a brother who was known as Herod Archelaus. And Herod Archelaus was married to Herodias. For some reason Mark gets the name wrong and calls him Philip – we don’t know why! On one occasion, when visiting his brother, Herod Antipas decides he quite fancies his brother’s wife, so Herod Antipas divorces his own wife, Herod Archelaus divorces Herodias, and Herod Antipas – that’s our Herod from today’s gospel – marries Herodias.
But that presented a problem. Because the Law forbade such things. The book of Leviticus was very clear that someone passing on his wife to his brother was highly immoral. And so John the Baptist, in no uncertain terms, tells Herod Antipas what’s what – and appears to do so repeatedly. The problem is, of course, that people who wield great power don’t usually like hearing the truth about themselves. And in those days speaking truth to power, to use the modern phrase, normally had the consequence of someone shouting the equivalent of “off with his head!” At any rate, we know from our reading that Herodias wants John killed, but Herod Antipas won’t allow her to have her way. But he does have John arrested and imprisoned.
So why doesn’t Herod have John executed? Well, like so many absolute rulers – and we still see this today of course – Herod loved flattery. And like any absolute ruler he got plenty of it. But he certainly wasn’t getting any flattery from John the Baptist, and yet we are told in our gospel reading he loved to listen to John. Why? We can only conjecture. Perhaps listening to John, while uncomfortable, was somehow refreshing. John claimed to be speaking God’s truth. Maybe what Herod really yearned for was truth, unwelcome though it might be for Herod and those close to him. Perhaps when everyone else was sycophantic and flattering, listening to someone who was not afraid to be honest made a change. At any rate John perplexed him, we are told.
And John told him the truth, over and over, about his sin: “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herod listened! It bothered him, but he listened! But then Herod has a big party. Herod’s daughter – actually the daughter of Herodias and her first husband – comes in and dances a risqué dance. And just to add to the familial confusion, Mark calls her Herodias, the same name as her mother. You will know her better as Salome, and the dance has become known as The Dance of the Seven Veils.
At any rate they loved the dancing – even Herod loved it. You know the story – he loved it so much he offers his daughter anything she wants. She goes to her mother who says, “Ask for the head of John the Baptist.”
Herodias gets her way. Off with his head!
And Herod, unwilling to let his guests see him break a promise, has John killed and his head brought on a platter. John’s disciples hear about it, and bury John. End of story. At least as far as today’s gospel reading goes.
The word gospel means good news. We have a gospel reading every week so that we can hear good news. So where’s the good news in all this? Where’s the good news in this account of the death of John the Baptist, this story of the corruption and the immorality of those who hold power?
Well, this is one of those readings we get on Sunday mornings where to make sense of what is going on we need to know some context. That is, we need to know what comes before, or after, what we’ve heard – what’s going on. And here it helps to know that Mark has inserted this story in the middle of another story. This is something we know Mark likes doing, putting stories within stories. And this story of John the Baptist is embedded in the middle of another story which is the story of a successful preaching mission. And that’s where we find the good news – in the other story.
Think back to last week. We heard how Jesus sent out the twelve to preach the good news and to heal people. And off they went, and we heard how they did what Jesus has sent them to do – preach the good news and heal people. But that’s where the story stopped, and we didn’t get to hear the end of it. Instead Mark interrupts the good news story to give us today’s gospel reading about John the Baptist. But then, immediately after, Mark picks up where he left off, and tells us how the twelve return from their mission and tell Jesus about all the amazing stuff they’ve done. We get that next week.
In a way, the key to understanding this week’s gospel reading is a bit like watching an episode of a drama on TV – at the beginning you get previously on… and then at the end coming up next week … Put it all together and you can then fully understand what you’re watching this week, and you’re left really looking forward to what comes next!
So back to Mark. Why would Mark interrupt his good news story to tell a bad news story? Well, it seems that Mark does that to emphasize that God’s good work continues even when terrible things are happening – even when great Godly servants, like John, are dying. Previously in Mark’s gospel was the good news of the gospel being spread. Coming up next is the good news of the twelve returning eager to tell Jesus what they’ve been doing.
The people who first heard this Gospel, probably around 30 to 40 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, needed to hear that message, that even when all the news seems to be bad, the good news of Jesus continues. Because they were suffering persecution. Horrific things were happening to Christians. But when Christians read this story within a story, they could see the Gospel continuing its spread unabated, even in the midst of terrible things like martyred Christians. There might be bad news – but it was overcome by good news. It gave them hope.
We too need hope. We too live in tough times. We all know only too well what the world has been going through with Covid. We know people who have their lives because of it. People have suffered economically, people have suffered emotionally. And despite the government’s promises of the lifting of restrictions just over a week from now, we know that there is more bad news to come before Covid is under control.
And even when we get Covid behind us, we are having to face up to the reality of climate change, which is no longer a future threat but a present one. Weather patterns have changed for the worse already, ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising. A headline from yesterday in The Guardian: US west heatwave – 31 million people brace for record-breaking temperatures. Las Vegas could surpass its record high of 117 degrees Fahrenheit. Climate change is upon us – what will the future hold?
We live in a time when it is all too easy to lose hope about the state of the world, and allow the reality of the future to just grind us down.
But the story of the death of John the Baptist – a “bad news” story set by Mark inside the story of the Gospel spreading – reminds us that when bad things happen God is still at work in our world. That was Mark’s intention. Bad things might be happening – terrible things – but God and God’s people will prevail. And in the midst of all the bad news we need to always see the good news of God at work in his world through ordinary people like you and me. We need to be reminded that there are still good news stories – that God is still at work in our world – and that God will ultimately prevail.
This week, as we leave worship, as we go into a world of bad news stories, let us seek out good news stories. Let us remind ourselves that God is at work in our lives and in our world. And let us, like the twelve, whose story brackets our story today of John the Baptist, be willing to go out into our world and actively work to creategood news stories.
Let us live in the knowledge that ultimately God will prevail – and that, by God’s grace, all will be well.