Of Prisons and Palaces

Mattia Preti - St John the Baptist before Hero...
Mattia Preti – St John the Baptist before Herod – WGA18395 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On the Gospel of Mark 6:14-29

“King Herod heard of it.”

These are the first words of the Gospel we hear today, as Mark’s sixth chapter continues.  Jesus has, in the wake of his repudiation at Nazareth, just sent out the Twelve to preach and teach, to call to repentance and to heal in his name.

And the next words of the Gospel are these: “Herod heard of it.”  IT.  This is a little word with large implications here.  What is the ‘it’ of which Herod had heard?  It’s clear that whatever he’s heard has got his attention. Even hidden in his palace, even in his apparent isolation and disconnection from his people, the IT he has heard has opened his ears and heart, has turned his mind to figure out the puzzle, the mystery.

Though we do not know exactly what he had heard, it is pretty clear that the IT Herod is musing on is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth: what to think of him, how to respond to him.  And this IT immediately brings Herod’s mind back to the figure of Jesus’ cousin, of John who had been baptizing people in great numbers in the wilderness and calling all to repentance.

In Herod’s regard, John’s call to repentance was in no way generic.  Herod had wooed and married his brother’s wife, Herodias.  She also, by the way, happened to be Herod’s niece.  This situation was clearly against the law of God, though it seems that the religious authorities in Jerusalem had elected not to challenge Herod in this matter.  But John had, apparently.  John had, perhaps in public at first, and in continuing fashion in private after his arrest and imprisonment, been challenging Herod about his marriage.  This meant, we can surmise, that John was challenging the Tetrarch about many of his life choices, of whom he had chosen to become, in relation to the people, in relation to the Jewish faith, in relation to God and to himself.

This must have been an uncomfortable situation for Herod, and yet Mark reveals it as a complex one beyond that uncomfortability.  Herod was in charge certainly.  He could’ve imprisoned the Baptist and never seen him nor heard his voice again.  But Mark indicates today that something, some kind of fascination with the man and even with the hard words he spoke  – something drew Herod to see him and to hear him again and again.  There seems to have been a deep ambivalence in Herod.  He must have known in his heart of hearts that he was called to be more than he had become, in responsibility to his people and before God.  But he was too weak either to respond to that call or to make sure he heard it no more.

You can almost picture Herod, in the quiet moments of some evenings, making his way below below below to where the prisoners were held in the depths of his palace, prisoners considered so dangerous they needed to be kept where the king and his men could know their whereabouts at any moment.  You can muse on whatever the other prisoners must have thought or wondered, as they saw Herod pass by on his way to John’s cell.

What were those conversations like?  I would bet that John was true to who he was and to what he knew his calling to be.  I would bet that he spoke the truth as he knew it, stinging though it might have been to the one who held the power of life and death over him now.  John determined that to be true to his vocation, true to his God, true to himself, he had to – in that darkened space and uncertain future – speak truth to power.

The evangelist Mark, who wrote the first and the briefest Gospel, takes time and pain here to tell the story of John’s last hours in detail.  It is obvious that he places special significance on the meaning of this life and this death.  This is the only scene in the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus does not appear.  And it is, not by accident we can presume, one of the darkest scenes of the Gospel.

Upstairs in the finery of his palace, Herod threw a birthday party for himself.  That was so thoughtful of him!  It was an opportunity, likely one of many, for the hangers-on to come around and enjoy food and music and fawn over the Tetrarch Herod to assure him of his unrivaled greatness.  As we heard, during the festivities – and we can surmise after more than a few containers of libations of various sort had already been emptied – Herodias’ daughter enters the room and dances.  She entrances the group, and her great-uncle, stepfather, king, offers her in return anything for which she wishes to ask.  Anything.

Hurrying to her mother, she asks for guidance.  Herodias sees the opportunity directly before, and perhaps never to come again, to be rid once and for all of the pesky prophet in the basement.  “Bring me, at once, the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.”

Mark tells us that on hearing this request, obviously not expected, “the king was deeply grieved.”  The term translated here as ‘deeply grieved’ appears in only one other place in Mark’s Gospel, a place that reveals just how distressed Herod is at this turn of events.  The same word is used to describe what Jesus was feeling as he knelt and prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane on the evening we call Maundy Thursday, after the last Supper, as we he was about to be betrayed to death.  That’s the kind of anguish that burns now in Herod’s heart.

True to his fundamental weakness, true to the need to save face, he dispatches the executioner nonetheless.  Again the other prisoners, who’ve noticed the music stop above, hear footsteps approaching and continuing on toward the Baptist’s cell.  This time the figure passing by is not Herod.  It is the man with the weapon, sent by Herod, to end John’s life and to still John’s voice.

I wonder if John spoke to that man as he took him by the arm and led him to his death?  I wonder if John had any final words to send back by him to Herod?  Perhaps a last call to repentance?  “Just because we will talk no more, fear not, you still can change.”  Or perhaps a word, from this extraordinary figure, of solace offered from the condemned to the condemner: “I do not hold this against you.  Forgiveness is the way. Be at peace.”

We do not know.  We do know that soon thereafter the head of John, the silenced lips, were brought into the chamber as the most gruesome of birthday gifts.

It seems a story that ends with the way of worldly power victorious.  Completely.  John is dead.

Jesus, the IT with whom Herod has yet to deal, is invisible.  John’s disciples come and can only retrieve his headless corpse for burial.

And yet.  And yet.

At the time Herod was one of the most powerful men in Israel.  John was arguably one of the weakest.   Two millennia later, Herod, whose palace is a fascinating archeological dig in our times, is barely noted in history.  And when he is, it is as a vacillating, ineffective puppet leader of an occupied nation.  And John the Baptist?  His name is known still the world over, by Christian and non-Christian.  The Christian Gospels contain Jesus’ testimony about this man beheaded helplessly in prison: “He is the greatest man born of woman.”

What’s left for us from this story so carefully passed on to us by Mark?

Stay true to your calling, to your truth as you have come to know it, in any and every circumstance.

Speak the truth, even when you know it is going to cost you.  And speaking the truth to this world’s powers means that you – like the Baptist, like thousands of citizens of Syria over this last year and more – are going to suffer for the saying, and quite likely die.

Know, that somewhere below what is seen, in the substrata of reality that some people would call unreal, such witness always bears the fruit it was meant to bear, which is always good for others, a good determined and aimed by the God whom John served and whom Herod likely never really knew in this world.  Know that the IT which Herod had heard of and identified as John the Baptist returned from the dead to haunt and taunt him, is Jesus: Jesus the Son, the Lord, the Alpha and Omega, the one who saves, who loves, who sustains.

Herod is gone, though he surely has his successors in our time.  But Jesus lives, and reigns.

And that is today’s good news.

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2 thoughts on “Of Prisons and Palaces

  1. “Know, that somewhere below what is seen, in the substrata of reality that some people would call unreal, such witness always bears the fruit it was meant to bear, which is always good for others, a good determined and aimed by the God whom John served and whom Herod likely never really knew in this world.” Thank you, John, for this extraordinary telling.

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