Theme(s): John the Baptist /
Sentence: 'See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel' (Amos 7:8)
God our strength and our hope,
grant us the courage of John the Baptist,
constantly to speak the truth,
boldly to rebuke vice
and patiently to suffer for the truth's sake;
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
One of the roles of the prophets was to hold power and authority to account, to hold up a 'plumb line' by which the deviations from the Lord's ways were measured (though here it is the Lord himself who holds up the plumb line (8-9). Amos was such a prophet and John the Baptist was too.
Like John the Baptist, Amos has come to the attention of the king (Jeroboam, through Amaziah who is a tell tale!). Amaziah the priest says to Amos to clear off (12-13).
Amos' response is tell the story of his calling: "I am no prophet ... the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel'."
The king is less powerful than the Lord God.
(Amaziah and his family, incidentally, suffer greatly because of his antagonism towards Amos, verses 16-17).
If we read this passage from the psalm in the light of the gospel reading then we see the promise of God's reward (peace, salvation, good, 8, 9, 12 respectively) for one such as John who is 'faithful' (8), who 'fears' God (9).
We now switch from 2 Corinthians to Ephesians. Since this reading was also set down for 4 January 2015 I reprise the comment from then.
Ephesians is a great theological document in its own right as it sets out a vision of the universal, comprehensive scope of God's plan for the world, including the comprehension of all of time, from beginning to end.
Today we read it in tandem with our gospel reading and find some important connections. 'In the beginning was the Word' (John 1:1) connects with 'he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Ephesians 1:4). Talk of becoming the children of God in John 1:12-13 intersects with Ephesians 1:5. John sets out the glory and grace of Christ in one way (1:14-17) while Paul writing in Ephesians 1:6-7 does so in another way. Both passages have in view the concept of fullness - both the fullness of time and the fullness of life (see, respectively, John 1:1-5, 14, 16; Ephesians 1:3, 7, 10).
Mark performs a trick of narration through word association.
Our reading last week (6:1-13) finished with the disciples succeeding in their mission. This week's reading begins with Herod hearing 'of it, for Jesus' name had become known' (14). Then Mark reports that some were explaining Jesus' mission in terms of 'John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead and for this reason these powers are at work in him' (14). Verses 15 and 16 then report that others were saying that Jesus was Elijah and yet others thought him one of the other prophets while Herod dismisses the alternatives and declares 'John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.' Thus Mark creates the cue to tell the story of John's execution (17-29). 'For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John ... (17).
Observation: Mark always through his gospel is pushing the cause of the identity of Jesus. (He is slightly biased!) Here he presents the possibility that Jesus' (by now) obvious mighty power and impressive authority is related to other human figures such as John the Baptist, Elijah or another famous prophet. His plan is to show that Jesus is more than this and immediately after the story of John's death he will tell us the story of the feeding of the five thousand (6:30-44), a miracle which goes beyond anything anyone else has done. In 8:27-30 he will take up this presentation again, and nail down that Jesus is 'the Messiah.'
Question: Why does Mark tell us about the death of John the Baptist and tell us at such length? (Neither Matthew nor Luke, both of whom almost certainly knew Mark's Gospel, rate the story as worth the length Mark gives it). Let's see if we can answer that question at the end of this comment!
Back to the story: This Herod is Herod Antipas. For more details on his life, marriage and its political implications, head to Wikipedia. The key point here is that John is not merely critiquing the morality/legality of Herod's marriage (for which, see Leviticus 18:16; 20:21) but he was touching on the political toxicity of Herod offending Aretas the Nabatean king who was father of his first wife (17-18).
Unsurprisingly, Herodias the wife has a grudge against him (19) but she cannot have him killed because Herod is hesitant. He may have miscalculated the political fallout with Aretas but here he calculates the local political fallout if he has John - respected widely as a holy man - killed. Besides, Herod himself (somewhat intriguingly) has a personal regard for John: 'Herod feared John' (20).
But Herod has to reckon with not one but two clever women. His daughter (either called 'Herodias' or 'the daughter of Herodias', also known from other sources as Salome) dances for him and when he offers her whatever she asks, she doesn't reply straight away but seeks her mother's advice (21-24). Herodias (senior) sees and takes her opportunity by telling her daughter to ask for John's head (24).
The story then goes through unsurprising details about Herod's sorrow that he will have to give the young woman her wish lest he embarrass himself before his guests (26). (Note that 'shame and honour' are important to his cultural world).
So the orders are given and John is beheaded (27) - an outcome sadly all too familiar to us today from news reports from Syria and Iraq. The head is brought 'on a platter' and given to the girl. She, of course, gives it to her mother (28). That part of the story has a completed circle.
The last part of the story is poignant. 'When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb' (29). When we read this verse we realise that Mark is anticipating the death of Jesus himself (compare 6:29 with 15:46).
So Mark takes time here to tell at great length why and how John died because he is anticipating the later story of the death of Jesus. A death which will need to be explained (how does a good man die the death of a criminal?) just as John's death has needed explaining. Here he lays the ground work for how the story of Jesus will unfold.
Along the way, we have also seen that John the Baptizer was a brave and bold prophet who spoke truth to power.