In this episode Mark illustrates the effect of the apostles' mission described in the previous episode, 6:7-13. The preaching of the gospel in word and sign has reached into the whole Galilean countryside. Even Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, has heard of the mission undertaken in Jesus' name. Yet Herod, affected by guilt and remorse after his execution of John the Baptist, is overcome by superstition. Is Jesus the Baptist risen from the dead? This episode illustrates the exceeding value of the Baptist, and by implication, the value of the "one more powerful."
v14-15. The response to Christ's placarding before the people is not one of faith in the coming messiah, but rather superstitious speculation. Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead, or possibly the promised Elijah, or even like one of the wonder-working prophets of old.
v16. Herod has heard of the different conclusions drawn by the people concerning Jesus and as far as he is concerned, Jesus is an apparition of John the Baptist - the one he beheaded has come back to haunt him.
v17-18. In the rest of the passage Mark explains what has led Herod to the rather strange conclusion that Jesus is a fleshly, or spiritual, embodiment of John the Baptist. Guilt, acting on a superstitious mind, can produce bizarre conclusions. On the basis of Levitical law, John the Baptist openly criticized the marriage of Herodias to Antipas. In seeking revenge for this insult, Herodias drove her husband to arrest John and inevitably tricked him into taking his life, the life of a person Herod admired.
v19-20. Initially, Herodias's murderous intent was frustrated by Herod's respect for John. He even gave him a hearing, although with limited understanding.
v21. So it was that an opportune day came when Herodias could force Herod to take John's life. It was at a birthday party when the leading courtiers of the realm were present.
v22-23. The daughter of Herodias, Antipas' stepdaughter, now a teenager, danced before Herod and his guests. In polite society, dancing was usually performed by servants or prostitutes, but in first century Rome it was now "anything goes." Herod was so taken by her performance that he offered her a handsome reward. Obviously, she would know that Herod's offer of half his kingdom was nothing more than a gesture, but the offer does have weight.
v24-28. Her mother prompts her to ask for the head of John the Baptist and she enthusiastically obliges. Herod is caught in a social trap and can't escape. His distress again illustrates John's worth, and by implication, the worth of Jesus.
v29. John's disciples, a group which continues to operate even after Jesus' death, takes his body and lay it in a tomb.
Some stories are so rich in imagery that they live in us, in fact, they can even become entwined in our culture. The seductive Salome dancing before her stepfather Herod, Herodias plotting the death of the Baptist and then both of them enthusiastically going for the kill while Herod protects his social standing, makes for a great story. It's such a great story; Hollywood did the film years ago. The characters are so real, Shakespearian even: Herod, the status-driven leader now overtaken by guilt and haunted by apparitions; the youthful Salome flaunting her sexual power; Herodias, embittered by her selfishness; John, the righteous man, overcome by circumstance.
Entwined in this powerful tragedy, this pure theatre, there is divine revelation. The story constantly projects the greatness of the good man done in by evil intent, yet whose greatness uplifts "the one more powerful" who follows in his footsteps. He too will be overcome by political intrigue and vacillating authority, but "you can't keep a good man down!" Evil may have its day, but good will triumph.
Then there is the context for this story. Herod, with his dark apparitions, hears of the "miraculous powers" at work in Jesus. The mission of the twelve has stirred up the whole countryside, and yet, as is so often the case when the gospel is proclaimed, the crowd is confused. Who is this Jesus? For some he is Elijah, the one who prepares the way for the coming messiah; for others he is like a wonder-working prophet. As far as Herod is concerned, this Jesus is a manifestation of John the Baptist, come back from the dead to haunt him. Does anyone realize Jesus is the messiah?
The secular media has never been a great friend of the Christian church, although much of the negative press is self inflicted. The problem of pedophilia in the church and our weak and vacillating approach to the problem, has left us wide open to criticism. So, a negative media is not necessarily the product of godless reporters. In fact, the general approach is to leave us alone, given our poor news value. Yet, our real failure lies with our unwillingness to promote the gospel through the mass media. Unlike the mission undertaken by Jesus' disciples, we rarely get to see the gospel become "well-known" in our community.
So, may Jesus "become well-known" in our nation, with as least amount of confusion as possible.
1. What hinders our use of the mass media?
2. Identify the causes of popular confusion about the gospel.