This is one of the very few stories in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus is not mentioned. Instead, the plot revolves around two men – John the Baptist and Herod Antipas, the Roman puppet king of Galilee, and two women – Queen Herodias, formerly married to Herod’s brother Philip, and Herod’s niece/stepdaughter.
John the Baptist was a man of conviction – determined that he had been called by God to prepare the way of the Messiah with a call to repentance.
King Herod Antipas was a conflicted man – seeking his own power and glory, while at the same time trying to keep the peace in Galilee, avoiding any conflict that would force a Roman intervention in his territory.
John the Baptist was a prophet, cut from the mold of the great figures of the Hebrew Scriptures, a profile in courage, if you will, expressed by his unswerving commitment to speak the truth to power, always a dangerous undertaking. John confronted the King over what he deemed an adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, to John a moral outrage.
The Baptist’s loud and close judgment so angered the blushing bride that she was determined to destroy him, if given a chance. Some scholars think King Herod put John in prison to keep the Queen and her henchmen from killing him, a kind of protective custody. Despite John’s rebuke, King Herod Antipas still feared and respected the prophet, considering him a man of sincerity and goodness. Mark says Herod liked to listen to John.
If we look back to the Baptism of Jesus, like so many other stories in the New Testament, this account tends to change progressively with each Gospel, with each gospel writer having a slightly different version of just who Jesus was. Our earliest Gospel writer here, Mark, never mentions things like virgin birth, donkey ride to Bethlehem, pre-existence, or any of that stuff. In Mark’s version of the baptism, John does the baptizing of Jesus, but maybe like a game of telephone, by the time the story gets past Matthew and Luke and over to John’s gospel, Jesus sort of just is baptized, with John only there to hang around as a witness. Something all four gospels agree on, though, is that John proclaims the start of Jesus’s ministry. It’s clear that Jesus’s entry into the world is closely tied to this guy.
Remember that John the Baptist is the son of Elizabeth and Zechariah who were thought too old to have children. And Jesus’s mother, Mary, seems to be the niece of Elizabeth, so John and Jesus were cousins.
Christians pretty much by definition believe that Jesus is devine, but, like the Gospel writers, not everybody agrees just when this divinity happened. (Some say at birth, some say at the baptism, some when he ascended into heaven, and others say pre-existing and always.) Mark clearly believes that Jesus was annointed to be the son of God at his baptism, with the spirit of God descending on him then. So Mark begins his story, his gospel, at the baptism because that’s where he believes Jesus’s importance begins.
A couple of decades after Mark’s Gospel was written, some people perhaps wanted more of an origin story for Jesus, (“where did he come from?) and Matthew provided that, including the new idea that Jesus was born of a virgin. So, decades after Mark’s story, we hear that Jesus was the only or unique son of God from the very beginning of time.
It seems to me that this pre-existent concept made this baptism thing kind of awkward (and perhaps why John’s gospel essentially leaves it out). For if Jesus was miraculous already at conception, why did he need his sins washed free or did John the Baptist have some kind of spiritual authority over him, making him greater than Jesus? How would that be? So Matthew adds a protest when Jesus is to be baptized by John who says “I need to be baptized by you.”
While the Gospel of John doesn’t really say that Jesus was baptized at all, there’s still a traditional association of Jesus with the Baptist that had to be accounted for, so the Baptist acts as a star witness. John the Baptist’s main job becomes telling people about Jesus but not hogging the spotlight. Here are a few of the things John shouts from the rooftops about Jesus:
It’s pretty dramatic stuff.
So the Gospel of John has no real baptism, and no temptation by Satan in the wilderness. In Mark and the other synoptic gospels though, Jesus seems more a very special man, who can be meaningfully tested because he might fail the test; In John, if he’s already divine, what would be the point? Perhaps it’s easiest to pick just one Gospel to read,
Today’s story about the Baptist’s execution happens in all four Gospels. Mark’s version here foreshadows Jesus’ own death by the hands of a political, if sympathetic, figure, and is the only version of the four in which Jesus was not the primary subject.1
However one understands the relationship between John and Jesus, one thing is certain: agents of God who challenge those in power usually suffer significant consequences.
Although Jesus is not mentioned, he is the key to understanding this story, which appears in Mark’s Gospel at the very point where Jesus’s fame and success is growing exponentially. John’s death here is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ Passion. The Baptist’s speaking truth to power brings his destruction, and we know that it will be no different for Jesus. Substitute Pontius Pilate for King Herod and execution by a cross rather than a sword, but the end will be the same.
Today’s Gospel lesson reminds us that the task of following Jesus is not easy. The road is rocky and resistance can be expected. We still live in a world where those entrusted with political power live in fear that their authority will be challenged. Our leaders today may not be as outwardly wicked as King Herod, they often seem just as spineless, and just as willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will get them or keep them in office.
Herod could have made a different choice here, but power, prestige, and self-aggrandizement had overtaken God in his life. Though our lesson says he loved to listen to John the Baptist, he would not risk his reputation and the respect of the people in order to spare John’s life.
I think there’s a warning here. We are always in danger of making choices that undermine our faith and align us not with God’s kingdom, but rather with the powers of this world. A little compromise here … a little laziness there … and suddenly we wake up in a place that is far removed from where we should be standing as faithful, committed followers of Jesus.
Our lives are filled with choices. Herod chose loyalty to his kingdom and the power it afforded him. He presided over a banquet of death. Jesus calls us to belong to Him, speaking the truth no matter the cost, working as best we can to bring justice for all, and living lives of compassion and concern for those in need.
Jesus calls us to live beyond ourselves. Let’s strive to do so with God’s help. Amen.
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