Where is God at the beheading of John in Mark 6?

The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 7 in this Year B (though not in every Year B!) is Mark 6.14–29—and it feels distinctly odd by any measure. If you are a good Anglican, and ensure you read not only from the NT and the Psalms but also from the Old Testament every week, it will have been less of a surprise. By contrast, if you are into popular culture and have become a fan of the TV series Game of Thrones, or perhaps play the latest generation of video games, then it will not seem strange at all. But what is the passage doing here, as part of the ‘good news’ that Mark offers us of Jesus, and why does he give so much time to it in his shortest of gospels—much more time than he gives to his description of the resurrection, even despite the efforts of later editors of the end of the gospel?

You might well have heard a well-structured, engaging exposition of the human actors here, as I did a few years ago in the church we were visiting. It is not so much Game of Thrones as a game of consequences, which each stage of the drama unfolding tragically but with some inevitability into the next. What happens if you are born into a family whose patriarch is a ruthless but insecure tyrant (Herod the Great) who forged a regime from nothing and was a monumental builder, but achieved this by having his own wife and two sons executed? What happens when you live with bitter rivalry, having inherited both your father’s ambitious and his insecurity, which leads you into war and ultimate defeat? What happens when your sexual interests lead you to fall in love with your own relation (Herodias was Herod the Great’s grand-daughter by Mariamne)? What happens when you are at the same time disturbed and fascinated by a prophetic voice of criticism and cannot resolve this conflict in yourself? What happens when you blurt out impulsive promises which make you vulnerable to the scheming of others close to you? None of this ended well for Herod Antipas, who finally lost his power and his throne—but it ended worse for those around, including John the Baptist, who lost his head.

We are left with a poignant moral tale, full of dynamism and pathos, told in a such a way as to inspire many a Hollywood film script. The moment of hubris comes as Herod declares, repeatedly and with growing emphasis, his delight in his daughter:

The king said to the girl, “Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.” And he promised her with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.” (Mark 6.22–23)

And this is almost immediately followed by his nemesis, his downfall, made the more stinging by his daughter asking not just for the head of John the Baptist, as her mother had directed her, but asking for it ‘right now’ and ‘on a platter’. The dishes on which Herod had served his guests the choicest foods as a demonstration of his lavish generosity and wealth would now serve up to him his folly and his pride in front of those very same guests—in the most gruesome way possible.

Jesus is rejected by the people of Nazareth in Mark 6 video discussion

The gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 6 in this Year B is Mark 6.1–13, and is yet another example of Mark’s highly concise storytelling that is packed with theological narrative significance. The passage combines the conclusion of this section of Jesus ministry, and recounts the startling rejection of Jesus in his hometown of Nazareth (though … Continue Reading

Jesus calming the storm in Mark 4

The lectionary reading for Trinity 4 in Year B is Mark 4.35–41, (the reading for Trinity 3 in other Years B) the account of Jesus calming the storm. It is a fabulous story both full of little eye-witness details, and yet at the same time impossible to read without feeling its symbolic significance. Unlike Matthew, … Continue Reading

Disputing the Sabbath in Mark 2 and 3

Oh Mark—where have you been, with your dynamic directness, your parataxis and imitation of Old Testament narrative, your puns on ‘straightway’ and your dense biblical allusions? We have missed you! And yet—it is we who left you, whilst you have been waiting patiently all this time. We were seduced by the Beloved Disciple, with his … Continue Reading