Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-end; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29
ON THE way to Calvary, Jesus urges the onlookers to weep not for him, but for the city that is crucifying him. When John the Baptist’s death is viewed in this light, it is his killers who, likewise, stand in need of pity.
As Mary Healy explains, the relationships within the Herodian family “read like an ancient soap opera” of adultery and near-incest. The dance performed by Salome in this Sunday’s Gospel was “probably a seductive display that would have been highly unusual for a royal princess” (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Mark).
In his delight, Herod makes a rash promise: to give Salome whatever she asks — even half of his kingdom. It is a foolish attempt to impress his guests. As Healy notes, a client king under Roman occupation would not have had the power to grant such a request. Salome is prompted by her mother to ask instead for the head of the Baptist — turning this feast into a “banquet of death”.
Mark tells us that Herod is “deeply grieved” by Salome’s request. Even in his decadence, there is something in John’s preaching which speaks to the King and intrigues him. When he heard the Baptist, Herod “was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him”. Herod, however, is the captive of his appetites, and the appetites of those around him; he is too weak to act on the Baptist’s teaching, or to save him from Salome and Herodias.
After the event, the beheading of John seems to weigh on his conscience. On hearing of the ministry of Jesus, the King fears that “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
By contrast, the Baptist has the strength to speak the truth freely, even in the face of violent intimidation. St John Chrysostom urges us “to note well the weakness of the tyrant compared to the power of the one in prison”. Herod and his family have “been made captives by their pleasure . . . led around like sheep wherever the wolf may drag them”. Their attempt to silence John has only amplified his words of condemnation. “In our own day and through all future time, throughout all the world, John continues to refute Herod” every time this passage of scripture is read.
The Baptist’s earthly fate anticipates that of Jesus: both are seized and imprisoned, executed, and buried in a tomb. In his preaching and his death, John is, indeed, the forerunner of Jesus. But, through his paschal victory, Jesus is the pioneer of John’s salvation. With all who bear witness to Christ, John can now follow through the gate that he has opened to everlasting life.
This makes our epistle a particularly fitting companion to this Gospel reading. Its joyful affirmation of Christ’s cosmic victory forms a single sentence in the Greek — the longest in the New Testament. The hymnic quality of this passage draws a community that is “almost certainly experiencing some hostility at the hands of outsiders” into a celebration of their present and future life in Christ (Margaret MacDonald, Sacra Pagina Commentary: Colossians and Ephesians).
The words that are written to the Ephesians apply equally to John: “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.” They offer assurance to all who bear witness to Christ in a world where greed, pride, and violence seem to have the upper hand.
The Ephesians are commended for having “heard the word of truth”. As St Jerome observes, there is “a great distance” between hearing someone preach and hearing in that preaching “the word of truth”.
The distinction that Jerome is drawing encapsulates the tragic fate of Herod. The King heard the preaching of the Baptist, and was intrigued by it. But he failed to hear within it “the word of truth”, and so did not heed its invitation to repentance and new life. As our epistle reminds us, “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” are open to every human being who turns to Christ. God longs to “lavish” on each of his children the “riches of his grace”.
The table spread before us at every eucharist is nothing like Herod’s feast, which descended into a “banquet of death”. By the shedding of Christ’s blood, we are offered instead a banquet of forgiveness, grace, and life.