Reflection – Mark 6: 14-29

On a day when we welcome our new curate, the gospel reading reminds us that being a Christian leader can have a real cost.

We last met John the Baptist preaching and baptising, but now he is in prison; he has annoyed Herod, because he has challenged him on his behaviour, and quite probably also on his politics and approach (we know a bit more from the ancient historian Josephus on this). The story of John’s grisly execution is told in some detail, the exotic court and the erotic dancing of Salome. Herod is so enamoured of her dancing that he makes a rash promise, never expecting the response he gets.

John is an object in this story, not the least, reduced to a severed head on a platter. We should shudder – this is grotesque. At the end there is a pre-echo of how things will be for Jesus, and the whole passage is sandwiched between the sending out of disciples and their return, telling Jesus what they had seen and done. Jesus will go on to provide a meal for the crowds, a simple meal of bread and fish but it will fill them – what a contrast to the exotic banquet. And the figures of Herodias and Salome (not named by Mark) are in stark contrast to the women who will be with Jesus at his crucifixion, or even the two women we met in the previous chapter, the woman who suffered from bleeding and the girl, the daughter of Jairus

So what do you take from this grisly story, beyond the shock factor? Maybe a reminder that many Christians down the centuries and still today suffer for their faith; maybe a challenge for us to speak against what is wrong rather more boldly; maybe a reminder that powerful people often abuse the power they have, a reminder that torture and vicious killing is still happening; a reminder that there is still a deep well of poisonous violence that spills out over too many people, people of Christian faith, other faith and no faith.

Today’s gospel reading is one of the few where Jesus is almost entirely absent; where Herod is the central figure and John the one who suffers from his abuse of power. Herodias his wife is a partner in crime – possibly an echo of Ahab and Jezebel from the Old Testament.  The gospel message is located within the politics of the day, and Christian discipleship cannot avoid the current politics – for avoiding an issue, or ignoring it is also a political response, an acceptance of the status quo.

in our own Christian calling, this gruesome passage reminds us of the harsh reality of the world for so many, the harsh and casual disregard for the life of others, the depths of casual evil in the hearts of some. Does it stir us to action?

Rev’d Peter Reiss