Commentary on Mark 6:1-29
When Jesus returns to his home place, he meets resistance.
Where earlier his family had moved to intervene and bring him home (Mark 3:12), now that he is there, he isn’t welcome. For some time, people have been responding to his call away from fear, toward belief (4:40; 5:33-34, 36). But not at Nazareth (6:6).
Mission of the Twelve and Herod’s surmise
If these doors are closed, it is time to knock on others. He sends the Twelve out on mission. They leave, two by two, with instructions. With this, a widening of Jesus’ mission begins, reaching areas beyond the edges of Galilee. It is marked by Herod’s question concerning the identity of Jesus. The answer (Mark 4:14-16) will be repeated when Mark’s narrative comes to the end of its Galilee phase (8:27-30), as Jesus and his followers turn toward Jerusalem, for the final act.
While the Twelve are away, Mark reports the death of the Baptist. Some scholars suggest that Mark’s gospel was intended to be recited aloud, rather than read quietly. It is good storytelling technique to have the listeners wait between the time of departure and return, and in this case, Mark fills the interim by telling listeners about what happened to the Baptist.
Within the account of John’s death, there are other storytelling features. The offer of “half of the kingdom” (verse 23) is a story motif unlikely to be found in a realistic explanation. But it does remind one of Esther (see also Esther 5:3, 6), and that is probably intended. Esther, remarkable for her beauty, was the Jewish queen of a Persian emperor. She protected her faith, her cousin Mordecai, and her people. But Mark reverses Esther’s story of sexual attraction for ulterior purposes. For that reason, we should find Mark’s tale even more troubling. She enticed the emperor to reverse the threat upon them, allowing vengeance on their enemies. Her story is featured on the feast of Purim.
This leads to an aspect of Mark’s story that today we find more troubling than perhaps in the past. The women in the account receive all the blame. The men are excused. Herod is sympathetic to John, but Herodias is unforgiving. When presented with an unlimited range of options, she cold-bloodedly asks for John’s head. And her daughter adds, more ominously, “on a platter.” And yet it is on the men’s experience of sexual allure that the story turns as a pivotal element. John is positioned in clear opposition to the set of values exhibited in the court.
In his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus, the Jewish historian, a contemporary of the evangelists, reports that John was executed by Herod Antipas for fear he might inspire a rebellion. He does not mention the beheading, but he does stress the injustice. John was righteous; Herod was not.
Mark has an agenda for the Baptist. He sees him as the voice crying out in the desert, and the beheading of John is an image that vividly depicts the desire by authorities to quiet that voice. But it also shows the futility of their effort, since from Mark forward, we continue to hear from him.
Also, John is described as the one who “goes before,” in contrast to the disciples who “come after” (Mark 1:2, 17). Mark’s narrative situates John in relation to Jesus. This role of preceding the “one to come” continues into the story of Jesus’ death, which it evokes.
Mark’s story of John concludes with a report that evokes the death of Jesus, as “they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29). The death of John alerts us to the future unfolding of Jesus’ own narrative in Mark. Jesus’ own mission will alarm those invested in maintaining a status quo that doesn’t admit too close of an investigation.
Furthermore, it will have suggested to Jesus that if he continues on the path he has taken, he will face a similar fate. As a matter of fact, Mark shows Jesus embracing that destiny, taking his case to Jerusalem. There he does in fact meet the cross that is intended to silence him, again to no avail.
Points for preaching might include the following:
- Prophetic action has a cost, but still remains utterly necessary. Truth needs a voice, and once it is voiced, it cannot be stilled. Resistance and persecution are not necessarily the results of disruptive behavior. They may be prompted by little more than the fear of having the truth brought into the open, especially when vested interests are involved.
- Any congregation will be arrested by the more colorful details John’s death. The story of “Salome” has been a theme of art, opera, and ballet. But the story adopts the point of view of John. It offers a critique of the intrigues of Herod and Herodias, and the behavior modeled by those in positions of leadership. In contrast to the story of Esther, this story views unfavorably the use of sexual attraction for ulterior purposes. In our world, this is a staple of commercial sales, or nearly any other area of public persuasion.
- The gospel protests sexual exploitation, especially when via the objectification of women or in other ways disregarding them as full participants in the human project.
- The practice of persecuting the prophets evokes the image of any censorship of undesirable publication. The story of John shows that the truth will come out. What is in the dark will reach the light.
- Finally, the story of John’s death anticipates the pattern of the cross. This is the gospel narrative, promised ahead of time, with John who “went before.” It is the same that the disciples must follow, after. “Come follow me” leads into the narrative of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection.
- Adela Yarbro Collins. Mark: A Commentary. (Fortress, 2007), 295-96.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Jesus, you sent many into the world to proclaim your kingdom on earth. Send us, equip us, and walk with us so that everyone can learn of your abundant love. Amen.
I was glad when they said unto me, C. H. H. Parry