Lewd dancing. Political power run amok. Intrigue and betrayal. Accusations of adultery and even hints of incest. Drunken boasts and promises. And the one good guy in the story loses his head. Sounds like this is “ripped from the headlines” or at least an HBO-worthy series, right? Last I heard the most popular show on TV is Game of Thrones, which this story seems to have a lot in common with (except the dragons). But no, this grisly (and true) tale is told in the Bible. Then it must be in the Old Testament, when things were barbaric and all bets were off, right? Well no, this story is told, not once, but three times in the Gospels in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Mark, the story is found right in the middle of Jesus’ preaching and miracles (see for yourself in Mark 6:14-29).
In case you don’t have a Bible handy, here’s the Cliff’s Notes version (or trailer, for you kids): John the Baptist preached directly against King Herod’s adultery (the true king of Israel would never do such a thing). The king somehow still likes John, but his new (illegitimate) wife definitely doesn’t, so John gets thrown in prison. The king has a party, and his new step daughter is the featured entertainment. She probably wasn’t doing the chicken dance, because all these powerful men at the party went crazy for her. Undoubtedly the king was more than a little tipsy when, as a reward for her performance, Herod promised her “up to half my kingdom” (which is the kind of boast people did in those days). She consulted with her mom, who had her order up John the Baptist’s head on a platter, which she indeed received and passed on to her loving mother. Thus ends one of the grossest and weirdest stories you’ll find in the scriptures (and there’s quite a few).
This story is in the Bible, so we’re free to do any and all of that kind of stuff, right? Well, no, but I’m glad you asked, so we can clear this kind of confusion up. Ask a simple question: “Is this description or prescription?” Or: is this story a cautionary tale, or something to emulate? Is vs. Ought? Once that’s cleared up (sometimes it is obvious, sometimes not), keep going and ask: “Why is this story here?”
One of the reasons for this story is to show what happens when you follow Jesus. Make no mistake: the world and its values (power, lust, lies, murder) are often directly opposed to Jesus’ kingdom and his values (service, love, truth, life). If we stand up for Jesus’ values against those with worldly power, we just might pay the price. This should come as no surprise, because another reason for this story is to foreshadow what’s coming for Jesus himself: a grisly death at the hands of those in power. So be very careful if a politician or preacher is promising you power, prominence, or prosperity. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross.
There was a well-known German pastor and scholar who opposed the Nazi regime. He was hanged for his part in a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler (part of which was retold in the Tom Cruise movie Valkyrie). His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and he did and said a lot that is worth pondering (I’m happy to lend you a recent biography), and his most famous words are appropriate here: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
When the “good guys” run into the buzz-saw of the “bad guys,” the good guys often lose. As one of my favorite movies puts it: “So, Lone Starr, now you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb.” (Dark Helmet, Spaceballs) John the Baptist’s story ends with a thud: his people come and give him a proper burial. End of story. At least that is the end of this story, but thankfully not the end of The Story.
Ultimately Herod is dethroned and exiled after a failed attempt for more power. But keep reading Jesus’ story, and you’ll see his true power continues, and strengthens even after death, because he is resurrected in power and love. John’s story was key in Jesus’ story, and even though he paid the ultimate price, he was given the ultimate reward. Herod had many chances to hear God’s story, but he was too busy writing his own. His ending was final. John’s story as part of Jesus’ story continues to this day, because for Jesus, death is the new beginning.
You too, my neighbors and friends, are invited into The Story, into Jesus’ story, where life triumphs over death, power is in serving, and the end is the beginning.