The Courage of John the Baptist

“The Courage of John the Baptist”
A reflection on Mark 6:18
Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time
©2022 by Gloria M. Chang

King Herod heard about Jesus, for his fame had become widespread, and people were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.” Others were saying, “He is Elijah”; still others, “He is a prophet like any of the prophets.” But when Herod learned of it, he said, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”

Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him. She had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. Herodias’s own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison. He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.

Mark 6:14-29

Confronting Herod

Filled with the Holy Spirit “even from his mother’s womb,” John the Baptist went before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah… to prepare a people fit for the Lord” (Luke 1:16-17). The desert ascetic in camel’s hair commanded the respect of Herod, who recognized him as a holy man of God. So long as the prophet stayed out of Herod’s personal affairs, the tetrarch heard him gladly.

John had no use for the patronage of the powerful. Detached from “wine and strong drink”—worldly pleasures and pursuits—by divine vocation (Luke 1:15), John spoke the word of God boldly to all levels of society. The “voice of one crying out in the desert” decried Herod’s unlawful marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip (Matthew 3:3; John 1:23). For the Torah forbade the union: “If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless” (Leviticus 20:21). Herod’s own wife and Herodias’ husband, still alive, witnessed the scandal.

Beheaded For Righteousness’ Sake

John offered Herod no excuses, loopholes, or alibis to save his own life. Off to prison he went, and off went his head—on a bloody platter—to satisfy a depraved mother-daughter pair. The twisted tyrant saved face in licentious company by “honoring” an oath made in bad conscience. 

Haunted by his evil deed, Herod feared the return of John in Jesus, for righteousness lives forever (Psalm 119:142).

Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:10

Refusing to flatter or cower,
John the Baptist spoke truth to power.

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