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7th Sunday after Pentecost - July 11, 2021

I will confess that I had a pretty good pun—maybe two pretty good puns—with which to begin this sermon. I found I could not crack a joke and then talk about an execution. Go figure. So instead, I am going to discuss the gospel reading before turning to issues raised by that passage that particularly concern me. I hope you will struggle with those issues too.

While Herod is called a king in Mark’s gospel, he actually never carried the title of king. He was a tetrarch, the ruler of a quarter of the kingdom his father, Herod the Great, an actual king, had ruled. Like most rulers, the younger Herod worried about his legitimacy. To begin with, he was not the first choice for the job. It was only after three other sons of Herod the Great were executed that his father allowed Herod to inherit any portion of the kingdom. Herod threatened his own legitimacy by divorcing his first wife to marry his half-brother’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist’s criticism was not the only problem with this marriage. Herodias was also Herod’s niece, so the relationship was incestuous. Little wonder Herodias was a bit sensitive about criticism from a religious figure as popular as John.

The story of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist appears as a flashback in Mark’s story. Herod feared John, “knowing that he was a righteous and holy man.” Although he had imprisoned John on his wife’s account, Herod had protected John from his wife. Herod even liked to listen to John. Herod nonetheless executed John for the most arbitrary of reasons: a rash oath Herod swore to his daughter. Herod’s pride kept him from breaking that oath, even if a man dedicated to God would die as a result.

In the Gospel, the execution of John the Baptist foreshadows the execution Jesus will suffer later. For John, death came from the capricious whim of a minor ruler. For Jesus, death would result from a conspiracy of the chief priests, elders, and scribes, aided by Pilate’s concern about the mob. Both deaths were sudden and unjust. Both arose when the powerful were threatened by calls for repentance, calls for a change in how people live in relationship with their God and with each other.

Does Mark’s story of John the Baptist’s execution have more to offer us than a history lesson and a literary device? From it, what can we learn about our relationships with God and with our neighbors? How can this story help us live more faithfully and genuinely as followers of Christ?