Of all the personalities in the New Testament engaged in ministry, Jesus showed no greater deference than that accorded to his cousin, John the Baptist – son of Zachariah and Elizabeth. John is the man who baptizes Jesus (Mark 1, Matthew 3, Luke 3), and the man who prophecies that Jesus is the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29). Jesus called John a “burning and shining lamp.” (John 5:35)
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, year B, contains the unusual and cruel story of John’s death at the hands of the family of Herod Antipas, ruler of Judea.
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.
Herodias 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.
His 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?”
Her mother 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.
The situation confronting John and Herod is, from the perspective of the biblical passage, self-explanatory. Herodias had left her husband Herod Philip, who was not in line to inherent the kingdom, for his brother Herod Antipas, who was in line to inherit the wealth of Herod the Great. John the Baptist publicly criticized Herod for taking the wife of his (still living) brother. In revenge, Herodias asks for John the Baptist’s head.
Herod did not want to execute John. Mark tells us in verse 20 of chapter 6 that Herod “liked to listen to” John. But Herod was put on the spot by his daughter, and the execution came back to haunt him. His courtesans told Herod of the mighty works of his disciples, saying “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead.” (Mk 6:14) This news echoes the antagonism suffered by his father, Herod the Great, (Mt 2:16) who ordered the massacre of innocents upon hearing of the birth of a messiah – Jesus.
After speculating as to the cause of the spread of his disciple’s works, Herod says, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.” This passage is in the Gospel rotation for Lent because the death of John – an innocent prophet – foreshadows the sentencing of another innocent man, John’s cousin Jesus.