Lectio Divina: The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist
1) Opening prayer
help us to seek the values
that will bring us enduring joy in this changing world.
In our desire for what You promise
make us one in mind and heart.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
2) Gospel Reading - Mark 6:17-29
Herod was the one who had John the Baptist 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' 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.
• Today we commemorate the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist. The Gospel gives a description of how John the Baptist was killed, without due process, during a banquet, a victim of the corruption and arrogance of Herod and his court.
• Mark 6:17-20. The cause of the imprisonment and the beheading of John. Herod was an employee of the Roman Empire, who ruled in Palestine beginning in the year 63 BC. Caesar was the Emperor of Rome. He insisted above all in an efficient administration which would provide revenue for the Empire and for him. Herod’s concern was his own advancement and his security. This is why he suppressed any type of corruption. He liked to be called the benefactor of the people, but in reality he was a tyrant (cf. Lk 22:25). Flavius Josephus, a writer of that time, claims that the reason for the imprisonment of John the Baptist was the fear that Herod had of a popular uprising or revolt. John the Baptist’s denunciation of the depraved morality of Herod (Mk 6:18) was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” and John was imprisoned.
• Mark 6:21-29: The plot of the murderer. The anniversary and banquet of the feast, with dancing and orgy, were the occasion for the beheading of John. It was an environment in which the powerful of the kingdom met together and in which alliances were formed. “The great of the court,” two officials and two important people from Galilee, participated in the feast. This was the environment in which the beheading of John the Baptist was decided. John, the prophet, was a living denunciation of that corrupt system, and this is why he was eliminated under the pretext of a personal obligation. All this reveals the moral weakness of Herod. So much power had accumulated in the hands of one man who had no self-control. In the enthusiasm of the feast, of the celebration and of wine, Herod makes a promise by oath to a young girl, a dancer. Superstitious as he was, he thought that he had to keep the promise. For Herod, the lives of his subjects were worthless. Mark gives an account of how the beheading happened and leaves the communities the task of drawing the conclusion.
• Between the lines, the Gospel today gives much information on the time in which Jesus lived and on the way in which power was exercised by the powerful of that time. Galilee, the land of Jesus, was governed by Herod Antipas, the son of King Herod, the Great, from the year 4 BC until the year 39 AD - 43 years! During the whole time of Jesus’ life on earth there was no change of government in Galilee! Herod was absolute lord of everything and did not render an account to anyone. He did as he pleased. In him there was arrogance, lack of ethics, absolute power, without any control on the part of the people!
• Herod constructed a new capital, called Tiberiades. Seffori, the ancient capital, was destroyed by the Romans in retaliation for a popular revolt. This happened when Jesus was about seven years old. Tiberiades, the new capital, was inaugurated thirteen years later, when Jesus was approximately 20 years old. The capital was given that name in order to please Tiberius, the Emperor of Rome. Tiberiades was a strange place in Galilee. That was the place where the king, “the great of the court”, the officials, the important people of Galilee lived (Mk 6:21). The landowners, the soldiers, the policemen lived there and also the judges, who were often insensitive and indifferent (Lk 18:1-4). The taxes and tributes and the products of the people were channeled there. It was there that Herod held his orgies of death (Mk 6:21-29). The Gospel does not say that Jesus entered the city.
During the 43 years of the government of Herod, a class of officials, faithful to the plans of the king, was created: the scribes, the merchants, the landowners, the tax collectors on the market, the tax collectors or publicans, the militia, policemen, judges, promoters, local heads. The majority of these people lived in the capital and enjoyed the privileges which Herod offered, for example, exemption from taxes. Others lived in the villages. In every village or city there was a group of people who supported the government. Several scribes and Pharisees were bound to the system and to the politics of the government. In the Gospels, the Pharisees appear together with the Herodians (Mk 3:6; 8:15; 12:13), and this shows the existing alliance between the religious and the civil powers. The life of the people in the villages of Galilee was very controlled, both by the government and by religion. It took much courage to begin something new, as John and Jesus did! It was the same thing as attracting to oneself the anger of the privileged ones, both those of the religious power as those of the civil power, both at local and state levels.
4) Personal questions
• Do you know any people who died as victims of corruption and the dominion of the powerful? And here, among us, in our community and in the Church, are there some victims of authoritarianism or of the excess of power? Give an example.
• Superstition, corruption, cowardice marked the exercise of Herod’s power. Compare this with the exercise of religious and civil power today, in the various levels both of society and of the Church.
5) Concluding Prayer
In You, Yahweh, I take refuge,
I shall never be put to shame.
In Your saving justice rescue me,
deliver me, listen to me and save me. (Ps 71:1-2)