Another meaningless murder. Another life destroyed. A massacre of holiday makers in Tunisia; Escalating violence in Iraq and talk of ground troop’s in Syria, A fresh bunch of flowers appears on the road side. A family, a community broken by a sudden and unforeseen death.
This is the world of this past few weeks, it is our world just as much as it is the world of Mark’s gospel. John the Baptist’s beheading wasn’t necessarily a unique event during the Roman occupation of Palestine—and, you could say, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t fit in our world today, especially when we witness the barbaric actions of terrorists in the Arab world.
For the sake of the stability of Palestine, Herod and others in the Roman administration had to douse the wild-fires of revolution spreading across the countryside by silencing protesting voices—and sometimes, as in the case of Jesus’ cousin, John, the best way to quiet the tongue, to silence a protest, was to cut off a head.
But we don’t remember this story in Mark 6 as just another example of the violence Empire’s, and corrupt regimes thinks is necessary to stay afloat in a sea of anarchic terror.
For some reason Mark thinks this murder is an important piece in the story of Jesus. But the funny thing about this episode in the drama is that Mark doesn’t really explain why we should think it’s important;
Mark begins his gospel with this enigmatic figure appearing in the wilderness baptising. After Jesus, it is the person of John the Baptist to whom Mark dedicates the most verses of his gospel – more than Mary or Peter or any other character within his compact edition of the life of Jesus.
Mark doesn’t tell us why John’s death is significant. He doesn’t explain why this bit of information fits in the story of Jesus of Nazareth.
Right after the story of John’s beheading, Mark returns to the disciples’ adventures as if the past 16 verses—the ones we just heard this morning—didn’t even happen. Except that he just spent all that time telling us about it. What’s Mark up to?
Why is this detailed story important?
We walk away from the text very curious. And here’s the question I think Mark forces us to think about: Is this death important to us?
If our answer is yes, then we have to ask a follow up question: Why is this death significant to us?
Mark doesn’t do the work for us. He leaves us on our own. How do we give this death significance? How do we make it important for our understanding of the story of Jesus?
The death of John is of course pointless, its senseless. King Herod cuts off John’s head for no significant reason—and so in one sense this story is not an important part of bigger story of Jesus.
And I wonder if this is not also true when it comes to all the deaths that we hear of and talk about today?
There is so much death in our modern time, and it seems so senseless—somebody killed over a grudge, like Herodias’ grudge.
Countless victims of war, of crime, of murder.
Another Father or husband taken before his expected time
For most of the deaths, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and now Tunisia even the streets of our own city their names mean so little to us. We may well stop for a minute to pay tribute, as we did last week on the 10th anniversary of the 52 people who were killed by the July bombers, and then we have to, we choose to get back to our lives and all that demand’s our attention from the moment we wake until the moment we take our rest.
For the most part those nameless people who we read of and are told about don’t play a role in the story of our lives, at least we don’t live and act like they do. They don’t really fit. They are senseless victims of violence. Victims of someone else’s madness. And that’s what Mark gives us in the middle of his story about Jesus—a senseless beheading, the product of a drunken oath, the consequence of that age old sin Pride.
By placing this death in the middle of the Gospel, Chapter 6, St Mark is placing a story about a tragic and senseless death in the middle of a far greater and more important story. The story of the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
And this maybe is the way in which St Mark is suggesting we understand our life and the lives of those around us. Because of the importance and significance of the death of Jesus our view of death is transformed, so that there is no truly senseless or meaningless death. When we consider John’s beheading, just as we should when we hear and see the victims of the violence of this world we do so in the context of the death of Jesus.
And here is the answer to question I asked earlier Why is this death significant to us?
John’s death is significant because Jesus takes into himself the wounds of all victims as he breathes his last on the cross.
Jesus’ crucifixion gives John’s beheading significance, and in turn brings a new understanding and hope in to the face of loss and tragedy so that death does not have the last word. This is the case for John the Baptist and it is now true for every other senseless and tragic death since that of Jesus.
When Mark includes John’s beheading in the middle of Jesus’ story, even when it doesn’t contribute anything to the unfolding drama, Mark wants us to see that every senseless death finds a place in Jesus’ story. It’s already there. John’s beheading shows us that victims of violence, even when senseless, belong to the story of Jesus.
And if death is important so then is life – the life of each one of us. It is in the writing of St Paul that we see this most clearly articulated. He, that is God, destined us for adoption as his children though Jesus Christ v5 of the fist chapter in his epistle to the Ephesians.
It is because through Jesus Christ that we enter a relationship with God like that of a child with a parent – precious and loved that we find the ultimate meaning in the meaningless fact of death because in v7 In him, Jesus Christ, we have redemption through his blood….
Let us therefore in the prayers we offer today and every day in the week ahead, echo the words of St Paul as he writes to the Ephesians: Blessed be God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.