Proper 10 · Mark 6:14-29 · July 12, 2009
By Joel P. Okamoto
Notes on the pericope
One who wants to preach on the basis of this passage should recognize (as the lectionary does not) that this story, about the death of John the Baptist, is an intercalation, that is, an episode inserted within another episode (in this case, the sending of the Twelve). Intercalations are a prominent feature of Mark’s Gospel. They draw attention to and interpret the surrounding episode and its meaning within the whole story of the Gospel. For example, the Beelzebul episode (Mk 3:22-30) comes between the resolve of Jesus’ family to get him, because he is said to be out of his mind, and the arrival of his mother and brothers, who call for him. This intercalation invites us to identify the family who thinks Jesus is out of his mind with those who have said, “He has an unclean spirit,” and it leads us to see that genuine members of Christ’s family are those who do the will of God. This intercalation also encourages to recognize that the Gospel as a whole directs us to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, to acknowledge that he came in the power of the Spirit, to listen to his Word, and to look forward to his return, when he will do for all who believe in him what he did in his first coming.
Recognizing the episode concerning Herod and John as an intercalation will make it clear that w. 14—16 are significant. These verses make the transition from the sending of the Twelve (6:7-13) to the death of John, and they indicate how John’s death relates to the ministry of Jesus and his disciples. Herod has heard of Jesus and his disciples, for his name was becoming known (v. 14). Some people were saying that he was John the Baptist, raised from the dead. Others said that he was Elijah. Still others said that he was a prophet like the prophets of old. When Herod heard about Jesus, he was like most of the people. He did not grasp the true identity of Jesus. He thought that Jesus was John, whom he had beheaded but now raised from the dead (v. 16). Then Mark relates why John had been imprisoned and how he was killed. Put very briefly, John was imprisoned and killed because he preached against the sin of Herod and Herodias, and because Herod valued his own reputation more than the life of this righteous and holy man.
This intercalation shows that the suffering and death of John foreshadows the suffering and death of Jesus. Already Jesus has encountered opposition and has provoked unbelief. For instance, the Pharisees and the Herodians already are plotting to kill Jesus (3:6; see also 3:20-35 and 6:1-6 for other explicit indications of unbelief). It is not clear, however, that they will get their way. Jesus has shown remarkable power and authority and, because of this, he has drawn crowds in most places. Only with this intercalation does the story itself show that Jesus’ ministry will end in suffering and death.
At this point, suffering and death are only suggested, but later Jesus reinforces this reading explicitly. He does this after the transfiguration, when the disciples ask why the scribes teach that Elijah must come first. Jesus explains that Elijah comes to restore all things. Then he adds, “How is it written about the Son of Man that he would suffer many things and be treated with contempt? But I say to you, Elijah has come, and they did to him as they pleased, as it has been written of him” (9:12b-13). With this Jesus identifies John as Elijah who was to come, and he links John’s sufferings with his own. Jesus also does this after he asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The answers here correspond to the opinions of chapter 6: some say, “John the Baptist”; others say “Elijah”; still others say, “One of the prophets.” After Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, Mark relates that Jesus began to teach how he had to suffer many things, be rejected, be killed, and after three 202 days rise again. Moreover, he teaches that anyone who would come after him must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him. This reinforces reading the intercalation as foreshadowing also the suffering of those who follow Jesus, because they also will encounter opposition (6:11).
We should not, however, read into this the crucifixion without also reading into it the resurrection. In a wrongheaded way, Herod himself did this by identifying Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead. John did not rise, but Jesus said that he would (8:31; 9:9; 9:31, 10:34), and he did. He promised the same, moreover, for all who follow him: “… whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:35).
Notes for preaching
The sermon based on this passage taken in this way might aim to encourage hearers to trust in Jesus and believe his Word. As I have been implying, this pericope should be preached as an intercalation. Explaining the concept is not necessary, and using the term is likely to be confusing. It would be necessary, however, to explain this episode in relation to the sending and the return of the apostles (6:7-13, 30-44), and also to other passages in the Gospel, including 8:27-9:13 (confession of Peter, first passion prediction, teaching on discipleship, transfiguration, question about Elijah).
When we read this passage in these contexts, it becomes clear that it says much to us about facing and withstanding opposition, rejection, and persecution. This text, which brings together John, Jesus, and the apostles along with their preaching, applies most directly to those called to the office of the ministry. But it has something to say to all followers of Christ. Disciples today should not be surprised by such reactions, and they should not bend to such pressures. Mark shows us that what happened to John was not an isolated incident but a preview of things to come for Jesus and for his followers. Overt persecution may not be a problem for many congregations in the Missouri Synod, but opposition and rejection of Christ and the Gospel may arise in subtler ways or on an individual basis. The message today could be:
Don’t try to save yourself, your reputation, your money, your family, or even your life by denying Christ and the Gospel. If you do, you’ll be sorry. But if you lose any or all of these things for Christ and his Gospel, then you will save your life. So take heart, no matter what you may face now or in the future. Just as Christ died but was raised, so also will you.
Given this text, it would be fitting to speak such words and make such a promise as one called, like the apostles, to speak for the Lord.