The realism of the gospel story sometimes gives us a glimpse of real evil, as it does with Herod in Mark 6:14-29. Hearing of the mission of Jesus’ twelve disciples, travelling two by two, he fears Jesus is John the Baptist reborn – and Mark doubles back to tell the story of John’s earlier death.
John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod because of his criticism of his liason with Herodias. This was against Old Testament law, both because Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother, and also because of their close relationship (in a family tree that is very complicated!). Adultery and incest may be good for selling books and films, but Christians stand against both because of the need for families to be places of security for people to grow into adulthood and be safe from exploitation. Few families are perfect, but “anything goes” means the vulnerable and weak pay the price, often a heavy price!
Herod is torn. His wife wants revenge, but he knew that John was a “good and holy man” and “liked to listen to him, even though he became greatly disturbed every time he heard him”. Why? Because he is guilty, and knows he is wrong. But he won’t do anything about it. John stays in prison. – perhaps he was frightened of the political consequences of letting him go. (Josephus says that is why he had him killed).
Then a Princess dances at his party, and he makes a foolish promise. Herod should have seen the danger, and even after the request should have said no, given the girl something else, and sobered up. But instead, John is murdered. Later, Herod’s guilt appears as he hears of Jesus. He knows he is wrong; perhaps he is even frightened. Is that enough? No, because he won’t change sides; he won’t repent – that would mean going beyond knowing he is wrong, even saying it, to turning away from it.
So what is Mark telling us? Yes, that guilt is a terrible thing to live with, but to get rid of it, you need not only to know you are wrong, and say that, but to repent. To turn away to what is good, and do that.
But Mark is also setting the scene. It’s not just about Herod and John. John was a prophet, preparing the way for Jesus. His truth telling takes him to prison and death. What will happen to Jesus? Will he also end up being buried by a few friends?
You know the answer – or do you? Yes, Jesus will confront the evil; evil that will not be won over by good, that cares only for itself. But who will win? Appearances can be deceiving; Jesus will die – and rise. Herod, Pilate, the plotters: they are the ones who will disappear and lose.
Herod was not a nice man. He was given every chance, but failed to take each opportunity. He thought, rather guiltily, that he had removed a threat. In fact, he had been swallowed alive by evil. Don’t be sorry for him, keep a safe distance.