The Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Mark 6: 17-29
Jer 1: 17-19 / Psa 71

“Ask of me whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.” He even swore with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, even to half my kingdom.”
(Mark 6:22-23)

St. John the Baptist is our model,
For Truth his life he sacrificed;
May his courage be our example,
To be a herald for Jesus Christ.

Herod was the one who had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.” He even swore with an oath, “Whatever you ask I will give you, even to half my kingdom.” She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” She answered, “The head of John the Baptist.” At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to break his word. So he promptly sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard of it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. (Mark 6:17-29)

Reflection

Here was a king at the height of his power and glory, celebrating his birthday, surrounded by the most prominent citizens under his jurisdiction, entertained with sumptuous food, wine, songs and dancing. It seemed to him that nothing could possibly go wrong during this festive celebration. Until this proud and boastful tyrant swore an oath, which seemed harmless at the time, to a young dancing girl who had pleased them with her performance. Because of his oath, an evil schemer suddenly found an opportunity to wreak a wicked vengeance that caused the martyrdom of the greatest prophet who ever lived.

Could the events in today’s Gospel have turned differently if King Herod had simply said to Herodias’ daughter, “Ask of me what you wish, and I’ll give it to you”? He was, after all, the king and the celebrant, so he could have refused her morbid request and offered another option instead. By swearing an oath (in public), King Herod unwittingly put his head in the noose, and had to stand by his word so as not to lose face. How wise the words of our Lord Jesus, when He said, “I tell you, do not swear an oath at all . . . All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Mt. 5:34a,37).

Those who put little value on the truth resort to swearing oaths to prove the integrity of their words. A local politician has been in power for so long that he has become proud and boastful, spouting foul language and swearing in his own t.v. program. He should heed the wisdom of Sirach, who said, “Let not your mouth form the habit of swearing, or becoming too familiar with the Holy Name. A man who often swears heaps up obligations; the scourge will never be far from his house” (Eccl.23:9,11). Men of honor do not swear, nor do they have to make an oath, because they always stand by their word, and like St. John the Baptist, they are even willing to face death for the truth.

Dear God, as we commemorate today the martyrdom of Your greatest prophet, St. John the Baptist, we thank You for his example of humility and great courage, and his unwavering faith in winning the battle for Truth, despite all the evil forces against him. As Your model for us, we are grateful for these virtues that he has inspired in us. Amen.

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