Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honour by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"
Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus' name had become known. Some were saying, "John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him." But others said, "It is Elijah." And others said, "It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old." But when Herod heard of it, he said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised."
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife!" And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, "Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it." And he solemnly swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom." She went out and said to her mother, "What should I ask for?" She replied, "The head of John the baptizer." Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
The contrasting motivations between the readings today remind one of the contrast of colours in the famous novel by Stendahl (Marie-Henri Beyle) Le Rouge et le Noir. In Hebrews we have the exhortation,"Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect hospitality" .. a fine, heartfelt invitation to all that is best in Christianity. What a contrast with the brutal play of passions: lust, resentment, cynicism and callous violence that led to the beheading of John the Baptist.
Herod's superficial hedonism, publicly condemned by the Baptist, led him step by step to this tragic execution. Urged on by the venom of Herodias and the licentious dancing of her daughter (who may have been called Salome), and prevented by human respect from protecting one whom he regarded as a good man, the venal king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John's head. What a far cry from the ideals of love, hospitality, honouring marriage and living a life of simple dignity, as counselled in the epistle. But even in this moment of dire crisis and in danger of his life, John the Baptist must have renewed his act of faith with that ultimate Psalm of promise, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"
Today's gospel scene is one that has inspired artists and playwrights over the centuries. The sumptuous banquet in Herod's palace for his birthday turns out to be a banquet of death. Mark follows this scene with the feeding by Jesus of the multitude in the wilderness. It is as if the evangelist wants to set Herod banquet of death over against Jesus' banquet of life. John the Baptist is described in the gospel as a "good and holy man." He courageously spoke God's truth, God's way, and that is why he was beheaded. Jesus was crucified for the same reason, because he proclaimed God's ways, God's purposess, by what he said and did. We are all called to proclaim the ways of God as revealed to us by Jesus. That will call for courage at times, the courage displayed by John the Baptist and Jesus. One of the traditional seven gifts of the Holy Spirit is courage. Today, more than in the past, we need a courageous faith; we need the courage of the Holy Spirit to witness to the values of the gospel, as John and Jesus did. A courageous faith is not an arrogant faith, but it is a firm faith, an enduring faith, a faith that holds firm when the storms come because its roots are deep. We pray today for the gift of such a faith, the kind of faithfulness that shaped John's life and death.