Herod himself had arranged John’s arrest and imprisonment. Herod had married his brother Phil’s wife, Herodias. John had called Herod on it, saying “It’s against the law to marry your brother’s wife.” Herodias, therefore, had wanted to have John offed, but Herod wouldn’t allow it because he recognized that John was divinely inspired, which both confused Herod and at the same time aroused his curiosity. So Herod was afraid to allow anything to happen to John.
Eventually, the time came on the occasion of Herod’s birthday banquet. All kinds of dignitaries and important people, the who’s-who of Galilee, were there for the occasion, and Herodias’s daughter performed a dance that so thrilled Herod and the assembled guests that Herod said to her, “You may ask for whatever you like, even half the kingdom, I swear, and whatever you ask for you shall have.”
The girl went running to her mother exclaiming, “What should I ask for?”
Without a whit if hesitation, her mother told her, “Ask for John the Dunker’s head.”
So the girl rushed back to the king and said, “I want John the Dunker’s head. On a platter.”
Herod regretted to do it, but to avoid the embarrassment of not keeping the promise he’d made in front of his guests, he hated to refuse her. Right away, Herod sent one of the guards with orders to bring John’s head. The soldier went to the prison, cut John’s head off, returned with it on a silver platter, and presented it to the girl, who in turn, gave it to her mother.
Upon hearing of this, John’s students came, took his body, and buried it.
All joking aside, what can be the purpose of this gruesome story?
It’s purpose is to demonstrate, in crystal clear terms, what happens to people when they take on those who are in power: they tend to get killed.
It comes just after the disciples are given their mission of going out into the world. As if to say, when you start turning people’s lives around and standing up for what is right, look out. And it comes as a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus for taking on those powers. (The note about John’s students coming to get the body is also setting the stage for the contrast in Mark 15:42-47 where Jesus’ disciples will not come to get his body.)
This story is a dramatic picture of what Luke quotes Jesus as saying: “If you want to follow me, count the cost.” (Luke 14:25-33)
Christianity, before the established version we see most often today, wasn’t for wimps and politicians. It was for those who were willing to stand up to politicians (especially those who, like Herod and his guests, sell off peoples lives for the sake of entertainment), to be arrested, to be thrown in jail, and even to be executed.
For those who want to follow Jesus today, the implications are no different. Only the names of the politicians have changed.