Trinity 6 – A prophet beheaded
Sunday 11 July 2021
Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29
There was once a great and united kingdom. However, as its glory days passed and its power waned it was divided into ever smaller constituent parts, each with its own government. The part of the kingdom which controlled the capital city was ruled by a quixotic man who was married to a strong woman who controlled his actions from behind the scenes. The court of this leader was morally bankrupt but when people of faith dared to ‘interfere in politics’ by questioning the dubious moral choices of those at the top then he could be cruel and merciless.
I am, of course, talking about Israel at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist and Herod Antipas.
At the beginning of our gospel passage news has reached Herod’s ears that a man called Jesus is going about performing miracles and healings and everyone is wondering who this Jesus is:
“Some were saying, John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead…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.”
These are the words of a guilty conscience. Herod knows that he killed an innocent, holy and righteous man and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead. Fans of Shakespeare may be reminded of Macbeth being haunted by the ghost of Banquo.
As we know, John the Baptist was a fierce preacher and proponent of a return to holy and clean living. He saw Jewish society being corrupted. Thinking about our imagery from the prophet Amos this morning, John the Baptist was holding a plumb line, or perhaps a spirit level, up to the society of his time and found that it had gone wonky. At the top of this part of Jewish society was the Herodian royal family, who lived more like mini-Caesars than as observant followers of God.
Herod Antipas was married to Herodias who had previously been married to his half-brother. John the Baptist was outraged by this quasi-incestuous marriage and he voiced his indignation to Herod by saying:
“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
And indeed Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21 forbids a man to have sexual intercourse with his brothers wife, although, interestingly Deut 25 commands it when his brother died without leaving a son, although that is not the case here.
Although these prophetic words are spoken to Herod Mark tells us that it is his wife Herodias who takes most offence:
“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.”
Although Herod had John arrested and taken into custody Mark tells us that Herod may actually have done this to keep him safe from Herodias.
Of course, John the Baptist is not the first biblical character to incur the wrath of a queen for daring to speak out about their morality – there are real echoes here of the prophet Elijah and his denunciation of Queen Jezebel in 1 Kings, and that is far from accidental as many view John as the returning Elijah, heralding the messiah.
So Herod seems to have John in protective custody but not only did he know that John was a righteous and holy man but, it seems, that Herod was intrigued, if confused, by John’s teachings:
“When he heard him he was greatly perplexed,and yet he liked to listen to him.”
It would have been very easy for Mark to have portrayed all of the Herodians as being almost like cartoon villains, but here we are being told that despite all his other faults that there was something going on inside Herod which recognised that there was something special in John and wanted to protect that from harm. I am reminded here of the way in which Pontius Pilate, and in that case also his wife, recognised the holiness of Jesus.
But despite Herod’s apparent desire to protect John an ‘opportune day’ came for Herodias. It was Herod’s birthday party and the Herodians had a reputation for knowing how to party.
And as one would expect everyone was there – in our translation it says “the courtiers, officers and leaders of Galilee” – in another translation it sounds even grander as it says : “his lords, military commanders and magnates of Galilee.” Anyway, you get the picture, anyone who was anyone in the ruling class in that part of the world was invited to this birthday party.
And like all good parties it really got going when the dancing girls arrived. Although in this case, and perhaps this is indicative of the slightly strange, not to say inbred character of the royal household, the dancing girl is Herod’s own step daughter. Actually it is even more complicated than that: She seems to have been Herodias’ daughter by her first marriage and was therefore Herod Antipas’ niece (on her father’s side), his grandniece (on her mother’s side), and his step daughter by marriage to Herodias. I hope that is clear.
Some commentators have been shocked at the thought that a Jewish king would have a young girl, especially one of his relatives, dancing to entertain a group of men at a party like this, but it should be fairly clear by now that the monarchy at this point had rather departed from traditional or devout Jewish values, and of course that is exactly what John was telling them off for!
In this atmosphere of general debauchery the young girl danced for the men and we are told that is ‘pleased’ Herod, so much so that he promised her half of his kingdom. I suspect that this was not the polite sort of pleased – this was not a round of applause at the end of seeing a good play – the fact is that Herod Antipas and no doubt many of the men there were extremely pleased at this girl dancing for their pleasure and it was in that atmosphere of drunken, not to say, erotic pleasure that Herod makes his rather rash promise to give her anything she desires, up to half of his kingdom. And it probably says something about her age that the girl has to go and ask her mother Herodias what she would like and, of course, that is the moment for Herodias to get her revenge on John the Baptist.
Herod has painted himself into a corner – he has given his word in front of all these people. To break his word and, at the same time, to continue to spare the life of someone who had been so outspoken against his household, would have been the ultimate act of weakness, which is the last thing that any ruler can afford.
Herod was deeply grieved, but he knew he had no option and he sent for a guard to behead this holy man. And we then have this most grisly scene, in the middle of a feast the guard returns with John’s head on a platter and he hands it first to the young girl and she hands it onto her mother. One writer referred to this feast as the evil twin of the last supper, and it is easy to see why.
But for me, today, the tragedy of this story is not simply the execution of John. Herod did not just put John to death – I believe that he put his own better nature to death. Herod knew that John was a holy man and although John reminded him of his own sinfulness he liked to listen to him. Despite Herod’s best intentions he ended up ordering John’s horrific execution – whether it was drink, misplaced lust, the desire to show off in front of others we can’t tell exactly but we do know that Herod did something that he did not really want to do – he ended up killing someone that he did not want to kill. And where did that leave Herod?
Herod ended up being frightened of the reports of what Jesus was doing because this also reminded him of his failure to live up to a higher standard.
And I wonder how much that also applies to us? We are attracted and intrigued and called by holiness and yet so often we fall down and fail – often perhaps because we don’t want to look silly in front of others. Everytime we fail to live up to those high standards perhaps we feel a little bit further away from God, perhaps even a little bit afraid to hear about Jesus because that reminds us, that haunts us even, that we are not the people we really want to be, the people that God really fashioned us to be.
Well the good news is this: you are not beyond the forgiveness of God and the redemptive power of Jesus. No matter how often you have failed or fallen down and no matter how badly you think you have sinned God has not given up on you. The path to holiness is not a destination it is a lifetimes journey and everytime we recognise that we have fallen short of the glory of God and say sorry we move a little further along that path. And the amazing news is this: today we are closer to God than we were yesterday and tomorrow we shall be closer still, by the grace of his Son and in the power of his Holy Spirit.