John the Baptist, Whistle-blower Extraordinaire
7 Pentecost B
July 12, 2015
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This gospel gives us one fascinating, tangled up story of human fear and weakness, a story of the fate of a prophet who dares to speak the truth, a story of revenge and political expediency. All wrapped up in 16 neat, little verses.
We’ve got a couple of villains acting out in this tale, don’t we?
There’s Herodias the elder, the wife of Herod, who can’t stand John the Baptizer because he dares to speak out the truth. And what is the truth? It’s a condemnation of her and her husband Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, the puppet king of Israel under the Roman occupation. Herod Antipas broke Old Testament law by marrying Herodias, who was the wife of his brother—while that brother was still alive. There’s the catch.
So Herodias wants nothing more than to eliminate that old loudmouth troublemaker John the Baptist. And she seizes upon the opportunity to do so at Herod’s birthday party. And she probably scars their daughter, whom the text calls a “girl,” for life. This woman will stop at nothing in order to “do in” John the Baptist—she’ll even put her own daughter up to requesting a murder, then carrying the severed head of the prophet on a platter, in to her mom as a grisly trophy.
Now, our second villain is Herod Antipas. He’s a villain because he’s so worried about keeping his oath to his daughter at the expense of his better judgment. He’s also a villain because he’s more concerned about what the guests will think if he backs down / than about doing what’s right. He doesn’t have the backbone to do the correct thing and say “No, that’s not what I meant!” to his daughter and his wife.
One scholar who commented on this passage said that Herod is out of control with his use of power. He’s gone off the rails with it, because he’s acting out of a paranoid fear that his kingship is not secure.
And so this gospel is essentially about our propensity to do whatever we think we need to do / in order to preserve our own privilege or power—even if it means we kill God’s prophet—or even God himself / in the process. [Sermon Brainwave podcast for July 12, 2015 at www.workingpreacher.org]
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus doesn’t play any role in this story. Could it be that this is the lesson here: any time God is eliminated from human actions and thought, things will degenerate. “Apart from God’s promises, this is about all we can expect—good intentions gone bad, fearless candor rewarded with imprisonment, the triumph of the powerful over the powerless, . . . and so it goes.
“But as honest as our gospel writer wants to be about the story of the world, he wants even more to testify to the story of God’s great love for the world.” [David Lose, “In the Meantime,” blog post for July 12, 2015]
It’s important to remember that the antidote to this grisly story is given in the stories that surround it on both sides. Immediately before and after this awful story we have the account of Jesus sending the disciples out to do the work of the Kingdom of God—to preach repentance, to heal, to cast out evil—and then after the account of John’s death / comes the story of the disciples’ return to Jesus. And in the big picture of the entire gospel we have the story of God’s coming to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth—healing and teaching, embodying compassion and love.
And the big story continues even after Jesus himself meets his own tragic end at the hands of a different ruler—a Roman governor this time—who was too concerned about losing his own power to go against a different crowd. God’s story continues because of the resurrection of Jesus and the power of God—which is infinitely more than any ruler’s power.
Just look around and we can realize that the kingdom of God will always encounter opposition from many sources—whether it’s demonic, political, or individual. [Sermon Brainwave podcast for July 12, 2015 at www.workingpreacher.org]
But, in the end, love will win over hate, the last shall be first, and God’s weakness will be stronger than human strength. This is a fundamental promise of our faith.
May we believe it deeply. May we live our faith so that others may glimpse the astonishingly attractive virtue of hope that lives deep in our souls because of the Jesus story. And may this glimpse make them—and us—exceedingly hungry for the Good News of God in Christ.