Trinity 7 – The beheading of John the Baptist

Trinity 7

15 July 2018

Readings: Amos 7:7-15, Mark 6:14-29

Heavenly Father, as we gather here this morning to hear your word and to celebrate your sacrament we pray that you will open our hearts and minds to perceive your presence in all things and to transform us day by day into the people you made us to be from the beginning.  Amen.

Have you ever woken up one morning after a party with a bit of a hangover thinking, ‘what on earth did I do last night’?  And then, even worse,  you remember – “Oh no!”    Of course, you understand, I have never had that experience myself.  Now we aren’t told what Herod did the morning after the night of his birthday party but, I think you will agree, any evening which ends up with someone’s head on a plate has got to be a bit of an “Oh no!” moment.

As it happens the story of the beheading of John the Baptist is both fresh in my mind and quite close to my heart at the moment.  As part of my MA studies last term I had to bring a theological interpretation to a work of art and I chose to do a presentation on the opera Salome, who is the girl who danced for Herod, which means I spent a long time with not only Richard Strauss’ opera, but also the original play by Oscar Wilde and, of course, the biblical source material.  So I spent a good couple of months immersed in this somewhat visceral story, which was not always a comfortable place to be.

So, the beheading of John the Baptist by King Herod.  Before we go any further I should say that today’s Herod is not Herod the Great, who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth, who spoke to the Magi and who ordered the slaughter of the innocents.  If you remember we are told in Matthew that after Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary fled to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s paranoid persecution but in Matthew 2:19 we learn that they did not return to Nazareth until after that Herod died.  The events in today’s gospel take place some 30 years later and the Herod we are looking at today is the son of Herod the Great and is known as Herod Antipas, and before you ask, no that is not an Italian starter dish.

At the beginning of our 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 sound like the words of a guilty conscience.  Herod knows that he killed an innocent, holy and righteous man and he believes that, somehow, John has been raised from the dead.  Fans of Shakespeare may be reminded of Macbeth being haunted by the ghost of Banquo.

Having set the scene of Herod wondering who this Jesus is and whether he is being punished for the execution of John the Baptist we then go into ‘flashback’ mode and we hear how and why the execution took place.

[Entering into flashback – wibbly wobbly]

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 by Roman values.  Thinking about our imagery from 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 indeed.  And who was at the top of this part of Jewish society?  Of course it was the Herodian royal family, who were puppets of the Romans and seemed to live more like mini-Caesars than like observant followers of God.

Herod Antipas was married to Herodias and it seems that Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great and her first husband was a son of Herod the Great by another child and was therefore her uncle.  Herodias divorced this man and married his half brother, Herod Antipas, who was also her uncle.  I hope that’s clear.  I should have made a diagram.

John the Baptist was suitably outraged by this incestuous intermarriage going on at the top of Jewish society and he voiced his outrage 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.”

So 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.  Certainly in the opera it is Herodias and Salome who bring the psychopathic energy to the story, whilst Herod seems rather weak and manipulated.

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 also 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.