There are days when proclaiming “Praise to you, O Christ” after the reading of the Gospel just doesn’t feel right. Yesterday was one of those days. Go ahead and read the Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptist, and see if you don’t agree with me! There’s a lot going on here, and none of it really feels like good news. There are options when a text like this is assigned for a Sunday. You can preach on the lesson from the Hebrew Bible, or from the epistles. You could change the text altogether (no one may ever even know!). You can have a hymn sing, instead.
All of those thoughts went through my mind last week, as I tried to avoid dealing with this bloody, depressing text. But, in the end, I decided to go for it, because sometimes (often) the real world is bloody and depressing, too. Our scripture doesn’t shy away from the realities of the world and neither should we. But that doesn’t mean those realities get to define and control our lives. God’s reality gets to do that. Let me know what you think!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
A high-powered lobbyist was quoted in the Washington Post as saying: “There’s only two engines that drive Washington: one is greed and the other is fear.” This quote was offered a few years ago, but it could have been said yesterday. Or fifty years ago. Or 1,000 years ago. “There’s only two engines that drive Washington, that drive Rome, that drive Herod’s court: one is greed and the other is fear.”
Today’s Gospel story, the beheading of John the Baptizer, is full of greed and fear. It’s full of powerful people and power-seeking people. It’s full of intrigue and scandal and ultimately death. It feels out of place in the Bible, at least out of place in the gospels, with its blood and gore and sexual insinuations. But honestly, it doesn’t feel that out of place in our world. It’s a story that’s been repeated over and over again.
King Herod Antipas, one of the three sons of Herod the Great, is ruling in Galilee. He’s not a popular king, and he holds onto his power in ruthless ways. He has married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. The main problem at this point is that Philip is actually still alive.
And John the Baptist, preaching repentance and a return to the ways of God, gets wind of this, and has the guts to tell King Herod: it is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife. Herodias wants this man dead—he is a threat not just to her position as queen but really to her life—, and in a compromise, he is arrested and kept in King Herod’s prison.
Herod doesn’t want to kill John, apparently, because he knows that John is a righteous and holy man. I love what Mark says about Herod’s interactions with John: he was greatly perplexed when listening to the prophet, and yet he liked to listen to him. John’s preaching calls into question the very foundations of Herod’s power—and yet the king is strangely drawn to this preaching, intrigued.
But Herodias has her opening at the king’s birthday feast. She sends her daughter, confusingly also called Herodias in Mark’s story, often called Salome, in to dance for the king. We know from the Greek words used that this is a young girl, probably twelve or thirteen. And her dancing so pleases her stepfather that he says he will grant her whatever she wants—up to half of his kingdom.
This was the same promise given to Queen Esther, who used it to save her people. Salome goes back to her mother, who we know has something less noble in mind. The head of John the Baptist. The girl embellishes a bit and demands it on a platter.
Herod is described as being torn. He does not want to kill John, but feels compelled by his promise. He cannot suffer the loss of honor and reputation that would follow backing out of a public promise. And so John, without trial, without justice, is killed.
This is a story that we know almost too well. A story of a righteous person being trampled by a powerful person. A story of justice being crushed beneath greed. A story of people backed into corners, trying to protect themselves, and in doing so killing others.
This is a story that’s been repeated over and over again. We’ll see it repeated in Mark’s gospel in just a few short chapters with Jesus, standing before another ruler who feels he has no option but to kill a righteous man in the name of preserving power. We’ll see the Apostle Paul die for telling the Roman Empire that it was not in fact God. Thomas More is beheaded by Henry VIII for holding to his convictions in the face the king’s self-interest. Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis for daring to speak against genocide. Martin Luther King, Jr. shot because he dared to call on our nation to repent and return to the ways of God.
As if real life weren’t enough, we see this story again and again in our fiction, in our movies and TV shows. Game of Thrones, the Sopranos, House of Cards, Mad Men. The anti-hero, ruled not by morals or righteousness, but by greed and fear. It’s a compelling story.
I think that we’re so drawn to this story because we recognize the truth in it. This is no fairy-tale. We see in Herod’s story, in all of these stories, an honest truth of our world. Power is dangerous. Power corrupts. Often those in power don’t listen to what they know to be right in order to preserve their own positions. Herod didn’t. Pilate didn’t. The priest in our reading from Amos didn’t. He didn’t listen to the word of God because it would mean losing his own power and authority. Often the vulnerable are exploited. We know this story. We know this narrative because we were born to this world that says power is good and vulnerability is bad. We were born to this world that says greed is good and selflessness is weak. We were born to this world that says it’s all about looking out for yourself, no matter the cost.
But—and this is a very important but—this is not the only narrative available to us. We get into this whole story about the beheading of John, because Jesus’ disciples are going throughout the countryside teaching and preaching and healing. Jesus is amassing followers because of his message of inclusion and mercy and redemption for all people. Herod gets wind of all this and he is afraid that John has been raised from the dead.
John hasn’t been raised, of course, but what lives on is his words. What lives on is his hope. What lives on is the redemption and grace that he offered. All of the prophets killed through the ages are alive in Jesus, who God does raise from the dead.
God offers us a different narrative. A narrative where power is found in relationships. Where power is found in being vulnerable and broken. Where power is used not for self, but for others. This might not be the narrative to which we were born, but it is the narrative to which we are reborn. It is God’s story of redemption and hope and mercy for all people and that is the story that we are a part of. It is the story of John and Jesus, and Amos and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, and Bonhoeffer and Romero and King. It is a story that will always be contending with Herod’s story. A story that will always be told it’s not realistic enough, that it needs to realize that’s not how the world works.
But it is our story. A story of grace instead of vengeance, mercy instead of grudges. Generosity instead of greed. Vulnerability instead of pride. Hope instead of fear. This is the story to which we were each called, the story in which we were reborn at our baptisms.
Herod may have killed John the Baptist, but he could not kill the good news of God’s story that John brought. God’s story, God’s hope and love, will always rise from the ashes of those who try to put it out. There’s only two engines that drive Washington, the lobbyist said, fear and greed. That may be so, I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God’s kingdom is driven by very different things: redemption, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Amen.