John the Baptist was convicted, convinced of his ordination to prepare the way of the Messiah with a call to repentance. Herod Antipas was conflicted, assailed by contradictory impulses within himself and vulnerable to pressures outside himself.
John the Baptist gave meaning to the word courage in his unswerving commitment to his mission of truth and promise. Herod Antipas gave meaning to the word fear in his commitment to self-preservation.
These contrasts emerge as we consider the flashback account of John's death prompted by Herod's belief that Jesus, whose influence was growing, must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.
John the Baptist proclaimed the messianic promise that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2). His was a summons to own the truth of one's sin and enter the waters of his baptism as a sign of commitment to newness of life. It was a compelling message that drew the faithful in huge numbers.
If the repentant faithful were drawn to the Baptist, seeking a word of cleansing and a reason for hope, others had very different reactions. Some religious leaders, who coveted their role as the true arbiters of the faith, were skeptical, if not hostile. When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism, John sensed their hypocrisy. Such candor could hardly have been endearing.
However, the truth-telling that ultimately proved fatal was confronting Herod about his adulterous marriage to his brother's wife, Herodias. This judgment so angered Herodias that she wanted John killed. Though Herodias did get Herod to put John in prison, getting him killed was another matter. Herod feared the Baptist and therefore protected him.
What was Herod's fear all about? He could not have been happy with John's judgment against his adultery. There is no evidence that Herod repented. Yet we are told that Herod knew John to be righteous and a holy man, and Herod liked to listen to him. Was he like we are sometimes, sensing a hard truth about our lives, uneasy but not ready to accept it? Why risk offending God by harming John; he could be a true prophet after all. Was that it? Or was it also fear, as the ancient historian, Josephus, claimed, that the power of John's message might stir a rebellion.
Herod was not loved by all. His more zealous enemies considered him a collaborator with Rome. Herod, a small time ruler, not actually a king, was beholden to Rome and vulnerable at home. As the drama played out, he was vulnerable to his wife as well. Beguiled by his daughter's sexually charged dancing and its effect on his guests, Herod makes a rash promise. Herodias leverages his need to appear resolute in front of his politically important guests to get her wish; John is beheaded. Conflicted within himself about John's message but surrounded by manifold political and family pressures, Herod does what he knows is terribly wrong. He is deeply grieved.
It is tempting to see in Herod a parable that speaks to leadership in government, economic and institutional life in our own time. Persons in positions of power are subjected to powerful pressures that pose a threat to their own security. Personal pride, greed for gain and prestige, and the influence of ambitious intimates can also play a role. Under the sway of these encroaching forces, the courage to serve truth and the common good can flag. The results may not be as gruesome as John's execution, but the damage can be even more extensive. Even exemplary leaders who are devoted to the welfare of those dependent upon them frequently find themselves mired in a morass of conflicting forces that stymie their best efforts. Certainly there are prophetic voices like John's today also. Yet, the impact often seems minimal. When wealthy interests can now influence the presidential election by giving anonymously to non-profit "social welfare" organizations, citizens without such economic power might wonder if their needs are being served. Indeed, one could feel a bit like the Baptist's disciples: nothing left to do but bury the body.
However, while we dare to pass judgment on the sins of a powerful few, our text reminds us that John reached out to the many. His call to repentance was not just for Herod and the religious leaders, but for all Judea, which is to say for all of us. When faced with terrible choices of our own we may be tempted to turn aside from what we really know to be right for fear of the consequences. The Baptist's call to repentance strikes home, but there is another side to his message. John the Baptist always pointed beyond himself to Jesus, the Christ. This Jesus, this Son of God, had come to bring God's promise of forgiveness and deliverance from evil and death. This is the dawning of God's kingdom that John proclaimed, a reign of peace with God and one another. This ultimate assurance of God's love and acceptance of us all is a promise of freedom from captivity to a controlling fear for ourselves. With this freedom born of divine grace comes the courage to seek truth and goodness for our neighbors and our world. Like the Baptist we are freed to point beyond ourselves to reflect the Christ in care for the needs of others, to love as we have been loved. Even when faced with the terrible choices of an imperfect world, choices in which it seems impossible to do or even know what is right, when even love and courage seem insufficient, we have assurance. It is the unconditional assurance that in the agony of our uncertainties we have the certainty of God's love.
Editor's Note: ON Scripture - The Bible is a series of Christian scripture commentaries produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks. Each week pastors from around the country will approach the lectionary text of the week through the lens of current events, providing a religious voice that is both pastoral and prophetic.