It is hard not to focus on the gospel reading today. The story of the gruesome death of John the Baptist is compelling and has invited artistic representation over the centuries. Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” is one of the best known perhaps because of its own seductive appeal in late Victorian England. Sex, politics and violence combine in a scene that could easily, in our own time, be written into an episode of “Game of Thrones”.
It is one of the few places in the gospels where the focus of the story is not about Jesus, although the same people who feared what John might provoke were worried that Jesus could be a reincarnation of that threat. John the Baptist fades in the gospels as the story of Jesus unfolds. But here, in the usually succinct and to the point Gospel of Mark, a significant amount of time is given over to the macabre death of the Baptist and to the intrigue and the scandal that surrounded it. It gives a window into the tawdry world of the preeminent tabloid personalities of the day, the family of Herod the Great. The Kardashians have nothing on this bunch.
Although a puppet of the Romans and not accepted by most of his people, Herod the Great was one of the most well known figures of the period. In fact, his importance and reputation are debated to this day. Herod was responsible for such architectural wonders as the development of the immense port at Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean, the building of two palaces in the refortified desert stronghold at Masada overlooking the Dead Sea and the massive renovation and expansion of the Temple in Jerusalem. All for the glory of Rome, for his people as King of the Jews and, of course, to the glory of Herod the Great.
Herod was ruthless in maintaining his power; we perhaps now remember him best for the Gospel story of his massacre of the children at the time of the birth of Jesus in an attempt to wipe out any possible pretender to his throne. Jesus and his parents fortunately were able to seek refuge in Egypt, whether legally or illegally, until Herod’s death. However, this was not Herod’s only claim to infamy. He was absolutely paranoid of anyone who might provide a challenge to his power. He had at least ten wives, one of whom he executed. He had fourteen known children, three of whom he had executed. He also had two of his brothers-in-law executed. He changed his will several times so that the line of succession was never clearly known.
On his death however, his kingdom was divided among four of his surviving children according the latest version of his will – Herod Archelaus as Tretrarch of Judea, Herod Antipas as Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, Philip as Tetrarch of an area north and east of the Jordan River, and his daughter Salome with a small territory in the region of Gaza. None of them was given the title of King. Herod was a little paranoid even in death.
The Herod we are dealing with in the gospel reading today is Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, son of Herod the Great. He was ruling when John the Baptist was actively calling the people of Galilee and Judea to repentance and out there in the desert, to prepare the way of the Lord. Antipas had inherited some of his father’s paranoia but he was also clearly wary and respectful of this prophet and his popularity and reputation among the people. John was one of those troublesome prophets we heard about last week. In the tradition of Amos who we read about today. Calling on those in power to change their ways, and if not to be prepared for God’s judgement upon them. Kings like Jeroboam and Herod never welcomed the visit of a prophet. Yet they also knew that the prophet spoke truth and revealed their own corruption and abuses of power, brought to light that which they preferred to remain hidden. So Herod had had John arrested when he started criticizing his marriage to his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. Herodias also happened to be Antipas’ niece. But Herod was not wiling to have John executed. Herodias on the other hand had no qualms about this and seized on an opportunity to have this annoying prophet killed. Her daughter danced for Herod and he was very taken by it. The New Revised Standard translation says the girl is Herod’s daughter, Herodias, but this is clearly a mix-up in the text. It was Herodias’ daughter and though another name is not given, the Jewish historian, Josephus, says her name was Salome. Herod was indeed so taken by the dance that he promises to give her anything she wishes, up to half his kingdom. She checks with her mother and Herodias sees her opportunity. “Ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” She was going to have her revenge in spades.
Now Herod did not need to do this. He could have denied the request. It was after all beyond any level of human decency. Even for the Herods. But Herod could not have people seeing him as weak. He was in the midst of a huge banquet. The guests had all heard him make this promise to the dancing girl and he needed to keep this promise. We can imagine that there was some fear in his mind. John was a righteous man. God would not be pleased with Herod. But political expediency was more important. So he sent off a soldier to behead the prophet and to bring his head back on a platter. Such was the world of the Herods. Such was the world in which Jesus lived. Such was the story that came back to Jesus about what happens to those who are on the wrong side of the Herods.
This past week I took a book off my shelf that has been sitting there for some time. A biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The first and really definitive biography written by his closest friend, former student and fellow pastor, Eberhard Bethge. The book is about four inches thick and so a bit daunting. I have read another biography and many of Bonhoeffer’s works and you may recall that I have talked about him in sermons before. It seems to me imperative to look more deeply into Bonhoeffer in these times. He was a theologian and a pastor in the 1930’s and during the Second World War in Germany and a critic of the rise of fascism. He was a leading member of what was called the “Confessing Church”, the Church that refused to submit to its recreation in the Nazi guise and took a confessional stand against it in what was called the Barmen Declaration. He lived out his life and ministry in a community that at great cost refused to discount the lives of others based on the criteria of race and ethnicity that was at the heart of the Nazi ideology. In one of his most important books, The Cost of Discipleship, he calls on the church to wake up to what it meant to be a person of faith and a follower of Jesus in those difficult days. He called on people who had been comfortable in their traditional Christianity in Germany to move out of that comfort zone and to follow God’s call in their lives to live out the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, no matter what the cost. His friends helped him to get out of Germany in 1938 to go to the United States, to a teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. But he came to understand that he could not in good conscience participate in the inevitable reconstruction that would be required in the church after the coming war if he did not live his life in the heart of the conflict and so he boarded the last ship that sailed from New York to Germany before war was declared in 1939.
During the war, Bonhoeffer was able to maintain links with the churches involved in the ecumenical movement and to attend meetings in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland after being recruited into the work of the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization. He was involved in passing information to the allied forces as part of the resistance and along with others in the Abwehr was involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. When suspicion of this came to light he was arrested and imprisoned. While in prison he was able to send out letters which were posthumously published as the famous Letters and Papers from Prison. It seems that like John the Baptist there was some fear of executing Bonhoeffer because of his wide network of connections. However, the publication of the diaries of one of the plotters, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris threw Hitler into a rage and eventually Bonhoeffer and Canaris were hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1944, a month before the war ended.
It is difficult to discern the prophetic voice and to know when we should listen. There are of course, always, many different perspectives on the state of the world and where we as people of faith and followers of Jesus should locate ourselves. And hindsight always makes things more clear. We know about Herod and Hitler. About John the Baptist and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We don’t know so clearly about our own time. But we do know that we are called to have ears to hear and eyes to see. And like John and Bonhoeffer, we are called to serve God and to seek justice and righteousness in the midst of complex and uncertain times. Not knowing. Not being aware. Not being discerning. Not striving to be a community of love in the midst of these times. These are not options for the followers of Jesus. There are consequences and costs to being faithful disciples of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus’ first disciples were made more fully aware of this when they heard the news about John. Perhaps that is why Mark’s gospel gives the story such a prominent place. The violence done to prophets clarifies something about their struggle. And it deepens the call to justice and faithfulness in our own lives.
It’s hard to call this passage good news. But it points to good news. The breaking in of the reign of God in our world. John’s martyrdom foreshadowed the way of the cross and the new life that would be born from it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is famously quoted as having said just before his execution, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” The prophet’s voice will always run up against those who use power to justify any kind of horror and injustice. It is a dangerous dance. But we’re called to take the lead and to live our lives to transform the kingdoms of this world into the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God.