30 August 2010Matthew 14:1-12
"Prompted by her mother, she said, 'Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.'" (v.8)
Today the Church remembers John the Baptist, and we focus on the
story of his execution, from Matthew's Gospel, included at this
point almost as an afterthought, or a footnote. Matthew writes of
the growing report about what Jesus was doing - and how even the
ruler of Galilee had heard of him and was saying that Jesus was
actually John raised from the dead - and then remembers he hasn't
actually told us about John's death.
Herod Antipas (son of the King Herod of the nativity story), ruling in a Jewish province, had broken two Jewish laws in relation to his wives, unjustly divorcing the first and then marrying his half-brother's wife. John the Baptist (a powerful local prophet and cousin of Jesus) voiced the orthodox Jewish opinion on this matter, in what may have been an ongoing campaign. Herod had John imprisoned, although we are told he wanted to kill him from the start. John's popular reputation saved him initially, as Herod feared upsetting the crowds.
Herodias, the villainess in the story, had other ideas however, and on Herod's birthday she sent her daughter to perform a 'pleasing' dance for Herod and his esteemed guests at this licentious party. And, publically, drunkenly, Herod promised her whatever she wanted as a reward. On the nod from her mother she asked for John's head on a platter and Herod found himself in a catch-22 situation: save face with his guests or prevent the wrath of the Jewish public. Ultimately, it was John who lost out.
Jesus was informed of his cousin's death. This was not just a family tragedy but also a powerful marker at this halfway point in Matthew's Gospel: the one whose role was to 'go on ahead' has shown just how dangerous the path is. Ultimately, the kingdom of God always meets opposition against those seeking to secure their own earthly kingdoms.
There were many factors at play on the political and religious scene at that time. What are the similarities between John the Baptist's story and Jesus' execution?
This story is clearly seen as a foreshadowing of Jesus' death - a dark ominous warning of what can happen on the paths of justice and goodness. But hidden within it, can you also see the glimpses or hints of resurrection?
Herodias found that the only sure way to cover up the sin of her relationship with her brother-in-law was to silence the accusing voice permanently. Sin to cover up sin; murder to hide immorality. When or where do you see this awful cycle repeated in today's society? Where does it lead? How can Jesus bring this cycle to an end?