29 August 2014Matthew 14:1-12
“At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus” (v. 1)
Today the Church recalls the beheading of John the Baptist; a strange and little-known feast if ever there was one! Today's passage gives the Gospel of Matthew's account of the event, but it seems tells the story almost as an after-thought. What it says about Jesus is more important. We hear of the growing report about what Jesus was doing - even the ruler of Galilee had heard of him and was saying Jesus was actually John raised from the dead with great powers. This is as good a time as any to tell us the story of John's death.
Herod Antipas (son of the King Herod of Christmas Nativity fame), ruling over the Jewish province that included Galilee, had broken two Jewish laws in relation to his wives. He unjustly divorced his first and then married his half-brother's wife. John the Baptist (powerful local prophet and cousin of Jesus) voiced the orthodox Jewish opinion on this matter, in what may have been an ongoing campaign against him. So Herod had John imprisoned. He wanted him out of the way, but John's popular reputation saved him initially, as Herod feared upsetting the crowds.
Herodias (the villainess in the story), however, had other ideas. On Herod's birthday she sent her daughter to perform a 'pleasing' (erotic) dance for Herod and his esteemed guests at this licentious party. And, publically, drunkenly, Herod promised her whatever she wanted in 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 (and his wife) or prevent the wrath of the Jewish public. Ultimately, it was John who lost out.
Jesus was informed of his cousin's death - not just a family tragedy, but also a powerful marker at this half-way 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 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? Is Matthew's Gospel trying to prepare us for what's to come?
- Herodias found that the only sure way to cover up the sin of their relationship was to silence permanently the accusing voice. Sin to cover up sin; murder to hide immorality. When do you see this awful cycle repeated in today's society? Where does it lead? How can Jesus bring this cycle to an end?
- Read on a little way (Matthew 14:13-21), and see how Jesus, trying to find somewhere solitary to grieve quietly, was followed by a great crowd: the feeding of the five thousand! The one who came to prepare the way had completed his work; Jesus (the one who was to come) was to be elevated to a whole new level.