21 October 2019Matthew 14:1-12
Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. (v. 5)
Psalm: Psalm 80
It might strike us as surprising that, as much as John the Baptist ignites the imagination of Christian preachers, artists, and iconographers, one has to read all four of the Gospels to piece together a narrative of John’s life. The text found in Matthew 14:1-12 is an account of John’s death at the hands of Herod Antipas. Although Antipas orders the beheading of John, Matthew places responsibility on Herodias, the second wife of Herod. The depiction of Herodias’ manipulation of Antipas through the dance of her daughter, Salome, seems akin to the plot line of a Shakespearean tragedy, with John being the tragic hero. Salome, who was Antipas’ stepdaughter, seems little more than a means through which her mother intends to destroy a religious man. Why does Herodias want John’s head on the platter? The text tells us that he offended her by condemning her marriage to Antipas.
Why would John the Baptist have publicly criticised the king’s marriage to Herodias? First of all, Herod Antipas and Herodias were directly related. Herodias was the king’s niece, as well as the former wife of his still-living brother. John prophetically preaches against the royal marriage because it transgresses the prohibition against incestuous relationships found in Leviticus 18:16. Secondly, Herod Antipas agreed to divorce his own wife in order to marry Herodias. In the moral world of Matthew, the marriage could be viewed as both incestuous and adulterous. Matthew’s Gospel places great value on morality and ethical living. The heart of this gospel is the Sermon on the Mount, which contains much of Jesus’ teaching on ethics. It also contains important passages on caring for the naked, hungry, imprisoned, and any others who constitute “the least of these”.
What is not immediately apparent to the contemporary reader is the political tension that lies behind the story of John. Some commentators theorise that John the Baptist's killing was motivated entirely by politics. Herod Antipas’ first wife was the daughter of King Aretas IV, whose Nabataean kingdom bordered that of Herod. When Herod Antipas agreed to divorce his wife, the Nabataean princess, and marry Herodias, he caused great offence to his neighbouring ruler. The result was war and the defeat of Herod’s army (36 AD). Matthew tells us that John went across the border into Perea, under the rule of King Aretas, and preached against the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias. Thus, Herod could have perceived John’s condemnation as both a moral and political challenge. John’s beheading was an example of what happened to those who challenged Herod’s political sovereignty.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of John the Baptist's beheading not only functions as a way to explain how John died, it is also an example of the unscrupulous and immoral happenings in worldly places of power. The corrupt ways of Herod Antipas and Herodias are exactly the opposite of how the followers of Jesus are to live if they take his commandments seriously.
- Is it the responsibility of Christian leaders to express in a public manner their concerns about the actions of politicians or governments?
- To what extent should one’s religion or beliefs about morality affect the way one votes or otherwise engages with civil government?