Eph 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29
7th Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 15.07.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
What are the things that sell newspapers? The most popular papers in this country – the tabloids – tend to focus on sex scandals, on abuses of power, on murders, on celebrities and the royal family. And if you can link all those things together you’ve got a story that will send circulation figures through the roof.
Well, our Gospel reading appears to hit the jackpot. Here is a scandal involving a king and sex, a clear abuse of power and someone’s murder. Even Mark appears unable to resist the story, interrupting his narrative on the life of Jesus to report it.
A quick re-cap of the story: Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and King of Galilee, had imprisoned John the Baptist for daring to criticise his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. One evening, he is so entertained by his step-daughter’s dancing, he promises to give her anything as a reward. To which she replies, prompted by her mother, “the head of John the Baptist”. Fearing he will lose face in front of his courtiers, he orders John’s execution, and John’s head is duly brought in on a platter.
It begs the question, why was John the Baptist seen as such a threat, to merit firstly imprisonment, and then execution? After all, John was just a slightly wild, religious prophet, hardly a threat to an established King such as Herod Antipas.
For one thing, Herod’s personal life was scandalous, and John was prepared to say so. Herod had divorced his wife and Herodias had divorced her husband, Herod’s own brother if you will, to marry each other. The incestuous nature of the relationship was made even worse by the fact that not only was Herodias Herod’s brother’s wife, she was also his niece.The moral disintegration occurring in Herod’s court is shown yet further by the fact that his step-daughter performs a solo dance in front of his drunken, carousing courtiers. Today’s equivalent would be pole-dancing or strip-tease. And this a princess. But as is often the way with bullies, Herod is very quick to take offence. (We don’t need to think too far afield to think of world politicians who will lambast and ridicule anyone who dares besmirch their name today).
The Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, also points out that Herod may have perceived John as a political threat, someone whose popularity could be used to lead a rebellion against his rule. Herod wouldn’t take any chances.
And thirdly, John’s prophetic utterances about the kingdom of God were undermining Herod’s own claims that he should be the king of the Jews. Herod Antipas was determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, Herod the Great, and be named Israel’s true and only king. His continuation of his father’s Temple building project in Jerusalem was part of this plan – to associate himself with the holiest, most royal site in all Israel. And yet here was John speaking of a different kingdom and a different king.
To someone driven by the accumulation of power and paranoid about losing it, John’s brave and honest words were a clear threat.
But two thousand years on, what does this somewhat depressing story of immorality and abuse of power have to say to us?
Firstly, it is a reminder that moral failure in leadership is a recurring theme throughout the centuries. Our leaders – be they political, social, spiritual or economic – often buckle under the pressure. We see politics without principle, leadership without loyalty, authority without humility. This week we have seen the visit of an American President, who no matter your views on his politics, I think it is fair to say has taken the tone of political discourse, what is acceptable to say about others and how it is said, to new lows. We have seen a government cabinet torn apart over Brexit, whether by principle or by personal ambition. Our world cries out for a different kind of leadership – a leadership of dignity, of respect, of compassion. Our desperation, our longing, for such figures has prompted us to look for them in even the most unlikely of places. Gareth Southgate, the England football manager, seems to have become elevated to such a position for the simple reason that he has conducted himself with a dignity and humility that has won respect. As we look at Herod, as we look at the actions of our own politicians, it asks the questions: Are we praying for our leaders? Are we praying for a transformation in the way that power is exercised?
Herod’s actions also highlight the dangers of making rash and foolish promises – he promises to give his step-daughter whatever she wants up to half his kingdom without first thinking through the implications. But it also highlights that having made the mistake, he should have had the moral courage to say no to her, even at the cost of losing face and breaking his word. When in a hole, stop digging and climb out. That may be true for our politicians – I wonder whether the Brexit promise of hundreds of millions of pounds more funding for the NHS on our exit from the UK may be one of them – but it can also be true for us too. Rather than being bound by rash statements we should not have made, it is better to admit our mistake and seek to rectify the damage.
But the most important lessons we learn from this story come from John the Baptist. It took courage to rebuke in public a despot who had the power of life and death, who could not only imprison, but demand the execution of somebody on no more than a whim. Hundreds of thousands of political and religious prisoners around our world today know that reality. (An estimated 120,000 in North Korea alone). Yet, like John, they are prepared to make the stand. There is no guarantee of short-term triumph, of seeing unjust regimes come toppling down. There is no guarantee of protection: doing the right thing does not protect one from the petty self-interest of those in high places. John, like countless others before and after, dies a death without trial or justice. But the stand he takes – for justice, for integrity – is one we are all called to make.
The story of John the Baptist seems lacking in hope – he dies, Herod seems to continue regardless – but his stand for a better world endured far longer than the worldly power he came up against. Within 4-5 years, Herod was deposed from the throne and thrown into exile. In the same time-frame the kingdom that John spoke of was to be inaugurated by Christ through his death and resurrection, a kingdom that we heard Paul write about in our first reading, a kingdom full of blessings, love, grace, abundance, forgiveness, wisdom, hope, salvation. Now there is a kingdom that we can look forward to. A kingdom that will last for all eternity. A kingdom of justice and hope.
May we look to be part of God’s work in building his kingdom here on earth, through our prayers for our leaders and those taking a stand for justice and through our own willingness to stand for what is right.