King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’ For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
Sometimes bad things happen at parties.
Today’s story includes a heady mix of autocracy, fear, careless promises, bravado, grudges, revenge, and lap dancing. One wonders why this story is in the Gospels when Jesus is neither present nor speaks. On one hand it concludes the story of John the Baptist. We learn that he came to a terrible end on the whim of an angry woman who manipulated a young girl. This is the stuff of atrocity not that of the Scriptures, surely?
And yet. On the other hand, we continue to live in a world where atrocities occur. Terror groups continue to murder using savage and less savage methods. There are still autocrats who make rash promises to help insulate themselves and heads still end up on platters. There are people, women and men, who abuse and manipulate. It is a good question to pause and consider carefully who the villain even is in this story? Is it Herod, or the wife of Herod/Philip, or the girl, or the soldiers who carried out the order, or who?
This is a story where the central characters are not present. Jesus is not here. The story is about John but he isn’t present either. Perhaps that in itself holds up a mirror to the corners of the world where righteousness and truth are silenced. Herod is a man who feared the light, who feared righteousness and truth, who realised maybe that if he stepped into even the reflected light of Christ in John, that he would be found wanting. The best Herod could do was to protect John until he made some rash promises and found he could protect him no longer.
In this story we catch a glimpse of the worst of humanity. We know that stories like this one have recurred throughout human history. Stories like this remind us that while we might not demand our enemy’s head on a platter, that we all need Christ’s example to show us how to be better.
Holy One, you see the best of us, you see the worst of us.
Teach us how to be better, show us how to let go of grudges and those obsessions that diminish us.
We remember John, and all those whose lives have been snuffed out on a whim. Strengthen us to be better. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Rev’d Sarah Moore, Transition Champion for the National Synod of Scotland, member of Carver Uniting Church, Windermere