The beheading of John the Baptist is a gruesome story. It’s also relatable. The way that greed and power function in this story are very familiar. Consider John the Baptist. We know that he’s a prophet but to the powers that be at the time he just seemed like a fringe voice. He’s a guy who dresses weird, eats weird food and hangs out in weird places. He starts speaking truth to power.
What John is preaching should probably be seen as a threat to Herod and to Rome. A message of repentance and the Messiah’s coming could disrupt the order of things. It’s interesting that what gets him imprisoned and killed is telling a wealthy and powerful person, “It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” or put another way “you can’t have everything you want just because you want it…” Sound familiar? John’s in prison for telling Herod, a man who always gets what he wants, “no.”
It’s easy to condemn this type of bad behavior, this miscarriage of justice when it is perpetrated by those with privilege and power. By kings and queens, by presidents and senators, billionaires and people we never actually meet. It’s right that we call it out, condemn it and pursue justice. Yet it’s troublesome how normal, how human it is to seek our own desires at the cost of others.
We see it all the time. It’s part of the human experience to throw tantrums when we don’t get what we want. If I’m honest, I do this too. My tantrums aren’t as obvious as a 6 year old’s but there are times when the Spirit comes with a word that I don’t want to hear, a word that I would like to lock away.
Now, Herodius is meant to be the villain of our story. The way she’s written about, we want to despise her. Recently, Herodius has become much more human to me. She lives in a time when a woman’s status was contingent upon the men that she was connected to. Herodius took a huge risk by leaving her husband to marry his brother. Her connection to a man, to this particular man, Herod…is literally her lifeline. It is her source of security, her income, the provision for her children. Now the prophet is saying, “this relationship isn’t right” and she is terrified.
Herod could repent and continue on with normal life pretty easily but Herodeus? Repentance would cost her everything. Turned out of Herod’s home, she can’t just go back to her first husband. He could have her stoned to death for adultery.. She would be socially and politically toxic. Who would risk taking her in? She can’t imagine a way forward. When the word of God comes to Herodeus, it feels like death. It’s disruptive to her life. She cannot imagine any solution other than to make it stop. Her problem was that in her desperation she lacked imagination. She couldn’t conceive of a God who could provide a way out. The word of God comes with conviction, making her so uncomfortable that she has to stop it.
Herodius needed a scapegoat. She decided that it wasn’t her sin that was the problem. It wasn’t God’s word or the sense of conviction that was the problem. John was the problem. How many times have we refused to hear the word of the Lord because we didn’t like who was speaking it? How many times have we actively tried to disqualify the prophet so that we wouldn’t have to take God’s word seriously? We make scapegoats and blame them for our unwillingness to repent. Herodeus waited for an opportunity to have John killed.
Herodeus doesn’t have the power to kill John, which brings us to Herod. Herod has John arrested but he also likes to listen to him. Have you ever encountered a word from God that stirred something inside you? I wonder if that isn’t what Herod’s experiencing. He’s not repenting but something’s stirring within him. Then one day Herod throws himself a party. All of the wealthy and powerful players are there. They hear him publicly promise a child anything she wants and Herod’s kid asks for the head of the prophet. Now Herod’s stuck. He knows it isn’t right to kill John. He’s been protecting John for a while now. He also knows that doing what’s right will cost him something. Maybe people will talk about him. Perhaps he loses a few points in the polls or the respect of his daughter. Doing what’s right comes at a cost but let’s be clear: Herod’s the most powerful man in the room. It comes at a cost, but the cost is not so high that he can’t pay it. He feels like he’s cornered, and he can’t imagine a way out. He gives in, saves face, and has John executed. It would be easy to simply write Herod off as the bad guy and distance ourselves from him. But haven’t we all taken the easy way out, even though we knew it wasn’t right?
This is a very human story that ends with a dead prophet. The outcome of sin, of greed and the misuse of power are gruesome and deadly. People still die because of it. Wisdom demands that we do not move on too quickly. Perhaps you’re probably wondering, “where is the good news in this story?”
It’s true that Herodeus succeeded in killing the prophet but the Word of God still lives. Remember that this entire scene is written as a flashback because Herod is afraid that John has come back. He’s afraid because the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is at work amongst the people and the world’s being transformed. And yes, they will kill him too. But our God does not lack imagination and death is no longer the final word. That is good news indeed.