Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, ‘This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her.’ Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, ‘Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.’ The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
Today’s reading is like the first draft of a film script: The King, the Dancing Girl and John. Its storyline is one that is familiar to most of us, albeit often in a jumbled form. It is so familiar because many who have gone before us have recognized its dramatic potential. They have created films, plays, ballets and programme music inspired by the strength of John and the weakness of Herod.
John, from his conception, was destined to take on the mantle of the Old Testament prophets. He was the one foretold who would prepare the path for the long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One of God, who we know as Jesus Christ.
As John brought his message to the people he called for ‘repentance’, that is a ‘turning back’. John was aware that humanity would fall short of the good news of the coming Messiah. He also knew that the only appropriate way to prepare for that coming involved the casting aside of human sin and a personal re-dedication to following the paths laid for us by God. As an outward sign of that commitment to repentance, John also brought baptism. In his time, we know that Jesus himself shared in that ritual cleansing of all that is sinful, in that ritual moment of committing ourselves to God.
Of course, both Jesus and John lived in a dangerous world. For John, the greatest danger lay in the person of Herod. This Herod, the son of Herod the Great, the one who tried to kill the baby Jesus, whilst claiming to be the King of the Jews, demonstrated great contempt for the Jewish law. In particular his marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, revealed the extent of his depraved lifestyle. Whilst many would have recognized this, it was John who shouted it from the rooftops. The rest, as they say, is history. A birthday party was thrown; the beautiful step-daughter danced; the wife plotted; John was brutally executed. But … this is not a film script, it is Scripture. The familiarity of the story should not anaesthetize us to its message.
At this point in Matthew’s gospel, we are being reminded of what lies ahead for Jesus.
We are being reminded that if we truly commit ourselves to following Christ, the going could get tough.
We are reminded of the importance of honesty and courage in the face of the fiercest opposition.
We are being shown what could happen, and we are being asked to hold firm to our commitment.
Are we strong enough for all that?
Is our faith strong enough that we might trust solely in God’s love and grace, no matter what?