Sunday, July 12, 2015

the death of St John the Baptist

May my words be in the Name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: + Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.

There is much that is unsavoury in the details of the events surrounding the death of St John the Baptist, which we hear of in our Gospel reading today. The tale begins outside of the Gospel accounts with the divorce of Herodias from King Philip, the brother of another of these local Jewish kings, Herod Antipas. We do not know what brought about this divorce, but we are told by the historian Josephus that it was Herodias that divorced Philip, something of a scandal in those days. It appears that she did so for the sole purpose of marrying her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas, and that marriage took place soon after – and at no little cost to king Herod, as he had to first divorce his wife, Phasaelis, the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, powerful ruler of a neighbouring kingdom who was far from pleased that his child, and therefore also himself, should be treated in such a disrespectful way.

This marriage was, of course, unlawful for those of the Jewish faith. This was no great difficulty personally for either Herodias or Herod – the royal families of the Jewish kingdoms were really only nominally Jewish both in breeding and religion – and as these petty kings were essentially Roman functionaries, backed by the power of the Empire, there was little likelihood of any political repercussions within his kingdom – a king, who has not only his own army, but also has the Roman legions at his beck and call is not to be trifled with – and the Sadducees and the Pharisees, so quick to scrutinise the activities of our Lord, seem to have thought it the wiser part of valour to ignore the shenanigans of the royal family.

But St John felt under no compulsion to behave with a similar discretion. These people were flouting God's law in a very public and unapologetic way. Their behaviour not only put their own souls in danger, but by their example they might lead others astray; for if the king may behave thus without anyone speaking out, then others may be led to believe that perhaps it is not so very wrong to do so. And if this law may be broken with impunity, then why not others? And so St John is the one to speak out, the only one brave enough and holy enough, the only one who loves God enough to break the silence of tacit acceptance of this transgression of his law.

Prison, of course, swiftly follows. King's do not like being criticised, particularly when that criticism might lead to popular unrest. Herodias wants the holy man dead – of course she does, for if Herod were to do as St John says, he would have to end their marriage, and where would a woman who had set aside one king for another only to be set aside herself in her turn ever find another king to marry? So the saint was a very dangerous man indeed to her.

But Herod refuses to have him killed. The surface excuse is that he fears that his execution might lead to an uprising of John's followers. But the deeper reason seems to be that he shrinks from so terrible an act as executing a holy man for speaking the truth. That would be more than murder – that would be a sacrilege approaching blasphemy.

So instead he puts him in prison. And, to what must surely have been to Herodias' horror, he goes and listens to him there. For who can doubt what St John had to say to the king, even as he sits in chains? Surely he would have continued to urge the king that there was still time to repent of the evil that he had done and spare himself from the wrath to come, to step away from this unholy marriage and return to living his life according to the laws of God. This must have been worrying time for Herodias.

But she need not have feared. Like a great many kings in history, Herod seems to have felt that keeping a holy man close, and protecting him from harm, in some way gave him licence to lead a life that was far from holy himself. He did not repent; he did not set his brother's wife aside. Instead he threw a huge birthday banquet for himself. And, if further proof were needed that Herod remained a man who was far from God's law, he called his own niece, now his step-daughter, Salome, to come and dance at this drunken celebration.

Being a dancing girl in the ancient world, for those who are not aware, was far from being a respectable occupation; they were generally slaves, rented out for the public and private entertainment of those who could afford them. That he would ask the girl who was legally now his own daughter to come forward for the leering entertainment of his guests speaks volumes about the depravity to which Herod had sunk; as does the manner in which he allowed his passions to become so inflamed by her dancing that he would promise her anything she wished for as a reward.

Herodias sees her chance and seizes it; and Herod is too weak and prideful to resist. And so he gives her what is not his to give, something that is never in anyone's gift, whether they be a great king or the most lowly and ordinary person alive – another man's life.

How happy Herodias must have been that day. The person who was the greatest threat to her had been eliminated. More, by forcing the king to execute John, she ensured that Herod could never now leave her; they were bound together by his blood, for Herod could not now or ever repudiate the marriage without admitting he had murdered an innocent man for no other crime than speaking the truth.

Her happiness was short lived. Ironically, this marriage was to prove Herod's downfall. His former father-in-law, King Aretas did not forgive the slight done to himself and his daughter, and within a few years he and Herod were engaged in a war that proved disastrous for the Jewish king. His weakened position after the conflict was exploited by his enemies, and Rome handed his kingdom to his nephew, Agrippa. Herod and Herodias were sent into exile and obscurity, vanishing so completely from the pages of history that neither the date nor the manner of their death is recorded.

It would be tempting to see the hand of divine providence in the downfall of Herod and Herodias, wicked people punished in this life as a result of their own wickedness; but that would be to make them the focus of the story, and they are not. I have not told you about them in order to impress upon you the idea that God will strike down the wicked in this life. For this is not so – Jesus himself taught us this in the parable of the wheat and the tares, explaining that God's judgement is in the next life, not this; and we all know from personal experience that good people may suffer in this vale of tears, even as we know that those who seem to us to lead lives of unmitigated evil seem to prosper.

No, I told you about Herod and Herodias so that you might better understand what it was that St John faced up to in challenging them, for it is he that is our focus. And John by his life and death teaches us that our life and liberty are not to be achieved at any price – the truth must be spoken whatever the cost. It does not matter how powerful and unscrupulous the enemies of God's Word may be or what dire penalties they threaten to inflict on his children for preaching his truth, particularly as it applies to the evil they do. We, like John, are called to preach that truth, in season and out of season. And we live in a world, I think, where the time is very much out of season, just as it was for St John. And so I conclude with the prayer that all here will be granted by God an equal measure of strength and courage to follow the example of St John this day and always. Amen

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