ST. AUGUSTINE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
THE REVEREND BARRY GRIFFIN
Some claim the Bible is boring. I beg to differ. The gospel reading you just heard, the beheading of John the Baptist, is gruesome, twisted, and truly bizarre. You can’t make this stuff up.
You’ve got a diabolical, weak and immoral king: King Herod Antipas. He is the son of Herod the Great – that Herod who tried to kill the infant Jesus and eventually slaughtered all the baby boys of Bethlehem. Herod the Great also murdered his wife and three of his sons, among countless others.
One of his surviving sons, Herod Antipas, married his own brother’s wife, Herodias. This was a problem for the Jews, because Herod’s brother was not dead. Mosaic Law did not allow such an arrangement.
(Herodias also happened to be Herod’s niece, but that’s another story.)
Then there’s John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a prophet who never minced words. He spoke out against Herod (“It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife”), so Herod had John arrested and imprisoned.
Today’s gospel tells us that Herodias had a grudge against John, and she wanted to kill him. But she couldn’t, because King Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. “When Herod heard John the Baptist, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”
There’s one other main character in this strange drama: the daughter. She’s sometimes known as Salome, though that name is not used in today’s text. Today’s text refers to her as Herod’s daughter. Other ancient texts call her “the daughter of Herodias.” Pretty confusing, isn’t it? With such a family, it’s hard to keep track!
That’s the background. Here’s the plot. On his birthday, Herod gave a big banquet for those in his court, his military officers, and all the movers and shakers of Galilee. Herod’s daughter was quite a dancer. She danced for the crowd, and evidently she put on quite a show.
Maybe Herod had downed one too many goblets of wine. He swore to the girl, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.”
At that point the girl went to her mother, Herodias, and said, “What should I ask for?”
Unlike Herod, Herodias had her wits about her. The right moment had finally arrived. Herodias replied: “The head of John the baptizer.”
The girl returned to King Herod and announced: “I want you to give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
The king was distressed. But because of his oath and his dinner guests he complied. He sent a soldier of the guard to the prison. The soldier returned with the head of John the Baptist on a platter. He gave it to the girl. She gave it to her mother. The disciples of John the Baptist came and took the body and laid it in a tomb.
You can’t make this stuff up.
With all the evil and gore in this story, it’s easy to overlook its one positive aspect: the integrity of John the Baptist.
John the Baptist spoke the truth. As we sometimes hear nowadays, he spoke truth to power. He spoke truth to Herod and Herod’s wife, Herodias. I believe he was well aware of the probable consequence. He understood that speaking truth to power would lead to his own death, and it did.
That’s how it works for prophets. Not all are killed of course, but all suffer. Integrity has its price.
Have you ever paid a price for maintaining your integrity? Have you ever suffered in some way, great or small, for simply telling the truth, for doing what you knew was the right thing to do?
If so, you are a friend of John the Baptist.
Today’s gospel is unusual. Jesus’ name is mentioned only in passing, and this account of John the Baptist’s death is the longest passage of Mark’s gospel not focused on Jesus.
And did you notice that today’s gospel has a lot in common with Good Friday? Today we get a foretaste of Jesus’ Passion. Today John speaks truth to King Herod. On Good Friday Jesus speaks truth to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. Both political leaders are reluctant to execute, but both are weak and give in to pressure from others. While John dies by the sword, Jesus dies on a cross. Both are laid in a tomb.
Maybe you’ve heard of The Paradoxical Commandments. We’ve used them in vestry meetings. I’ve preached about them before. The Paradoxical Commandments: Finding Meaning in a Crazy World, were written fifty years ago by a 19 year-old student leader Kent M. Keith. They’ve been translated into fourteen languages. The Paradoxical Commandments are about maintaining personal integrity in times of adversity.
Mother Theresa appreciated them. She posted them on the wall of her children’s home where her nuns could see them every day.
“The Paradoxical Commandments”
By Kent Keith
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.
People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.
If you go to the Paradoxical Commandments website you can watch recent interviews with Kent Keith. When asked how he came up with these insights at the young age of nineteen he gave three influences: his family; some personal experiences, and his reflections on what Jesus did on Good Friday.
What Jesus did on Good Friday is what John did in today’s gospel. It’s what we are called to do, too. We’re called to do the right thing, not for recognition or reward, but because it’s the right thing to do.
We’re called to love others the way they are, in spite of their weaknesses and fault finding.
We’re called to do good, even when our good works are unappreciated, belittled, or even reviled.
We’re called to build for the future, even when what we build may be destroyed or forgotten tomorrow.
And like John the Baptist and Jesus, we’re called to be realistic. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth. But give the world the best you have anyway.
In short, we are called to walk the way of the cross.
Here’s the good news. Those who walk the way of the cross do not walk alone. They walk with Jesus. They do not look to others for affirmation. They are not surprised by the negativity they encounter. Walking with Jesus is sufficient reward.
Walking with Jesus is enough.
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