Summary: A sermon on the tragic beheading of John the baptizer.
Sermon for 5 Pent Yr B, 13/07/2003
Based on Mk 6:14-29
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, Alberta
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Ever since the beginning, prophets have, more often than not, lived on a collision course with “the powers that be.” Indeed, the prophetic word, often embodied among and by people of faith, has nearly always had its problems winning popularity contests in the so-called “real world!” Throughout the history of the church, there has always been a tension between faith and politics. There has always been a wealth of opinions and approaches regarding the church’s relationship with the state. As you know, Jesus’s answer to the Roman authorities regarding his kingship and kingdom was: “My kingdom is not of this world.” On the other hand, when asked about paying taxes, Jesus does not incite rebellion or non-compliance; rather, he instructs the people to take their worldly responsibility seriously by saying: “render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The apostle Paul, in his writings, councils Christians to be loyal and obedient citizens to the civil authorities. Sometimes—dare I say it?—especially in the German and Scandinavian “state churches,” we Lutherans have been a little too cozy with “the powers that be,” and the prophetic voice and presence has been muted or forgotten in the process! Hence, at crucial times, the church has failed to speak the necessary prophetic word and hold the civil authorities more accountable for their policies. The consequence, on occasion, as we all know too well, has proven to be catastrophic!
Yet, consider today’s gospel. Here we have a different picture altogether. A prophet and a prophet’s word ending catastrophically nonetheless. It’s a most interesting story, once again sandwiched in between Jesus having sent his disciples out on a mission of preaching, teaching and healing, and then their return from that mission. This story, when read for the first time, might not seem to have anything to do whatsoever with what precedes and follows it—but a more careful reading of it certainly convinces us otherwise.
Notice that the story actually begins with reports and rumours of the work of Jesus and his disciples, and it presupposes that John has already been executed; since Jesus is regarded by “the powers that be” as possibly being John the baptizer raised from the dead, Elijah, or one of the other ancient Israelite prophets. Indeed Herod, Mark tells us in verse sixteen, seems to have mistaken Jesus’s identity, thinking he was a resurrected version of John. The reason for this, we note, is the rumour mill reporting about the mission of Jesus and his disciples—their preaching, teaching, and healing.
Now before we go any further into this tragic story of John’s beheading it is necessary for us to clarify a couple of details concerning Herod, Herodias and the daughter. According to biblical scholars, this particular Herod is not the same Herod the Great who ordered the slaughter of the innocent children around the time of Jesus’s birth. Rather, this is Herod Antipas, a son of the older Herod. According to the secular Jewish historian of the time, Josephus, Herod Antipas, while on one occasion visiting Rome seduced his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Herodias likely agreed to the seduction with the hope that her political influence and fortunes would improve. They then both dumped their spouses, remarried, and Herod Antipas was the tetrarch of Galilee—thus NOT really a king. Now the text leaves some room for interpretation regarding the daughter. One reading of the text has it that the daughter’s name was also Herodias. However, likely the more correct reading is “the daughter OF Herodias,” in which case her name would have been Salome, not Herodias.
Now that we’ve clarified that, we can go on with the story. When John the baptizer learned of this new political union between Herod and Herodias, he did the right thing as a faithful and holy Jewish prophet—he spoke out against the marriage. John told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” John was referring here of course to two passages from the Torah, both in the book of Leviticus, chapter eighteen, verse sixteen, and chapter twenty, verse twenty-one; wherein it is basically regarded as an act of adultery and publicly disgraceful, making those involved ritually impure, and the consequence was that such a marriage would not be blessed with children.
It obviously took considerable courage on the part of John to speak as a prophet to one of the highest political authorities of his day. Yet, John does not shrink from such a duty. He is the LORD’s prophet and so he faithfully does what a prophet is called to do—be God’s trustworthy spokesperson. This is the case in every time and place. And John as a prophet suffered the tragic consequences of speaking and living by God’s prophetic word—just as in our day prophets like Martin Luther King Jr. did and Oscar Romero did. So we too are called on to speak a prophetic word in the face of evil and injustice. So we too, like John, Martin and Oscar, are called even to die if necessary for speaking and living by God’s prophetic word.