This week’s Gospel reading is uncomfortable. John the Baptist, the one anointed from birth to prepare the people of Israel to meet and receive the Messiah, the Christ; finds himself facing execution.
And ending up beheaded.
His work, his message, upsets some very powerful individuals.
Take a few minutes of quietness to reflect on the Gospel reading set for this Sunday.
As you read, what feelings/emotions are stirring within you?
The Death of John
14 King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead—that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”
15 Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”
Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”
16 But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”
17-20 Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.
21-22 But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She charmed Herod and the guests.
22-23 The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”
24 She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”
“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”
25 Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”
26-29 That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.”
I don’t know about you but sometimes reading the Gospel story provokes (for me at least) discomfort and uneasiness. This passage describing the death of John the Baptist is one such portion of scripture.
Called by God to proclaim a message of holiness. To call a nation to repent and “ready” themselves for the coming King; who also has time to “call out” the inappropriate relationship between the then ruler (Herod) and his brother’s wife (Herodias). John the Baptist had, if nothing else, the courage of his convictions.
And finds himself imprisoned and then beheaded.
Losing his head so that Herod might “save face” you might say…
An uncomfortable and a disquieting reading.
Many, many years ago, I found myself wandering around the bookstall at Greenbelt (then and now) one of the UK’s leading Christian festivals when I came across Jim Wallis’s book ” The Call to Conversion” (Lion Publishing 1981).
I devoured it. Jim Wallis’s story of conversion from being a member of the Plymouth Brethren (with an emphasis on personal Christian piety) to establishing with many others, the “Sojourner” community in downtown Washington DC with an emphasis on serving the poor and marginalised and challenging the societal/political systems that kept folk poor, marginalised and disenfranchised.
I was studying Youth and Community work then, trying to “save the world” in my own small way and I was rocked to the core of my being by Wallis’s book that took Christ’s message of hope and liberation and redemption applied it to the USA…politically, morally, socially.
Coming from Northern Ireland, seeking to understand God’s call, wrestling with the sectarian politics of my country, “The Call to Conversion” book deeply shaped my theology and practice and applied at home (as I saw it)… politically, morally, socially.
Wallis writes the following…
“Conversion marks the birth of the movement out of a merely private existence into a public consciousness. Conversion is the beginning of active solidarity with the purposes of the kingdom of God in the world” (Lion Publishing 1981:9).
John the Baptist understood that the “One” to come (Christ) would usher in the fulfillment of the “Kingdom of God”.
A rule of life, a way of living and being that honoured God, both personally but also you might say “politically”. John’s message got him tangled up in the power structures and powerful individuals of his time.
Such engagement came for him at a considerable cost.
However we understand “the Kingdom of God” and Christ’s life amidst the everyday of our lives, it will (as Wallis points out) involve a “movement” towards “active solidarity” with “God’s Kingdom” and the work of God amidst a broken world.
Possibly, as I read this week’s Gospel reading that is why above all, I am most uncomfortable. In speaking out, in following Jesus, personal and societal transformation is required. And this is not without cost.
It is one thing to speak of personal conversion.
But if a “personal” experience of Christ is not in some small way “political” and seeking to transform unjust structures, systems, falsehoods, individuals and their communities, then what is Christianity other than some form of eternal (personal) insurance policy?