The Martyrdom of John the Baptist
The Old Testament and the Gospel reading today are both stories that involve someone with a grudge. The story of David’s celebration, popularity and success is tinged with foreboding when we hear that Saul’s daughter, Michal, despises David in her heart. We were saying at our confirmation class during the week that, although the stories in the Bible are set in very different times and cultures from our own, human nature, of course, remains the same, and so we can easily identify with the human emotions and the enduring truths at the heart of the stories.
And so it is in our Gospel reading. Herod Antipas was the puppet ruler of Galilee. We mustn’t get our Herods muddled here. This isn’t Herod the Great, who indifferently slaughtered his wives, his offspring and Bethlehem’s babies. This is his son – Herod Antipas, Herod the fox, according to Jesus. He served Rome and used military force to make his rule work. John the Baptist had two faults in the eyes of Herod. First, he was popular with the people and so might be in a position to lead a rebellion. Secondly, he spoke out and told the truth, including the unpalatable truth of Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife. So, to keep himself secure in power as he saw it, Herod imprisoned John in the Castle of Machaerus on the east side of the Dead Sea. It was perched up on bare rocks and was one of the grimmest castles in the then-known world.
There is a Christian tradition, begun by St. Ignatius of Loyola, that encourages us to imagine ourselves as particular characters in a Bible story that we’ve just read, and try to be part of the story. Let’s try that with John the Baptist. I’ll be John.
Shall I tell you something strange? Almost funny, you might call it, were it not so sad. It’s about me, John, the voice in the wilderness, the baptiser in the Jordan, the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Well, I managed it, didn’t I? Or at least that’s what people will tell you. I made straight the path in the wilderness, I paved the way for His coming, and yes, I have to say, I made a good job of it. But this is the rub – when He finally came, I was as unprepared as any. Oh, I didn’t realise it at the time, far from it, I thought I understood what He’d come to do. ‘Behold the Lamb of God!’ I said, ‘the one who takes away the sin of the world.’ And I meant it. But I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t long after, when His ministry had just begun and mine ended, when He was travelling the byways of Judah and I was rotting in prison, that I found myself questioning it all. ‘Could He be the Messiah?’ I asked myself. ‘The one we’d waited so long for.’ If He was, then why was so little happening? Why so little evidence of His Kingdom getting closer? Being on the winning side even! What sort of Messiah was He?
It won’t be long before they come for me. I’m under no illusions. There’s no escape. No hope of a last minute reprieve. That wife of Herod’s won’t rest until I’m dead and buried. The voice in the wilderness silenced for ever. I wasn’t prepared for that when I started, and I still wouldn’t have been. But God’s given me time to think, here in prison. I hear about what Jesus is doing, what He’s saying, and I’ve read the prophets. I understand now what it’s all leading up to. He’s not asking me to do anything He’s not prepared to do Himself. So I’m ready now. Ready for anything.
Anyone who challenged Herod Antipas must have been either brave or stupid, and John certainly wasn’t stupid. But He was preparing the way by telling the truth, and that truth was more important to him than his own security. So he spoke out and told the truth, including the unpalatable truth of Herod’s relationship with his brother’s wife and Herod imprisoned John in the Castle of Machaerus.
On his birthday, Herod threw a feast for the rich and the famous. It was for members of the royal court, politicians and officials – all the people of influence. Herodias, his wife, who had also been his brother’s wife, was seething with anger against John because he had objected to her marriage, so she wanted him killed. Normally only loose women or prostitutes danced before the court – but on this occasion, Salome, Herodias’s daughter, danced. Foolishly, and in the emotion of the moment, Herod offered her anything she wanted. She wanted what her mother told her to want – the head of John the Baptist. So John was beheaded in prison, and his head brought to Salome on a platter. This was a regime that ruled by force. People counted for little and life was cheap. Such regimes still exist to this day and there are still Christians brave enough to tell the truth and oppose them.
Many rulers retain their position through force, and dictators throughout history have got rid of dissident voices. There are many tyrannical regimes in our world today that still operate like this. But the Kingdom of Heaven is God’s free gift of love. It’s not forced on us but it’s offered freely. God loves us even before we turn to Him. We are not rejected from His Kingdom, and we don’t need any particular qualifications to get there. But in accepting this free gift of eternal love and life, we also become bearers both of Good News and also sometimes of an unpalatable truth to those who use, abuse and exploit others.
Calvary is in many places. For John the Baptist it was the Castle of Machaerus. For Dietrich Bonhoeffer it was a Nazi prison camp, for Archbishop Janani Luwum, it was a cellar in Kampala and for Archbishop Oscar Romero it was the altar of a hospital chapel in San Salvador. These are famous Calvarys, but there are countless others where those who will never be canonised suffered for witnessing to the truth of God’s love for the poor, the marginalised and the exploited.
John the Baptist despised the soft robes worn in palaces and he was probably equally disdainful of those worn in sanctuaries. He was neither prince nor priest, and, indeed, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist being kitted out at Wippells clerical outfitters. Martyrdom is not the preserve of the ordained. It’s something to which any one of us might be called and it takes many forms. We are all part of God’s plan and we all have a part to play, a work to do, a way to prepare. Sometimes we need to be that lone voice, crying out against the ills of our time. Sometimes we need to be brave enough to tell the unpalatable truth and to face the consequences. Whatever work God has for us, whatever role He calls on us to play, may we always be ready to obey His call, wherever it may take us.
May we always be ready.