Scripture Readings: Ephesians 1.3-14
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
The first message we can take away from today’s gruesome Gospel reading is that a prophet can lose his head. Speaking up for the truth- speaking up for God- can get you into a great deal of trouble.
The Herods were Jewish rulers, but essentially puppet kings of the Roman superpower. The Herod we are probably most familiar with was Herod the Great. He was the one who murdered the children of Bethlehem, causing Joseph to take Mary and the baby Jesus into exile in Egypt. This Herod married many times, and went on to murder many of his family as he became paranoid of plots against him. There was a Jewish saying, ‘It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son’.
Then things got complicated.
Herod the Great had two sons- both of whom he murdered- by his second wife. The daughter of one of them was Herodias, the villainess of today’s tale. Herod the Great then married again, and had a son called Herod Philip, who married Herodias (that is, he married the daughter of his own half-brother, his niece). Herod Philip also had a daughter, Salome, the dancer in today’s tale.
The King Herod of today’s tale was Herod Antipas of Galilee, grandson of Herod the Great. He had visited Herod Philip, his half-brother, in Rome, and seduced Herodias (who was also his own niece) persuading her marry him. And Salome the dancer, daughter of King Herod: she married another of Herod the Great’s grandsons, that is, to another half-brother of Herod Antipas.
So, by the time we get to this Gospel story, Herod Antipas is married to his niece, Herodias, who is also the ex-wife of his half-brother. And Herod Antipas is also both the step-father and uncle of Salome, who married another of Herod’s half-brothers.
All this was not just confusing- it was an affront to Jewish morality. John the Baptist spoke for many, who were perhaps fearful of speaking up, when he condemned the vices of Herod and his family.
Mark’s Gospel begins with John- the last of the prophets of the Messiah, preaching repentance and calling people to be baptised. A prophet of such ascetic integrity that he wore only animal skins and lived off the scant food of the desert – locusts and wild honey. The prophet we hear about during Advent, the one who announces:
“The man who will come after me is much greater than I am. I am not good enough even to bend down and untie his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
John is the prophet who commission Jesus to his ministry, baptising him in the River Jordan. John is a fearless prophet in Old Testament mode, calling the people to change their ways, calling out the injustices and sins of his age- and pointing to the Messiah to come, and the New Age which God will soon inaugurate.
Back to today’s Gospel reading: here is Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, hearing about the teaching and healings of Jesus of Nazareth and his disciples, who are causing such a stir in his domains. And he hears an unsettling rumour: John the Baptist has come back to life. And that stirs something in Herod’s conscience. For Herod had had John the Baptist executed.
And here Mark the Gospel writer pauses his telling the story of Jesus’ ministry to give us a flashback, telling us of what had happened to John the Baptist.
John had offended Herod by preaching against his marriage to Herodias, his half-brother’s wife, and so he had John imprisoned. But Herod’s attitude to John was oddly ambivalent: he actually believed that John was ‘a good and holy man’. So Herod imprisoned, but alive. John’s prison was, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, Herod’s grim fortress of Maecharus, a lonely spot by the Dead Sea. And it is here that the last act of John’s life took place.
Herod, we are told, liked to hear what John had to say, even if John’s condemnation of Herod’s adultery troubled him. It was as if there was just enough faith in Israel’s God for Herod to have to admit that John was a genuine prophet from God. But Herodias has other ideas. She is the Lady Macbeth figure in this tale- cruel, calculating, and easily insulted. She has been demanding that her husband execute John. Herod, convinced the Baptist is a prophet, has so far stood up to his wife; but afraid of looking weak against his most trenchant critic, he kept John in prison.
At a grand party at the fortress of Maecharus for ‘all the top government officials, the military chiefs, and the leading citizens of Galilee’, Herodias gets her chance. In such company, it would never do for a ruler to look weak (and, as we know, all leaders with a brittle ego loves a great banquet). The daughter of Herodias (Mark doesn’t give her name, but Josephus tells us she is Salome), dances for the guests, and for her step-father and uncle Herod. They are all delighted, and Herod, no doubt somewhat in his cups, tipsily swears to give her anything she asks for, even unto half his kingdom. So Salome asks her mother what she should ask for; and Herodias answers ‘The head of John the Baptist’.
The girl hurried back at once to the king and demanded, “I want you to give me here and now the head of John the Baptist on a plate!”
Herod, we can imagine, is perplexed. He feels that John is truly a man of God. His conscience- such as it is- has kept John alive, even if his pride would not allow him to set the Baptist free. But now, surrounded by the leading men of his kingdom, who had all heard his previous vow, what can he do? A human life ought surely to outweigh a vow, you’d think. But kings have pride which can over-ride their conscience. The solution by which Herod loses face least, he believes, is to send a guard down to the dungeon, who returns with John’s head on the kind of great platter normally used to serve the food at a banquet (‘a grim witticism, one commentator calls this detail). The guard gives this bloody gift to Salome, who presents it to her (no doubt delighted) mother.A prophet can lose his head.
This week saw the anniversary of the death Alexander Schmorell. Schmorrell was the son of a German doctor and a Russian mother, who was born up in Russia and baptised in the Russian Orthodox Church. When he was two years old, his mother died of typhus during the civil war which followed the Russian revolution, and father and son returned to Germany: Alexander subsequently considered himself both German and Russian.
Schmorrell’s university medical studies were interrupted by military service as a medic on the Eastern Front, where he saw first-hand German barbarity towards Russian prisoners of wars and civilians, especially Jews. He became part of the ‘White Rose’, a non-violent resistance group of students at Munich University, a small group whose members included brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl. They distributed leaflets highlighting the holocaust of the Jews and other atrocities, and painted graffiti calling for resistance and for freedom. The group were eventually arrested; Schmorrell as he attempted to escape to Switzerland. On the 13 July 1943 in Munich, Schmorrell was executed, in the same way as the other members of the group had been- he was guillotined in a Gestapo prison. He is now treated as a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church.
Prophets can lose their heads.
It was a strange kind of idealism which drove the Munich White Rose students to distribute their leaflets. They hoped to rouse the conscience of a nation, but that nation was in thrall to a convincing dictator and his terrifying security apparatus. Like Herodias, Adolph Hitler and his cronies could not abide any form of criticism. Their intolerance of the opposition was total- and deadly. It was not enough that those young students be jailed for putting another point of view- they had to die to assuage the dictator’s pride.
Herod Antipas was swayed, in the end, by his wife, by his pride, by not wanting to lose face. Something told him that he had in his dungeon a genuine prophet from his God; that John was the conscience of the nation. Yet, when it came to the crunch, Herod sent the guard off with an axe and a platter to fetch the terrible gift of John’s head for Salome and Herodias.
Few of us, perhaps, will every face martyrdom for speaking up for the values of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet we are living in times in which tolerance seems to be in short supply. Loud voices shout down opposing points of views- rational argument seems to become more and more difficult. The deadly philosophies of racial nationalism (which we thought had died out on this continent with Hitler) seem to becoming respectable again. Some say that democracy itself might now be in danger.
Maybe it won’t fall to us to be like John the Baptist- dying for what we believe, speaking the truth even in a dungeon. But when we are tempted to go with the crowd, tempted to suppress our conscience because we don’t want to lose face, tempted to ignore injustice, silent about the immorality of our rulers- then maybe we have to ask ourselves whether we are not all that different from Herod Antipas.
The Letter to the Ephesians today reminds us of our calling as Christians: that we are to be ‘holy and without fault before [God]’. For God has, as it were, adopted us into his family: we belong to God our Father, through Jesus Christ. Our sins are forgiven- we are children of grace. We live in the freedom of God- so we should not be swayed by baser emotions. So we should be courageous, standing in faith for what we know to be the truth: that God is love, and that through Christ God is saving the world.
For John the Baptist knew that the Kingdom of God was at hand. He had baptised the One who would bring it in- Jesus of Nazareth. And yet John was unjustly murdered by a puppet of the almighty Roman Empire.
Which is, of course, what happened to Jesus in the end as well. His message of God’s love for all people was a challenge to the secular and religious authorities of the day. It was good news to ordinary people- but it unsettled the powerful, people who had forgotten what it really means to love your neighbour. Pontius Pilate, when he met Christ eventually, thought he saw no harm in him. He even tried to set him free, for he seemed innocent. But the crowd cried ‘crucify him!’ And not for the first or last time, the voice of the crowd had been moulded by powerful, persuasive men, and the crowd were wrong. Yet Pilate, like Herod Antipas, did the politically expedient thing instead of following his conscience, and a good and innocent man died.
Yet centuries on, who do we remember as being in the right? John the Baptist, or Herod Antipas? Jesus of Nazareth, or Pontius Pilate? For God has a plan for history:
… when the time is right, [God will] bring all creation together, everything in heaven and on earth, with Christ as head.
A prophet might lose his head. Yet as another murdered prophet, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, liked to say,
‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’.
‘Let us praise God’s glory!’ Amen!
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2018 Peter W Nimmo
 Barclay, DSB Mark, p148f; ‘Salome’ in Harper’s Bible Dictionary
 Mark 1.11
 A M Hunter,Saint Mark p72
 Ephesians 1.4
 Ephesians 1-14