A matter of moral fibre

Pentecost 7

Mark 6:14-29

Marian Free

In the name of God who transcends both time and place and yet is ever present. Amen.

John the Baptist is something of an enigma. He provides an introduction and a foil for Jesus. He precedes the latter and prefigures Jesus. Yet despite his obvious importance, Jesus says that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John (Luke 7:28, Matt 11:11). As I have said on previous occasions, John appears to have been a source of embarrassment for the early Jesus’ followers who are keen to diminish his significance. Luke carefully crafts the introduction to the third gospel to suggest that John’s role is to point towards Jesus and that while the births of both men have supernatural overtones, Jesus is clearly the superior of the two. This emphasis is continued in the narratives of Jesus’ baptism – John doesn’t mention it at all, Luke almost skips over it and Matthew suggests that it only happened at all because Jesus insisted (Matt 3:13-15).

That John was an historical figure seems to be without doubt and that he had followers at the time of Jesus and beyond is unquestionable. Not only does John have to be accounted for by the gospel writers, but the Jewish historian mentions his death in Jewish Antiquities 18:116-19). By all accounts John was an uncomfortable figure. His style of life and his preaching were confronting. His style of dress, choice of lifestyle were hardly conventional and John’s practice of baptism directly critiqued the sacrificial tradition of the Temple in Jerusalem implying as it did that forgiveness could be obtained outside the Temple cult[1].

John was a threat, not only to the religious traditions of the time, but also to the political stability of the nation. Herod had a number of reasons to be alarmed by John’s presence and preaching that had nothing to do with Herod’s personal life. According to Crossan: “what is most explosive about John’s (baptismal) rite is that people cross over into the desert and are baptised in the Jordan as they return to the promised land” (231). Whether or not this was a deliberate inference on the part of John, it certainly had parallels to other movements that “invoked the desert and the Jordan to imagine a new and transcendental conquest of the Promised Land” (op cit 232). In what was already a politically volatile situation, Herod had every reason to be anxious about a man considered to be a prophet, who drew large crowds to him and who played on the imagery of the desert and the Jordan.

Josephus record of John’s death is very different from that of today’s reading. “Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind (sic) might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to await an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation and to see his mistake. He was brought in chains to Machaerus [2] …… and there put to death” (Jewish Antiquities, 18:116-119).

In contrast, the Gospel tradition of John’s death not surprisingly places the emphasis on Herod’s immorality rather than his political anxiety. Though all the gospels record John’s death and the Synoptics all mention Herodias as a factor only Mark and Matthew provide the detail of the dinner, the daughter’s dance and Herod’s rash promise to give her whatever she desires.

We know then that Herod put John to death, but the actual circumstances surrounding that death cannot be determined with any degree of certainty.

Josephus emphasises the political threat to Herod’s hold on power. The gospels stress not only Herod’s insecurity, but also his immorality and his weakness. It was “because of his oath and his guests” that Herod acceded to his “daughter’s” request. In a culture that was governed by principles of honour and shame, Herod could not afford to lose face. So, whether or not he himself had qualms about the execution, he was honour bound to keep his promise. To have not done so would have been to lose both credibility and status, something that he could not afford either socially or politically.

The desire to gain and to hold on to power can often lead to the abandonment of moral principles and the adoption of violence towards any threat or opposition. History has shown over and over again that Herod was not unique. Despotic or insecure rulers can be ruthless, cruel, oppressive and unjust in their efforts to maintain their position of strength. (In very recent times we have witnessed the violent suppression of popular movements – especially in the Middle East.)

In the gospels, John’s unwarranted death at the hands of Herod sets the scene for Jesus’ crucifixion – an innocent man will be executed by a representative of Rome; Jesus, like John, will be seen as a threat to the Empire and especially to Pilate’s hold on power: Pilate will be swayed by the crowds just as Herod’s actions were influenced by the presence of his guests.

It is not just those in power who sometimes feel a need to do whatever it takes to hold on to that power, or to retain the respect of their supporters. Many of us are guilty at some time or another of behaving in ways that protect the image of ourselves that we wish to present to the world. It can be embarrassing to admit that we have made a mistake and humiliating to have our position at work, (in the community) undermined. So we cover up our errors or lay the blame elsewhere. We behave in such a way that will ensure the regard of others – sometimes at the expense of someone else.

Today’s gospel does not come with an obvious message, but read in this way, it challenges us to consider our own behaviour and calls us to examine our own integrity. As followers of Jesus, we are called to see weakness as strength, to put ourselves last, to be indifferent to societal measures of status and power and to seek the values of the kingdom rather than the values of this world.

[1] Crossan, John, Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant. San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishing, 1991, 235.

[2] The Franciscan Archeological Institute has details of the fortress on its website: http://www.christusrex.org/www1/ofm/fai/FAImachr.html

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