The Voice of John the Baptist
Pentecost VIII (O. T. 15)
The first time in the Gospel of Mark that we hear the voice of John the Baptist is when he is preaching and baptizing by the Jordan River and he announces, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (1:7-8). John's preaching not only told people to expect that their Messiah would come, but he also told them to repent. Just like the prophets we talked about last week, John was another one who told people they needed to change their ways: Your priorities are wrong, your loyalties need revising, your commitments need rethinking. Repent.
Well, that voice telling people to repent landed him in jail. It may be a challenge to tell soldiers and merchants and tax collectors to repent, but when you tell the Head of State to repent you can get yourself in serious trouble. At risk of sounding too much like a lecturer than a preacher, I'd like to tell you that story and fill in some of the background of the people involved.
Just about all Mark tells us is that Herod put John in prison for telling him, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife." Here's the story.
You remember from the Christmas story King Herod, the one the Wise Men visited and who sent soldiers to Bethlehem to kill baby boys. He is remembered as Herod the Great, who was a ruthless tyrant and who rebuilt his kingdom in the image of Rome. Literally rebuilt: he built cities and fortresses and made the Temple in Jerusalem a source of architectural and engineering wonder. Anyway, he had over his lifetime five wives and nine sons; he had a number of them killed because he suspected them of plotting against him. But when he died he left his kingdom divided among some of his surviving sons.
One of them, the Herod of our story, was Herod Antipas. Antipas wasn't really titled "King," although that's what Mark calls him, but "Tetrarch." He ruled Galilee and Perea; his first wife was the daughter of Aretas, the king of Petra, which created an alliance that kept the balance of power with his brother Archelaus who ruled nearby Judea for a while. Anyway, his older half-brother Herod Philip did not inherit any political power but lived quietly in Rome. Once Antipas went to visit Herod Philip there, and Antipas had an affair with his brother's wife, Herodias. Antipas divorced his wife, the daughter of the King of Petra, and Herodias divorced her husband, and they were married.
John the Baptist believed that the so-called "private conduct" of people really mattered, that Antipas' behavior needed to be challenged. It wasn't really the matter of divorce and remarriage that troubled him, but that Antipas had taken his brother's wife. That would have been fine if his brother had been dead, but to take her from him as he did was a serious affront to the ways of the people of God. And John told him about it. So Antipas had him arrested.
An interruption to our story: in today's Old Testament reading, the Prophet Amos gets in trouble with the government for speaking out against it. To the credit of the King of Israel, Amos isn't arrested, but simply told to shut up and go home: you shouldn't criticize the government in the government's own temple. Amos, of course, did not do as he was told.
As a prophet, John was quite popular, so Antipas didn't want to do him any harm. And Mark tells us a detail that I find curious: Antipas liked to listen to him preach, even though what John said upset him. Perhaps there was something in Antipas that could have been redeemed, if he had let it happen. Anyway, John's in jail because he spoke out against Antipas taking his brother's wife.
Now, Herodias had a daughter named Salome and she was quite a dancer. This is not the sort of liturgical dance that we are used to seeing in church; this is the sort of dance that gets men, well, excited and that is ordinarily done by slave-girls, not by the step-daughter of the Tetrarch. Well, let's compound the crime. She was not only Antipas' step-daughter; she had a very complicated relationship with Mommy's second husband. Since she was the daughter of Herod Philip, that means she was also Antipas' niece. But her mother was Antipas' niece by a different brother, which means Salome was also Antipas' great-niece. But Herodias' mother, Salome's grandmother, was the first cousin of Herod the Great, so Salome was also a cousin of Antipas. I find these twisted relationships in the Herod family absolutely fascinating; I also feel every time I talk about them as thought I ought afterward to go take a bath.
Well, you know the rest of the story: Antipas is so taken by his niece's/cousin's/great-niece's/step-daughter's dancing that he promises her anything she would ask for. She asks Mommy for a suggestion, who demands the head of John. Antipas is unhappy about it, but is not going to break a promise he made in front of his nobility, so he accedes. Dear sweet Salome adds some pepper to the demand, though; Herodias wanted John's head, but Salome asks for John's head, right now, on a platter. That platter may have held the roast for dinner or perhaps a variety of breads; now it becomes the vehicle for the head of the Baptist.
Herodias has her sweet revenge, at last: I see the platter with John's head on it before her at the table. She taunts him with something – maybe an after-dinner sweet. She passes it in front of his eyes, waves it under his nose: "Wouldn't you like some of this? Much nicer than locusts and wild honey! Oh, I guess you're not hungry; I'll have to eat it myself." This voice that had raised such a stir across the countryside, that had drawn such popularity; this voice that had announced that someone greater was coming and that had dared to tell the man she loved that he had no business marrying her: at last that voice was quiet. She could gloat over the stilling of that voice until she disposed somehow of the head: perhaps tossed on a rubbish pile, perhaps mounted on a pike outside the palace as a warning to anyone who would dare to question her husband's right to do whatever he pleased.
Part of the price of this arrogance is the way Antipas and Herodias are remembered in the Bible and by history. But they paid a more immediate price, as well. Remember Antipas had been married to the daughter of the King of Petra; he divorced her and she went home to her father. King Aretas was so angry at Antipas that he invaded Perea and Antipas took quite a beating. The Jewish historian Josephus notes that the people of Antipas' territory took this defeat as God's punishment for the execution of John. Two years later Herodias, unsatisfied with her husband's title "Tetrarch," persuaded Antipas to go to Rome and appeal to Emperor Caligula for the title "King." Her brother Agrippa, King of territory just north of theirs, accused Antipas of treason. Since Antipas had been stockpiling weapons, he really had no defense, so instead of being made King he was deposed and sent to Gaul in exile. Herodias, to her credit, stood by her man and went into exile with him. Oh, and the Emperor gave Antipas' territory to Agrippa.
I would love to draw a moral conclusion to this and say to all those in government that they had better pay attention to those prophets who criticize them or something equally bad will happen. The world doesn't always work that way, however. Tyrants never last, but they can hang on a long time, and they aren't always deposed and exiled to Gaul.
Instead, let's finish by going back to the beginning. John announced that someone greater than he was coming. When Herod Antipas heard about Jesus, he didn't think big enough; he thought only that John was come back, probably to torment him some more.
But if John had been around, he would have said, "No, that cannot be, for I am not worthy to untie his sandals." Antipas, Herodias, and Salome may have disposed of John's head, but they could not silence his voice. His prophetic message, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" persists, as do all prophetic messages reminding the powerful that they, too, are not above the law – certainly not above the Law of God. But more critical even than that reminder is the persistent voice of John the Baptizer crying out in the wilderness, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master