John the Baptist was a famous man in the gospel stories. He was an itinerant preacher who has more recently been called John the Immerser or Baptizer by some Christian traditions, John the Forerunner in Eastern Christianity, and the Prophet John in Islam. He was a prophet who preached about preparing for the Final Days, the coming of the Messiah, and the need for repentance and cleansing. John himself was the subject of a prophecy by Isaiah, “The voice of one who crieth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord” (40:3), and also in Micah. He was related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, through Elizabeth, her cousin. He also baptized Jesus and recognized him as the one sent from God as his messenger and the Messiah.
Like most prophets, his prophecies got him in trouble with those who had things John exposed that the perpetrators preferred to have either covered up or otherwise conveniently disposed of. John’s particular “crime” was speaking against the so-called “marriage” between Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great) and Herodias, wife of Antipas’s half-brother, Philip. Antipas fell for Herodias and convinced her to leave Philip and move in with him. John was not afraid of calling Herod Antipas out on this. It didn’t earn John any popularity points with Herod, and even fewer from Herodias.
Herod had John arrested and thrown in jail. One evening Herod, the lecher, held a big party, and Herodias’s daughter, Salome, danced for Herod, maybe with seven veils, perhaps with fewer. At any rate, Herod was so enthralled by her dancing that he promised to give Salome whatever she wanted. When Salome asked her mother what she should request, Herodias told her to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter (maybe silver, maybe gold). Salome conveyed the request to Herod, who promptly ordered it to be done and brought to him at once. Herodias got her way, Herod had the problem of a living prophet speaking openly against him silenced, and Salome (this one out of many Salomes) got her 15 minutes of fame.
This passage is a sort of mirror of what we have today. I don’t think I need to draw a picture; the stories are in the news every day. Perhaps we don’t have a dancing Salome or a scheming Herodias. Still, we do have an image of cover-ups, the silencing of prophets and those who spread the messages of those prophets, the oppression of the poor, the aliens living within our lands, the imprisonment of not only adults but infants and children, autocratic declarations, pardoning the guilty and arresting the innocent, and the spreading of false information, much of which costs thousands their lives. Sorry, I guess I did paint a picture, but it is one I see every day. I think it caused me to pay particular attention when the passage from Matthew came up for today.
The Kingdom of God is not for the people who consider themselves the Elect; every person on this planet is a child of God. If God had a refrigerator door to hold pictures of God’s children, it would stretch to infinity to keep all of them visible. And God loves each one of them.
I have problems with some of those children of God who hurt other people, animals, or even the earth itself, much less all of them at once. I have trouble praying for them, and I certainly have difficulty forgiving them for the injuries they have caused in the search for self-gratification, amassing wealth for themselves, or even their grasping for power and prestige. I know I’m supposed to love them and pray for them, but I think I’d have had trouble praying for Herod and Herodias too. It’s a comfort to me to know that God’s heart and hands are big enough and loving enough to enclose all of us, no matter whether I think they are unworthy, rotten to the core, or uncaring about anyone other than themselves. God doesn’t always seem to protect the prophets who try to draw attention to things Christians and others should pay attention to, but that has often been the plight of prophets since the job of prophet first appeared.
I have to confess that I have seen myself as a kind of Herodias at times, planning, plotting, and executing a plan of revenge on someone who has seemingly wronged me. Maybe I’ve been a Salome who danced once or twice with a few veils on, trying to impress someone higher up the food chain than I am. Perhaps sometimes I’ve wanted to be a prophet and gotten my head handed to me on a platter for trying to warn someone about something I saw or felt was wrong or needed fixing. The government knows my name, but in what context and for what reason? Only God and the government knows at this point. Besides, there’s enough for me to worry about in the daily news. The simple truth is that I have to trust God to look after me and give me a nudge where I am supposed to go.
I also need to learn who are the equivalents of John the Baptist in terms of prophecy and who are the Herodiases who hold massive grudges against them. That is as simple as reading the words of Jesus to see who is living those words and those who speak the words but put a spin on them that point in the opposite direction. We’ve lost a few this week, may they rest in peace. But there are others out there, speaking in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord, preaching the love of God and their fellow human beings. Some have grown into that calling, some are just experiencing it now, and some will come into the promise in the future. It’s time for us, including me , to search for the prophets, listen to them, heed their prophecies, and follow their lead.
Perhaps something as simple as renaming a bridge or a school is a beginning. I think so, anyway.
Image: Salome with the Head of John the Baptist, painted by Caravaggio ca. 1606-1610. From the National Gallery, London. Found at Wikimedia Commons.