November 1, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today, the Solemnity of All Saints, from Matthew 14:3-12.
Now Herod had arrested John, bound [him], and put him in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, for John had said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Although he wanted to kill him, he feared the people, for they regarded him as a prophet. But at a birthday celebration for Herod, the daughter of Herodias performed a dance before the guests and delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because his oaths and the guests who were present, he ordered that it be given, and he had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. His disciples came and took away the corpse and buried him; and they went and told Jesus.
This story is another indication that scripture is not meant to be history; it has a more profound meaning. Herod had actually married the wife of his half-brother Herod Boethus, not Philip. Matthew’s account is more in keeping with that written by the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus. Matthew has simplified Mark’s telling of John’s execution and has shifted more of the blame to Herod rather than on the intrigue of Herodias. Also, in this rendering Herod is more fearful of an uprising of the people than he is in awe of John.
The contrast between Herod and John are stark. Herod was a man with no moral compass; he was weak and fearful; he sought to pleasure himself, to satisfy his desires; he was easily influenced. John was morally incorrupt; he was willing to stand up for and broadcast his beliefs even though it may cost him his freedom or life; he was an ascetic who lived in the desert; he was certain of his calling and his mission, never wavering.
Jesus and John may have been kinsmen. Jesus may have been a disciple of John before beginning his own public life. Regardless, Jesus was certainly familiar with John. It strikes me that perhaps one of the uses that God intended for John was to be a role model for Jesus. We all need role models, to see a way of being and living that opens horizons and shows us greater potential than we may realize on our own.
Jesus had other influences in his life, particularly his family. But in John he witnessed a man without fear of anyone but God. A man totally dedicated to fulfilling God’s call. A single-minded man whose self-denying sincerity and prophetic authority attracted great numbers of people because they believed that he was the voice of God. They came; they listened; they repented; and they were cleansed.
John showed Jesus what was possible. What worked and perhaps didn’t work. Jesus, the keen observer who had such remarkable insight into human behavior, watched people respond or shrink from John. He also saw that the fear in people of power and wealth like Herod whose overriding ambition was to hold on to what they had and even extend it would provoke them to murder.
I think Jesus realized the power of fear to overcome us, causing us to abandon our principles, leading us to lie, maklng us cower, paralyzing us at times. I think that’s the reason he encouraged his disciples again and again to not be afraid. He knew that it could overpower courage and conviction, that is was a powerful tool of evil. It could divert then and us from their calling, from their mission.
In John Jesus witnessed courage, fearlessness. We don’t see much of that in people around us today. That may be why they stand out so much. It probably wasn’t much different in Jesus’ time. That may be why a man like John was important in God’s plan and the primary role he was supposed to play. So, John and Jesus both provide role models for me, but fear is always hovering at my shoulder waiting for a moment of weakness, of doubt, of resignation, of despair. That’s when I most need to listen for Jesus telling me to not be afraid, to be like John and to be like him, trusting resolutely in God’s love and care now and for eternity. I often pray for courage. By His grace perhaps He will use me as a role model of fearlessness; we need them.