I didn’t really fancy drawing a picture of today’s reading from morning prayer (the beheading of John the Baptist, Matthew 14.1-12).
Corruption and sleaze are nothing new, but have always been there, and that when those in power try to save face rather than face up to their mistakes, there are often casualties. We may lament at this, and at how those who speak up and speak out so often seem to pay too high a price for their integrity.
But there is no good news in any of that, no gospel, merely confirmation of what our sometimes-cynical minds know represents some of the worst of humanity. If anything, this shows us how much we – just as the world in Herod and John’s day – need the gospel.
And that gospel had been the whole meaning of John’s life. He’d spent his adult years preaching essentially three things:
- Repentance and forgiveness are real, and necessary, and they are for everyone
- The kingdom of God is coming closer, and this a promise of hope and a threat of judgement
- There is someone greater coming: Jesus the Messiah.
These three messages were John’s whole reason for being.
The last one, that Jesus was coming, had finally started to be fulfilled. The baton has well and truly been passed on. John’s role as the last great prophet has been accomplished, and his work is done.
But the other parts of John’s message are not yet finished. And Herod stands as the final person to whom John brings them, and with whom he tries to share them.
John brings Herod the gospel of repentance, the truth about sin and forgiveness. Would Herod’s hesitation ever have led to a change of heart heart, that could, eventually have found expression in the way he lived his life? We will never know. But undoubtedly John’s last act was to keep on preaching repentance to Herod, and keep offering him the chance of God’s forgiveness, the chance to make things right. John never gave up his calling to show Herod the reality of God’s mercy, even though in the end, no mercy was shown to him.
And John also spend his last days showing Herod what the kingdom of God was like. This, I think, must have been what really intrigued the king. It’s as if he caught a glimpse of a different way of doing things, of a different kind of power, or a different world order, and was both fascinated and frightened by it. I am sure he would have kept John around far longer to see more of this kingdom of God at work, had he not made that rash, wine-fuelled promise.
So Herod was faced with a choice. Save John, and keep alive the glimpse of another kind of kingdom, or sacrifice John to save his own kind of kingdom, his own political reputation. Herod fails the test, just as Pontius Pilate would fail his own test when Jesus showed him a glimpse of the kingdom later. Herod, like Pilate, chooses the values of his own kingdom over the glimpse of the kingdom of God, and rejects his own shot at receiving mercy by failing to show it to others.
There are so many pre-echoes in John’s story of the story of the passion of Jesus. Not only the corrupt leader who can’t seem to make the morally right and spiritually right choice, the condemnation on a whim – but above all the way in which both John and Jesus approach their deaths offering to those who are hurting them a glimpse of the kingdom and a chance at forgiveness. Right up til the end.
Jesus and John lived their lives as a blessing from God to the world. But God’s blessing was not always straightforward or painless. They brought life and truth and mercy, and these values are sometimes so much at odds with the ways of the world that they may seem impossible to accept. Jesus and John showed how to make good choices even when bad choices were easier, and they showed integrity even when self-interest was easier. But above all they showed us that there is nothing that God would not do, no length to which he would not go, to keep on giving his people glimpses of the kingdom and offers of forgiveness.
This is also our calling – it may not lead to our death, but it may lead many to life.