Henry Ford once said “you can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”. You have to do it.
John the Baptist might have been accused of lots of things but not of putting off direct action.
I remember reading an anecdote about a young police recruit being tested to see if he was up to the job. The test questions were basically a series of situations to see if he had the sort of character required for the job.
Let me share one of the situations. There is a tremendous crash – a car wreck in a city street, a crowd has gathered. You push through the crowd to see the two seriously injured occupants. You smell the fumes of alcohol. You glimpse their faces and recognise one as the wife of the senior officer in charge of your police station. Then you remember that her husband is away on a business trip. What should you do?
The recruit’s answer….. “I would change my clothes and try to blend with the crowd.”
This was very different from what John the Baptist actually chose to do in a situation with more than one parallel with the police recruit’s dilemma.
I suspect even today John’s actions would have been unusual and even a great embarrassment to his followers in terms of what we might consider a leader of the establishment to represent.
Leaders are meant to be respectable. In John’s day the leaders of Church and society were dressed appropriately like leaders in nice clothes. These days, for the most part leaders of the Church are typically respectably dressed – and for formal occasions very respectably dressed. In John’s day leaders of Church and society lived in nice houses. John seemed spurn such basic comfort and nicety.
Would it be any different today? I don’t think John dressed in the skins of wild animals, and living off what he could scrounge in the desert, food like like wild honey and locusts, would blend in any better today than he did in the reign of King Herod.
The commentator William Hendrickson, suggests a picture of what the wilderness was at the time: This was “the wilderness of Judaea, the up and down wasteland country of Judaea to the West and in the East, the Dead Sea, and the lower Jordan, stretching northward about the point where the Jabbok flows into the Jordan. According to Henrickson this is indeed a desolation, a vast undulating expanse of barren chalky soil covered with pebbles, broken stones and rocks. Here and there a bit of brushwood appears with snakes crawling underneath’. Another commentator describes it as: ‘It shimmers in the haze of the heat, the limestone rock is hot and blistering, and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath’. In the Old Testament it is sometimes called ‘Jeshimon’, which means ‘the devastation”. Hendrickson finds parallel between his chosen setting and his message goes on: ‘It is evident from Isaiah and John’s preaching as recorded by Mark, that the wilderness through which a path must be made ready for the Lord is, in the final analysis, the people’s hearts that were inclined to all evil’. A man who can survive in such a place is no wimp.
He was not only uncompromising with his lifestyle, he was uncompromising with his words.
In John’s day church leaders, as is typically the case today, were not outspoken but rather were cautious and diplomatic. Certainly not challenging the top leaders and politicians directly as did John the Baptist. John you may remember, told the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, he was illegally married to a close relative by marriage. To tell this man that to his face was not exactly diplomatic, and given the king’s autocratic rights in those times, far more dangerous than it would be today.
Which brings us to the drama played out in today’s reading.
First some background. The setting of the castle of Machaerus is not the stuff of picture post-cards.
It was bleak and desolate, overlooking the east side of the Dead Sea. Like a number of such castles of the time it had most unpleasant dungeons where the ruler’s enemies or innocent victims might await their fate. Even today tourists can see the huge staples and iron hooks in the walls to which the prisoner like John the Baptist would be bound.
The Herods weren’t exactly a pleasant family either. Herod Antipas, the Herod of today’s story had a particularly malevolent Father who had murdered at least three of his other sons and a number other members of his family, including having one of his wives executed for high treason. A Jewish saying of the time was that it was “safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” One of the sons Herod Philip, missed out on inheriting any of his father’s land but went instead to live as a wealthy man in Rome. While he was there, Herod Antipas turned up to visit him – and as one does when one is of that family, he seduced Herod Philip’s wife, Herodias, and to make matters worse he married her despite the Jewish law saying this was forbidden.
When John turned up saying the marriage was illegal, Herodias was outraged. Although Herod Antipas too was furious, perhaps because he respected John the Baptist for his brave honesty, he locked him up instead of killing him. Herodias was not satisfied with this level of punishment and cooked up the dancing girl plot with her daughter.
As far as Jewish morality was concerned, even this was an outrage. Dancing girls were almost always prostitutes and their dancing was seen to be highly immoral. That Salome, the daughter of the wife of the tetrarch, should turn up to Herod’s birthday to expose herself in such a demeaning way would have seemed almost beyond belief to most local people of the time. Perhaps in view of his previous track record it was not surprising that Herod Antipas was impressed and taken by her performance – and when he basically said in front of his guests she could name her own reward, he would have lost face if he had turned down her request for John’s head.
On one hand this is a story of deeply flawed characters. Perhaps it was true that Herod was secretly admiring John the Baptist, but his family background and his lusts caught him up to the extent he was unable to break free from his immoral relationships.
Herodias, his seduced conquest, must also have realised that John was simply speaking the truth, yet in effect organised his murder in a ruthless and calculated way rather than allow John to continue to speak out and cause her and her husband further embarrassment.
Her daughter Salome must similarly have realised that her actions – both in performing the seductive dance of a prostitute for her step father – and in demanding John’s execution, were highly immoral and cynical acts.
There is a curious postscript to the story. Herod Antipas eventually decided his position as Tetrach of Galilee was not quite the level of power he wanted – and a few years later he went to Rome to ask the Emperor to grant him the title of King. The Emperor was not impressed. Instead of granting the plea, the Emperor decided he was being insolent and had him banished to Gaul. Although the Emperor offered to spare Herodias the same banishment, perhaps it is to her credit that Herodias decided to stick by her husband and went with him.
For John the Baptist, both the unwelcome imprisonment in appalling conditions followed by an unwarranted execution was clearly an unpleasant end to a brave life. Yet as with Jesus, his steadfast holding to the truth regardless of the consequences continues to inspire through the centuries. John the Baptist, realising the senior official, the Tetrarch of Galilee was engaged in totally unacceptable behaviour most certainly did not change his clothes and blend with the crowd. He spoke a truth that he believed needed to be spoken.
Today the faces have changed but the need for truth has not gone away. As we engage in our own tentative steps towards the truth it maybe that sooner or later we too have to make our own choices whether or not to act. Have we ever encountered immorality which is a direct contradiction of what you believe you faith encourages you to stand for? When such moments come we might do well to remember that observation of Henry Ford. “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do”