The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Well, well, well. That was a cheerful Gospel story, wasn’t it? What on earth are we supposed to learn from a grisly account of John the Baptist having his head chopped off? What a macabre scenario—presenting it on a dinner plate! I guess we might conclude from the story that the truth hurts. Speaking the truth can be hazardous to your health. In fact, it can get you dead.
It is, however, an intriguing story, filled with drama, conspiracy, and a violent resolution. Strangely, it has inspired plays, operas, and striking artwork. I wonder if any of us ever heard the expression, perhaps when we’ve done something to irk our parents, “You’re going to get your head handed to you,” and if that might have ad its origin in the John the Baptist story.
This is the only Biblical reference we have to either Herodias or Salome, the more common name for the young daughter. While Herod’s wife has a strong influence and voice, she is offstage, waiting in the wings. Her daughter, though, is far more central. Called on to provide entertainment for this important birthday party, young Salome succeeds and Herod rewards her—with the Baptist’s head.
This is a most atypical Gospel lesson. No matter how carefully we listen, we cannot find a single note of hope anywhere in this text. Instead, what we hear is a tale of anger and revenge, resentment and murder and it is one of very few stories in Mark’s Gospel in which Jesus is never mentioned.
John the Baptist, of course, was a prophet who stood up to Herod about this affair he was having with his brother’s wife. Prophets are truth-tellers, not crystal-ball gazers. They are called by God to speak the truth and that often gets them into trouble. It is not a job for the faint of heart.
Prophetic voices take a huge risk when they speak the truth in the face of the powerful. If they are going to preach a Gospel that humbles the mighty and exalts the lowly, the consequences can be lethal. We know the fate of prophets like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr, Archbishop Oscar Romero. Nor have we been deprived of prophetic voices in our day, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, and Sister Joan Chittister among them. All whose truth speaking has raised more than a few eyebrows.
This Gospel reminds us that the task of following Jesus, the One who said, “I am the Truth,” will never be easy. We still live in a world where those entrusted with power live in fear that their authority will be challenged and are often committed to expediency, and willing to compromise truth, justice, and compassion if they think it will guarantee their position of influence and privilege.
Telling the truth can get you in deep doodah. We know that about the truth. A friend is drinking far too much and on the verge of disaster. Your teenager is on the wrong track and headed for big trouble. A coworker at work has a penchant for telling racially offensive jokes. As a teacher you need to confront the difficult parents of a student who is viciously bullying a gay kid in your class.
Your ethics dictate a particular conviction on an issue that is not popular with your friends. What do we do when we have the choice to speak truth…or to be silent? And when we hear those hard truths, do we listen to the prophet, or hand their head to them on a platter.
Listen again to the very last line in this Gospel: “When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” In Jewish tradition, a man’s sons were expected to give him an honorable burial. John must have had no sons because the disciples stepped up and buried him. Government officials did not look kindly on people who came to collect the body of someone like John who had been executed as an enemy of Herod. It took guts to ask for the body of someone who had been put to death by the ruling authority of ancient Palestine.
Guts. Chutzpah. Courage. Isn’t that what is at the heart of the Gospel? Daring to take on the risky business of subverting the old world and creating a new world by what we do and what we say and how we live? Every time we speak up for love in the face of hate, whenever we tell the truth about injustice and oppression, each and every way we advocate for the poor, the exploited, the oppressed, and the weak —we proclaim the Gospel and we take a step into that new world.
Jesus has promised us a lot of wonderful things, but he never promised us that following him would be a piece of cake. Speaking hard truth—not easy.
We may lose friends or popularity. I strongly suspect that there is a little prophet in all of us wanting to speak truth when we know it’s the right thing to do.