Monday, 16 July 2018

Power and the Personal

Homily for Trinity 7 (Proper 10) – Eucharist – 15.vii.2018

(Amos 7.7-15; Mark 6.14-29)

The account of the Beheading of John the Baptist is one of the more horrific stories in the New Testament. John himself is always off-stage. The reason he’d first upset King Herod is a past event. Now he’s in prison. But the focus is on Herod and his family at a feast for his birthday.

Herod isn’t a real king. He’s a “tetrarch,” a puppet of the Roman rulers who have divided his land up into three. This is Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great, who had been king when Jesus was born. This Herod has been given the province of Galilee as the region which is his to administer. We know from what happens later on that Herod must have spent some of this time in Jerusalem - because he is involved in the trial and condemnation of Jesus. But we’re not told where the events of today’s reading take place.

The indicators are that they happen in the Galilee - in a palace equipped both with facilities for entertaining and for imprisoning Herod’s enemies. The scene is of eating, drinking and dancing. But the prison is near enough for Herod to send out word to have John the Baptist killed in his cell and for his head to be brought in as the banquet continues.

Just think about that - the people who were involved in this, those who were complicit in a death without a trial or any sort of due process. Not only the executioner, but Herod who first had John locked up, his wife Herodias in the malice she holds against John, and the daughter who is manipulated into making the request for John’s death. Would this murder have been particularly newsworthy? Or just the sort of thing that might be expected of someone who has been given the power to do what he wants - and isn’t required to answer for his actions? Are there people like that in our world today? Who is going to speak out against them? What would you do if you found yourself in a tricky situation, but could extricate yourself by doing the wrong thing if you knew you could get away with it?

We’re given this whole story not simply for its own sake but to tell us how it fits in with the ministry of Jesus. In St. Mark’s Gospel it comes in between the story of how Jesus sent out his twelve disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, teaching and healing along the way, and the account of how he fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes. Jesus is making an impact by what he says and does, and Herod Antipas has heard about it. This is why we now get today’s story. People are speculating about what or who Jesus is. Some say he’s a prophet, like Elijah - perhaps he’s even John the Baptist come back. And Herod knows what he has done to John - he’d had him beheaded. So has he been raised from the dead? If Herod finds himself asking the question, it nevertheless won’t stop him later being part of the attempt to stop the whole movement Jesus leads by putting him on the Cross.

The terrifying thing about Herod Antipas is that he’s a man who has been given the authority to govern and power over life and death. But he’s moved to do what he does by personal feelings, ambition and the desire to avoid embarrassment. It’s worrying that there are people still like that today - some hold the highest positions of world leadership, others resign from political office when things don’t go their way. You can supply the names yourselves. They are not the first - and no doubt there will be others to follow.

Herod first locks up John the Baptist when John speaks out about his personal morality. Herod had stolen his own brother’s wife from him - and he can’t take it when John tells him he’s wrong to do it. But there’s something that must have nagged away at Herod. He puts John in prison, but he recognises that John is both righteous and holy. He likes to listen to him.

If only Herod could overcome the conflict which must have been in his heart and let those qualities of righteousness and holiness change him! Are there moments in our lives when we know what is right but just can’t make the move that could change us for the better? I found myself thinking of G K Chesterton’s words: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

In the end it’s just too difficult for Herod. Instead he gives in to the grudge which Herodias holds against the Baptist. He makes a stupid offer to the daughter of Herodias when she dances for him. He can’t see a way of refusing her request without losing face. And the result is that a man loses his life.

The Gospels keep the action in Herod’s palace. The execution takes place unseen in the prison and John’s head is brought back. Brought back and given to the girl who’d asked for it. And what will she do with it?

If you want the full horror, the artist Caravaggio can take you there. He painted The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist in 1608 as an altarpiece for St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta. It’s still there - a huge canvas with life-size figures - dominating a room at the west end of the Cathedral. It’s been described as one of the ten greatest art works of all time: "Death and human cruelty are laid bare by this masterpiece, as its scale and shadow daunt and possess the mind."

In the picture the executioner stands with knife in hand as John’s body lies on the ground. It’s the only picture that Caravaggio ever signed and he does it using the paint from the pool of John’s blood. It’s claimed that in signing the picture the artist was declaring “I, Caravaggio, did this.” Caravaggio had been involved in a fight which had led to another man’s death. Another crime forced him to flee from the Knights of Malta. In painting the picture he must have had a sense of his own guilt.

But as we think of that scene - and of the story we hear today - we need to ask ourselves where we go wrong; and of the damage we can cause, the havoc we can bring to the lives of others.

“The king was deeply grieved,” St. Mark’s Gospel tells us. But more than grief is necessary. John the Baptist had spoken out against Herod, but also offered him a vision of righteousness and holiness. The prophet Amos offers a vision of a plumb line - not only to show what is crooked and wrong, but how it can be put right. And the love of God - the grace we find in Christ - shows us how we may move forward: admitting our faults, knowing our need, and accepting the forgiveness which is offered for us from the Cross.

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