This sermon was delivered by Wendell Griffen, pastor of the New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark., on July 12, 2009.
But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” Mark 6:16 (NRSV)
The death of John the Baptist, like that of Jesus, reminds us that powerful people sometimes use deadly methods to silence their critics. John dared to criticize the act by Herod Antipas to Herodias, the wife of Herod Philip, his half-brother. Mosaic law prohibited marriage to the wife of one’s brother except when the brother was deceased, and then the marriage was for the purpose of raising children in the name of the deceased brother. Philip was not dead. He had a daughter named Salome. Also, Herodias was the niece of Herod Antipas. The marriage to Herodias was both adulterous and incestuous. No wonder John the Baptist criticized it.
Herod Antipas arranged for the troublesome preacher to be arrested and imprisoned. Even that did not satisfy Herodias, who nursed a deadly hate for the meddlesome preacher. So Herodias used her daughter, Salome, to dance her way into her husband’s good will. After the dance when Herod offered to reward the young woman for her pleasing performance, Herodias counseled the daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. John the Baptist was executed on the order of a tyrant who was more interested in bolstering his personal and political image than in justice.
Later Herod Antipas learned that sick people were being miraculously cured and demon-possessed people were being released from their torment. Although the reports were about what the disciples of Jesus were doing, Herod imagined that the great works were performed by John the Baptist, the righteous and holy man whose preaching had perplexed and intrigued him.
Politically powerful people are not exempt from moral judgments about their living. This is an obvious, and somewhat comfortable, theme on which to focus our attention. John the Baptist did not consider Herod somehow beyond the range of his ministry, or the intent of his prophetic calling, merely because Herod was powerful. Herod might have believed himself beyond moral scrutiny. John the Baptist refused to indulge that error by the way he conducted his ministry.
The tendency in studying and preaching this text is to focus on the personal sins involved (adultery, incest, and murder). Yet in doing so, we ignore or discount what is equally obvious: Herod is set in direct conflict with the kingdom of God, love of God, and love for neighbors that is the core truth in the Christian gospel. That gospel has socio-political as well as personal implications.
We should never forget that Herod ordered John the Baptist to be executed in order to advance his political image. The execution of John the Baptist was a political murder of a religious critic done at the urging of an important constituent—Herodias—and to impress the guests at a Herod’s birthday banquet. Those guests are identified at Mark 6:21 as Herod’s “courtiers and officers and the leaders of Galilee.” I wonder if there were any religious people at the banquet. If so, there appears to have been no person there whose allegiance to God posed any obstacle to Herod’s prideful decision to kill a preacher to accommodate a dancer.
Allegiance to God does call us to challenge tyranny, however it may manifest itself. It is risky to challenge tyranny, yet that risky behavior keeps showing up in the Bible in people of faith. What tyranny are we challenging? What risks are we taking? What powerful interests are we confronting in obedience to the gospel of grace and truth? Or are you and I more inclined to be counted among the banquet guests of the tyrants of our time and place?
The guests at Herod’s birthday party included “the leaders of Galilee.” Would you or I have been on the guest list? Would we have been considered friends and supporters of Herod Antipas, the king who imprisoned John the Baptist and later ordered his execution? Would we have been considered friends of the religious tyrants of a later age who ordered the house arrest of Galileo? Would we have been considered banquet guests or outlawed critics of Adolph Hitler, Orval Faubus, or business leaders whose practices oppress workers or contaminate our air and water?
The ministry of Jesus resembled that of John the Baptist so much that Herod believed John the Baptist had been resurrected from the dead. Does our living evoke a prophetic memory, even an inaccurate one, in anyone? If the effect of the life and faith of Jesus was to evoke the memory of John the Baptist in Herod, does our living and faithfulness evoke memories of Jesus? Shouldn’t it do so if we are truly followers of Jesus? Shouldn’t the term “Christian” remind the Herod people of our time and place about Jesus?
We may want to ignore it, but the gospel lesson challenges us to confront a chilling reality—the ever-present temptation for people of faith to become comfortable with tyranny if the tyrants act to suit our aims rather than the grace and truth that undergirds divine justice. Many religious people in the United States were comfortable with the tyranny of segregation because it reinforced notions of white supremacy. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, to white religious leaders who openly questioned his nonviolent resistance to segregation. At the same time, King’s social justice ministry was opposed by leading black Baptists so much that he was ousted from their denomination. Religious people can be banquet guests of tyrants.
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, religious people in this country were key supporters for the rush to wage war against Iraq. Somehow, the political tyranny that led to the war in Iraq has not yet produced a strong prophetic condemnation of the people whose miscalculations and misrepresentations are responsible for this multi-trillion dollar misadventure that has killed and maimed so many people. Instead, the tyrants have successfully relied on religious people to be part of their support base. Religious people can be banquet guests of tyrants.
Wal-Mart has used its overwhelming economic power to deny workers decent wages and health benefits, while fighting their right to organize unions. Will we be counted among the prophetic resistance to that tyranny, or are we banquet guests of the tyrants?
The economic tyranny of the insurance, medical, and pharmaceutical industries operates to produce a dysfunctional health care system. Will we be counted among the prophetic resistance to that tyranny, or will we be banquet guests of the tyrants?
The political tyranny of the military-industrial complex constantly demands more spending for war tools we hope to never use. Meanwhile, public school teachers must spend their own money to buy classroom supplies. Are we among the prophetic challengers of that tyranny, or are we somehow among the banquet guests of the tyrants?
There is tyranny in our time. That tyranny causes great injustice and suffering. The tyrants of our time are just as vindictive as Herod. Let us find strength in the gospel of Jesus Christ to challenge the tyrants and be prophetic witnesses of divine justice and truth. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.