Proper 10 2021
The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a study on the use of power.
We are told that Herod had divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife. He had the power to repudiate his wife – she would have had no say in the matter. She would have reclaimed her dowry and left, perhaps facing economic and social hardship as a result. So here is power showing itself in personal relationships, and also power of men over women. For Herod’s family his abuse of power would have caused turmoil in his household, as marriage was as much the coming together of two families as much as it was the union of two individuals. That he then married his brother’s wife suggests that family relations in Herod’s household would have been fraught and tense.
Then there was the power of Herod’s new wife to take revenge on John who was a threat. It’s interesting that, as a woman, even a woman of high status, her power was of a different order. Her’s was a manipulative power – playing her daughter off against her new husband to get what she wanted. Even those with reduced power can sometimes find ways to influence events and get what they want.
Then there was the Herodias incident – the young girl dancing at the request of her step father. Here is the power of seduction, but also something underlying this allure which might easily be missed. The act of a girl dancing in public was considered scandalous by that society – there was a preference for modesty. Dancing was something performed at weddings (and it could be very erotic) but this was in an enclosed family situation. But Herodias was dancing in front of officers and other leaders. So Herod’s request to his stepdaughter was deeply scandalous. Did she have a choice? We don’t know. She could have known exactly what she was doing. But she was sadly failed by her parents, both of whom were misusing her; her father for allowing her to dance in public, her mother for using her daughter’s allure for her own ends.
This passage also demonstrates the power of truth – John the Baptist who was poor and itinerant spoke the truth. This provoked Mrs Herod to seek revenge. Herod himself was frightened, and had John imprisoned but was too unnerved by John to have him executed, until his hand was forced.
After John’s execution, Herod heard about Jesus and he became convinced that John was back from the dead – maybe this is the power of a guilty conscience.
This passage gives Christians reason to dwell on ‘power’. We all have power in one way or another. How do we use this? To intimidate and bully? To manipulate? To take advantage? Unthinkably, but sadly it is true, the Church of England, and many other churches, have been involved in the abuse of minors – their use for the sexual gratification of older men. All parish churches now have to ensure that children and vulnerable adults are kept safe – this is uncomfortable for us, but it has to be done.
If we dwell on the life of Jesus, we have our role model as Christians. Jesus had huge power. In the wilderness Jesus resisted the Devil’s temptation to use his power for his own ends. In his ministry he used it to heal, welcome and forgive. He used it to speak out against religious and political corruption, against bigotry and prejudice. He used his power in the service of others – never to his own ends. And even when his power seemed to have been stamped out, he returned from the grave – power used in the service of love, never dies.