Matthew 14:1-12 – Speaking Truth to Power

16th century Russian Orthodox icon of John the Baptist

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”

Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.

On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. (NIV)

John’s murder is a story about our world – a world of power, sex, and intrigue. Times may change, but people across the ages do not change. Humanity is fundamentally the same in every century. And the world is still the world, no matter the historical time. 

The contrast between Herod and John supply us with two types of people who exist throughout every age of humankind, offering us the choice of which way we will go with our lives. The story illustrates for us the reality of living in a fallen world as a devout person.

The Herod in today’s Gospel lesson was a son of Herod the Great, the one who killed all the male babies when Jesus was born in order to try and get rid of any rival king (Matthew 2:1-18). King Herod is displayed in the narrative as a tragic and pathetic figure who is ruled by his own lusts. He seems too proud and wimpy to admit he made a rash promise and killed a man just to save face with his guests at a party.

Talk about a Jerry Springer worthy family drama, here it is: The Herod family was rich, proud, and downright violent. They tended to marry within their own clan to hold their power and possessions for themselves. Herodias married her uncle Herod Philip; Salome was their daughter. Later, Salome married Philip the tetrarch, half-brother to Herod Philip. Through marriage, Salome became both aunt and sister-in-law to her mother. Then the Herod in our story married Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother, Herod Philip. Having fallen in love with Herod Antipas, Herodias divorced Herod Philip to marry Herod Antipas. Sheesh, nothing like complicated family drama.

St. John the Baptist Rebuking Herod by Italian artist Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908)

Into this violation of Old Testament marriage laws (the Herod’s were Jewish) came John who made no bones about the fact this was not right (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). Herodias nursed a grudge against John for speaking out against her and Herod’s choices. Hell, hath no fury like a woman’s scorn, and when Herodias found an opportunity to get rid of John, she coached her daughter into asking for John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Herod, too insecure to take back his ridiculous promise and look like a fool, consented to the execution of John.

In contrast to all this tragic theater is John the Baptist. John was a messenger of God and a preacher of repentance. As one who was preparing the way for Jesus, his message was simple and to the point: Repent, for the kingdom of God is near. John got into trouble and lost his life because he spoke truth to power by meddling in the life of King Herod and his family. The Herod’s were the political establishment of the day, and John did not temper his words when dealing with them.

There is a refreshing integrity about John. He was always the same no matter where he was, and no matter who the people were around him. In contrast to Herod, John was bold, courageous, confident, unafraid, and secure enough in his relationship with God to engage in ministry without thought to the consequences.  He was unconcerned for what others might think of him if he proclaimed truth in the public square, and it did end up costing him his life.

The story of John the Baptist’s death speaks about the hostility of this world. And it prefigured and foreshadowed the death of Jesus. Like John, Jesus was executed by the civil authorities. Herod, like Pilate after him, hesitated to execute and was swayed by the crowd. Herodias, like the chief priests toward Jesus, finally got her way through scheming and manipulation. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it, just like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus did for Jesus.

These stories, on the surface of things, appear to be only gloom and doom. Yet, there is a message of hope and joy. The absurd is working out itself in deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Through death, Jesus conquered death. We now have no fear of death; its sting has been taken away. Without fear of death, we have no reason to fear life with its troubles and tribulations.

The fork in the road is between the way of John or Herod. It is a values-based decision. If worth is derived from what we do, what we have, and/or other’s opinion of us, we will likely identify more with Herod and his choices. If there is a preoccupation with hoarding power and control, this is the path of Herod. 

Conversely, if the ultimate value is in knowing Christ crucified and the power of his resurrection, then we identify with John as our spiritual ancestor. If security and worth is derived from being in Christ, then there is boldness to speak truth to power and give grace to the powerless.

Herod saw no further than his immediate needs and safety; he failed to discern his own heart. Because of his spiritual blindness, Herod did not look away from himself and look to God. Faith in Jesus comes when persons look away from themselves and look to Christ who holds the power to free all from spiritual bondage.

Let us look to the example of John the Baptist who consistently sought to do the will of God as best as he understood it. Together with all God’s people past and present, we declare that God is with us, the kingdom of God is near, and the love of Christ brings faith and hope.

Almighty God, through your providence John the Baptist was wonderfully born and was sent to prepare the way of your Son, our Savior by the preaching of repentance. Lead us to repent according to his preaching and, after his example, constantly to speak the truth, boldly to rebuke vice, and patiently to suffer for truth’s sake; through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Matthew 11:20-24 – “C’mon, Man!”

Jesus angry
“Christ in Majesty” by Polish artist Jan Henryk de Rosen at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, recounting the words of Jesus, are not filled with unicorns and butterflies, to say the least. We might be somewhat unfamiliar with these not so famous, maybe even infamous, words from our Lord. Before Jesus tells who is accepted in the kingdom of God (Matthew 11:28-30) he tells us who is not accepted. These scathing words are specifically leveled to the towns in which Christ had performed his ministry of healing and miracles.

We need to hear the hard words of Jesus. Up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, he has laid out the birth narrative of incarnation in chapters 1-2; the preparation for Christ’s ministry in baptism and being sent to the desert in chapters 3-4; Christ’s teaching on what constitutes a genuine follower of God, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7; and, chapters 8-10, recording ten miracles which were meant to demonstrate that the kingdom of God has broken into history in the person of Jesus Christ. In chapter 11, Jesus begins leveling a rebuke to the crowd who had observed his ministry and did nothing in response to his works.

For Jesus, the height of hubris was to simply ignore his righteous works of gracious teaching and benevolent healing.

If you are not a fan of Monday Night Football, let me explain a pre-game segment each week during the season called, “C’mon, man!” Each commentator picks out a bonehead play from the previous week that would cause someone to shake their head in dismay and say “c’mon, man!” They are typically situations where the player’s head just was not in the game and they ended up, in some cases, costing their team points or even the game.

Cmon man

Reading Christ’s words sounds a lot like Jesus picking out the towns in which he performed his miracles, and saying to them: “C’mon, man!”  “You saw me cleanse a man from leprosy, heal paralyzed people and a woman with a chronic disease, calm a great storm, exorcise demons from people, give sight to the blind and speech to the mute. You saw all of this, but it has not changed you one bit. You still live the same way you always have and have not come to me as the source of your deliverance… “C’mon, man!”

Notice that Jesus’ denunciation comes not because he was experiencing opposition or persecution; he was denouncing them for their bonehead lack of response and refusal to change their lives to conform to what they were seeing right in front of their faces. The crowd heard his teaching and saw his miracles, and it had no effect on them. So, Jesus gave them a great big “C’mon, man!” Judgment becomes the lot of someone who is unaffected and unresponsive to the vast sea of human need around them, viewing Jesus as just another voice, and living a life of mediocrity in the face of opportunity.

So, what would the segment “C’mon, man!” look like today? What would Jesus say to us? Keep in mind we are people with access to Christ’s teaching. We have the Sermon on the Mount to read, study, meditate upon, and live by – yet, too many [Christians] don’t take the time to examine it with the intent of seeing Jesus and allowing him to change their lives… “C’mon, man!”

The Holy Spirit has been provided, who is the power source of the Christian life. We possess all the resources of grace necessary to step into this world and make a difference, yet so many do nothing but occupy a place in the pew [or couch] because they are too afraid to sacrifice their time in meaningful ministry… “C’mon, man!”

There are neighbors, relatives, and co-workers who are lost and lonely, in need of the kind of grace Jesus gives, yet too many of us are oblivious to them and instead are constantly worried about things that, in the end, don’t really matter at all… “C’mon, man!”

We have opportunities to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ through a vast array of available ministries, yet many do not take the chance to change and be spiritually stretched… “C’mon, man!”

Today the words of Jesus are right in front of our faces, and some of us will have the audacity to read them and remain unchanged, unchallenged, and unresponsive… “C’mon, man!”

If our highest values in life are sameness, stability, and security, we may very well, at the least, miss Jesus altogether, and, at worst, find ourselves under his condemnation. These verses are for those whom Jesus has become all too familiar, as if he is just another piece of furniture in the living room – the coffee table with a dusty Bible resting on it.

Perhaps this post may seem a bit out of place on a website which promotes itself as caring. I would like to think of it as obnoxiously caring. I trust you will accept today’s writing and the words of Jesus as caring enough to confront. There are times when Mid-West nice gets us nowhere and we must have hard conversations. Yes, conversations, and not verbal rockets launched from one group to another. Jesus did not denounce from a distance; he did it up close and personal. Furthermore, he was specific and not generic about why he was speaking in the way he did.

So, may you be able to pray this prayer of repentance today with heartfelt conviction:

Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Sovereign Lord of the universe, Creator of humanity, we, your unfaithful children, are sorry for our sins and the lives that we have lived apart from your grace. We sincerely believe and confess in our hearts that only through the precious blood of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, can we obtain your forgiveness.

We repent that: in thought, word, and deed, we have committed serious offences against you and our neighbors. Through spiritual laziness and prideful lust for power, we have provoked hatred, division, despair, and hurt within our communities.

Through our greed, deceit, and indifference, we have inflicted serious damage, unnecessary conflict, and aggravated destruction to those different than us.

Through our selfishness, insensitivity, and bias (both conscious and unconscious) we have encouraged and emboldened those who inflict hurt, pain, and sorrow on those who are already oppressed and poor.

In the name of religion, doctrine, and even of Christ himself, we have wounded fellow believers and those who genuinely pursue a faith different than ours. In stubbornness, pride, and arrogance, we have caused division and strife within your church and among your people.

Mercifully send your Holy Spirit, the Spirit of order and comfort, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; to restore in us true faith in Christ which brings truth, peace and harmony; and, to help us walk together with our brothers and sisters in the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of your name. Amen.