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.

Ephesians 4:17-5:2 – Living in Truth

truth

So, I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.

That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.

Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin.” Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need.

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (NIV)

Okay, a collective confession from the get-go: We know today’s New Testament lesson is the proper way to live. There’s no need to convince you that we must live and speak the truth in love, avoid angry tirades, keep a lid on our wagging tongues, keep bitterness out of our hearts, forgive others, and be compassionate to people. So, what is the real issue? Why, despite knowing better, do we as people have such a doggone hard time following God’s example of holy speech, pure words, and radical forgiveness?

If there was a simple answer/solution to the acerbic tongues of people, it would be easy to avoid using our words like a hot knife through butter and toast others with subtle digs and cranky words. Simply telling ourselves (or others) to stop their bellyaching is only a manifestation of our own belligerent spirit running amok. No, we need a solid practical approach to those nagging white lies we keep putting out there and the bending of truth to suit our own selfish purposes. Neither sheer willpower nor hackneyed homebrewed prescriptions will get the job done.

When we go to the doctor, we want them to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we want to know what it is and how to deal with it. Doctors who avoid the truth so to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings are performing malpractice, not healing. We need a solid diagnosis and prognosis framed in a caring way. Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about ourselves from a spiritual doctor is like trying to do heart surgery on yourself.

The truth will set us free. Yet, before it will free us, it will make us uncomfortable. We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love and wrap our heads and hearts around it. Truth is: People are to be open, honest, and real with each other because we belong to one another. We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

truth cross

What is truth?

The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. Life together is to be shaped around the person and work of Christ.  Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together. That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus. That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other and put on a Christian way of relating to each other.  We will speak truthfully because we belong to each other – we are responsible for one another.  Just as Jesus so closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other.  My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues. This is a stance of connection, not division.

We are to put off lying and put on truth. Too often, we are in the habit of pretending and being plastic.  Pretending we are okay when we are not, or even acting like life is hard when it is not is an untruthful presentation – it is a lie. Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God. Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretension, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other.

Why do we not speak truth?

Habits of lying come from the enemy of our souls who whispers in our ears that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic – we can’t do it. Buying into that snake oil thinking believes we cannot be open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine because it is not worth the risk. We become convinced that we will be rejected, lose face with others, or be a victim of gossip.  In other words, we let shame take the steering wheel instead of speaking truthfully to one another.  So, we avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

Why are we to speak truth?

We speak truth because we are responsible to one another. We are not meant to hide in the shadows but to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful.  When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community (Acts 5:1-11). Lying undermines and erodes true community.

truth 2

How do we speak truth?

We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other because that is what God does with us.  Faith communities which love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing.  There must be assurance that members will not abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.  Truthful communities are sacred spaces of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real.  No one should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether they will be forsaken.  We must have a refreshing openness with each other since we belong to one another.  The late author and psychologist, Lewis Smedes, said in his book The Power of Promises:

“Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.  What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

Where do we go from here with truth?

I harbor no delusions: Being transparent and real is scary. Yet, if we are to be the true humanity we are deigned to be by our Creator, we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor project our problems onto others using untruthful accusations. We will do the hard work of learning to communicate by speaking the truth in love.

There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward: complacency and mediocrity. When it comes to relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment.  We need to make and keep promises to God and to each other; live into our baptisms; and, renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  This means we will allow God to invade our hearts; we will let our mouths say what needs to be said and be open enough to let others in.

Some folks have putrid spiritual abscesses from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love.  Spiritual healing comes through spiritual surgery. God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all our unhealthy ways of relating to each other – and together sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers around truth.

Putting off and putting on – that is the prescription for realizing truthful speech and life. It is not easy. It is hard as hell. And it takes us all as a human community to do it. Sometimes things are messy before there is order and peace. That is the price of authenticity and truth – and that is okay.

Lord God Almighty, the Creator of all that is good and true, help me so to put aside falsehood and put on truthful living and speaking that love and compassion shine in and through me to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign forever together in a Holy Trinity of Truth. Amen.