See what happens when you mess around with politics and marriage? You lose your head to Herod. John wasn’t martyred for preaching the Gospel of the kingdom of God. He lost his head for criticizing Herod’s shabby morals for shacking up with his brother’s estranged wife Herodias. John calls him out on it and gets in dutch with Herodias, who’s probably more of a political player than anything else. Her daughter does a seductive belly dance for Uncle Herod and his buddies at his birthday party and, in a fit of probably drunken magnanimity, offers the girl up to half his kingdom. She goes off to Mom who seizes the opportunity and asks for John’s head on a platter. So much for John. Exit stage left, down the stairs of moral activism.
At one level, we might say that’s what you get when you get involved in marriage, politics, and the morality of public figures. You wind up in prison, or worse, with your head served up on a platter. But what does Jesus have to say about all this? That’s what we’re wondering here, since Jesus doesn’t even make a cameo appearance in today’s Gospel which is supposed to be about Jesus and not John. Surely He has some commentary on this sordid and unsavory affair. But no, Jesus has no comment. As John’s disciples go to get the headless body of their fearless leader and bury it, Jesus gathers His disciples together for a little wilderness retreat, and then He goes on to preach, teach, heal, and throw a dinner party for 5000.
I stumbled upon a remark from Luther on this passage:
When the murder of John the Baptizer was announced, that horrible crime, Jesus was silent, went away into the desert, fed the people, and did not make an issue of it, but only preached the Word and did His duty. Christian wisdom, therefore, means to commit oneself to the power of God and to turn one’s cause over to Him who judges justly. A Christian can indeed, by the office of the Word, judge sin, but he should not raise his hand against it unless he is compelled to do so by God or commanded by the Word. And so when you are alone and unable to set everything right and straight, commit your cause to Him who has more powers and who alone can do everything.
M. Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 15 : Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Last Words of David, 2 Samuel 23:1-7, ed. J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Luther’s Works (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999, c1972). Ec 1:16.
John, of course, was right to criticize Herod for taking his brother’s wife as his own. That was out of line with the spirit and intent of marriage. Herodias was probably playing politics, and while marriage certainly has been a tool for political power, it was not that way in the beginning when the Creator said “the two shall become one flesh.” Marriage is a protective fence built around a profound mystery, the union of male and female as one flesh, indissoluble, for life. Marriage is supposed to serve like an electric fence around a field, keeping the outsiders out and the one-flesh insiders in. And it’s doubly scandalous when this is the wife of your own brother, but then, the Herod clan wasn’t exactly known for it’s high moral standards.
From a Christian perspective, marriage finds it’s ultimate fulfillment and purpose with Christ and His Bride, the Church. This is the “great mystery” of Genesis 2, according to Paul. Not simply that a man leaves father and mother to be joined as one flesh to his wife, but that the eternal Son left His Father and His mother at the cross to be joined as one flesh to the Church that was made from His wounded side as He slept in death. So there is certainly much more to marriage than meets the eye, much less the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government.
And so it’s not surprising that John is outraged at Herod’s conduct and takes advantage of the audience he has while in prison to call him out on his bad morals. “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” Good for John to speak up. Someone had to, and being in prison, he had nothing to lose. Except his head.
What surprises us is that Jesus doesn’t immediately seize on the opportunity to do a follow-up. He has nothing to say on the matter. It’s as though he has bigger fish to fry, or in this case, to multiply, along with some loaves. He has thousands to feed and teach and heal. He has a cross to bear, an appointment with Death in Jerusalem, a Sacrifice to make that deals once and for all with the sins of the world, including those of corrupt kings and their adulterous bedrooms. God doesn’t deal with the sin of the world by instituting a program of moral improvement. Instead He sends His Son in the flesh to put Sin to death in the flesh.
Underlying all of this is the notion of God’s two kingdoms or rules – temporal and eternal. King Herod is a temporal king in a temporal kingdom. God is behind Herod’s authority too, albeit in a left-handed power sort of way. Remember what Jesus said to Pilate when He was on trial. “You would have no authority unless it had been given you from above.” And Jesus didn’t mean Caesar. And it’s like that with all governments, corporations, nations, states, institutions, even the visible and temporal side of the church. When men do it, it’s temporal, always imperfect, and ultimately destined for destruction.
God’s kingdom is eternal. It’s the kingdom we pray for and about when we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” It’s a kingdom that comes not with might or power or politics but by the Spirit of God when the Word of God is preached, heard, and believed, and we live godly lives according to it, both now and forever. God’s kingdom is not a reign over nations but over hearts and minds. As Jesus also said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” God’s kingdom comes by faith alone in Christ alone. So while John was losing his head over Herod’s bad morals, Jesus was laying down His life to redeem the whole mess for God. And when we see the contrast between John and Jesus, you get the point of God’s two kingdoms. John dies for criticizing Herod’s sin. Jesus dies for Herod’s sin.
I know this is going to leave some people unsatisfied. Our old Adam is an activist. He loves the moral cause, the righteous cause, because the righteous end always justifies the means. He can be proud of the strong stand he takes, and if he’s martyred for the cause, so much the better! Surely God is pleased.
Things temporal are always more engaging, urgent, and enticing than things eternal. It’s easier to get worked up over supreme court decisions than the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus. It’s more enticing to mobilize the forces to vote, protest, and sign petitions than it is to make disciples of all the nations by baptizing and teaching. It’s easy to slip into trying to establish the kingdom of God on the earth by our own doing. I’m sure John had the same notion of Messiah/Christ as his contemporaries did. A power messiah. A true king, not unlike Herod and his brothers. God’s king on God’s throne ruling God’s nation. That’s what people were waiting for. A super man who would clean up corruption and establish truth, justice, and the Israelite way.
But that wasn’t Jesus’ way or the way of His kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are about power. Their kings lop off the heads of their critics. God’s kingdom is about the mercy of a King who dies for the people. John had to decrease, Jesus had to increase. John had to get out of the way for Jesus to be the Way. John was safe in death. His headless body buried somewhere by his disciples. He was safe because Jesus was going the way of the cross to rescue him and the world.
That’s why Jesus doesn’t seem to react to His cousin John’s death. That’s also why God doesn’t seem to react to every instance of evil or injustice in this world. There’s no need for that kind of reaction. God doesn’t work by micromanaging evil but by drowning it in a deluge of grace, mercy, and forgiveness. The one needful thing has been done. Christ has died. Christ has risen. “It is finished.” What more needs to be done that that?
Our own age tempts us to be John and criticize the lousy morals of our own perverse and wicked generation. There’s so much that is not right. So much to be said. And we can feel good about ourselves standing up for what is right, defending the proper place and understanding of marriage against those who would use and distort it for different ends. We can feel justified in speaking out against declining morals, corrupt government, despotic rulers, all of that stuff. And more.
But John served best when John pointed his prophetic finger to Another and spoke with His prophetic voice calling in the wilderness, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There’s God’s answer to all of this. There’s God’s solution to the world’s problems and to your Sin. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Yes, the sin of the world. Of Herod and Herodias and Herod’s drunken friends. Of John and the disciples. Of you and me. The world. Following John won’t save you. Follow Jesus. Behold the Lamb.
In the Name of Jesus,