John the Baptist was convicted, convinced of his ordination to prepare the way of the Messiah with a call to repentance. Herod Antipas was conflicted, assailed by contradictory impulses within himself and vulnerable to pressures outside himself.
John the Baptist gave meaning to the word courage in his unswerving commitment to his mission of truth and promise. Herod Antipas gave meaning to the word fear in his commitment to self-preservation.
Watch the video: ON Scripture: Death of John the Baptist
These contrasts emerge as we consider the flashback account of John’s death prompted by Herod’s belief that Jesus, whose influence was growing, must be John the Baptist raised from the dead.
John the Baptist proclaimed the messianic promise that the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 3:2). His was a summons to own the truth of one’s sin and enter the waters of his baptism as a sign of commitment to newness of life. It was a compelling message that drew the faithful in huge numbers.
If the repentant faithful were drawn to the Baptist, seeking a word of cleansing and a reason for hope, others had very different reactions. Some religious leaders, who coveted their role as the true arbiters of the faith, were skeptical, if not hostile. When some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came for baptism, John sensed their hypocrisy. Such candor could hardly have been endearing.
However, the truth-telling that ultimately proved fatal was confronting Herod about his adulterous marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. This judgment so angered Herodias that she wanted John killed. Though Herodias did get Herod to put John in prison, getting him killed was another matter. Herod feared the Baptist and therefore protected him.
What was Herod’s fear all about? He could not have been happy with John’s judgment against his adultery. There is no evidence that Herod repented. Yet we are told that Herod knew John to be righteous and a holy man, and Herod liked to listen to him. Was he like we are sometimes, sensing a hard truth about our lives, uneasy but not ready to accept it? Why risk offending God by harming John; he could be a true prophet after all. Was that it? Or was it also fear, as the ancient historian, Josephus, claimed, that the power of John’s message might stir a rebellion.
Herod was not loved by all. His more zealous enemies considered him a collaborator with Rome. Herod, a small time ruler, not actually a king, was beholden to Rome and vulnerable at home. As the drama played out, he was vulnerable to his wife as well. Beguiled by his daughter’s sexually charged dancing and its effect on his guests, Herod makes a rash promise. Herodias leverages his need to appear resolute in front of his politically important guests to get her wish; John is beheaded. Conflicted within himself about John’s message but surrounded by manifold political and family pressures, Herod does what he knows is terribly wrong. He is deeply grieved.