Commentary on Matthew 14:1-12
Our reading is about the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. When Herod the Great died his kingdom was divided among four of his sons. One of them, the Herod of today’s Gospel and also known as Herod Antipas is called a “tetrarch”, meaning that he was the ruler of a fourth part or a quarter of a territory.
Herod Antipas ruled over Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to 39 AD, that is, all during the life of Jesus and beyond. He is the one who wanted to see Jesus and whom Jesus called “that fox”. He is the one to whom Pilate sent Jesus during his trial. His rather painful and loathsome death is described in the Acts. Although only a tetrarch, Matthew calls him ‘king’ because that was his popular title among the Galileans and also in Rome.
It seems that, by all accounts, Herod was a nasty man and, as revealed by today’s story, a weak and highly superstitious one. It is striking how many powerful people are made insecure by superstition e.g. businessmen worried by the feng shui (lucky orientation) of their company buildings, anxious to have ‘lucky’ numbers on their cars, and the like.
Herod was hearing extraordinary things about Jesus and he came to the conclusion that Jesus was a re-incarnation of John the Baptist whom he had executed for reasons he knew very well to be totally wrong. Now here was John’s spirit come back to taunt him for he had killed God’s servant.
This leads to a re-telling by Matthew of the events which led to John’s death.
John, who was no respecter of persons, had openly criticised Herod for taking his half-brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, as his own partner. This was in clear contravention of the Mosaic Law. Herod’s fault was not so much in marrying a close relative but for taking her as his wife when Philip was still living and, at the same time, putting away the wife he already had.
It was already an extraordinarily incestuous family. Herodias was a granddaughter of Herod the Great and therefore a niece of Herod Antipas. First, she married another uncle, Herod Philip, who lived in Rome. He was a half-brother, from a different mother, of Herod Antipas. It was on a visit to Rome that Herod Antipas persuaded Herodias to leave her husband for him. This, of course, was strictly forbidden by the Mosaic law: “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife, for that would be a disgrace to your brother” (Leviticus 18:16).
Herod, doubtless under pressure from Herodias, had wanted to rid himself of the embarrassment John was causing him but was afraid to do anything because, in the eyes of the people, John was a prophet and spoke in the name of God.
Herodias got her chance on the occasion of Herod’s birthday. Knowing her new husband’s weakness, she got her daughter to dance in his presence. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the daughter was known as Salome. She later married her granduncle, another Philip and a son of Herod the Great who ruled over the northern territories. He is mentioned by Luke.
Whether the dance was as lascivious as Cecil B. de Mille and others like to suggest, we do not know but Herod was greatly taken by the performance. In the presence of his courtiers and very likely having drunk a little too much he promised the girl he would give her anything she wanted, even half his kingdom. Under the prompting of her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist delivered on a dish. Herod was clearly appalled and also afraid but he had made his oath in the presence of a large number of people. He could not go back. John was decapitated and the head delivered as requested. His disciples came and buried the body and then went to tell Jesus.
There are echoes in this story of Jesus’ own death. He also died because of the moral weakness of Pilate who gave in to the threats of the Jewish leaders for the sake of his own career. Jesus’ death too was the result of blind hatred. And when he died his disciples arranged to have him buried.
Undoubtedly John was a martyr. He died as a witness to truth and justice in the service of God.
Herod, on the other hand, put expediency and his own convenience before truth and justice. He was in an immoral relationship with another woman and he gave in to what he felt would be the criticism and perhaps the derision of others. He had indeed made an oath but it was one that, in the circumstances, he was obliged not to observe.
With whom do I identify with more? John the Baptist, the fearless champion of truth and justice? Or Herod, the vacillator, the one who compromised truth and justice because of pressure of opinion and his own personal interests? I am sure all of us can think of times when we compromised with what we knew was the good thing, the right thing to do and took the line of less resistance.
John is an example to us of integrity. And, like him, we have each one of us been called in our own way to be prophets, to be spokespersons for God’s way. It may not always be easy.