The Beheading of John the Baptist
II Chronicles 24:17-21
Hebrews 11: 32-40
It takes courage to speak truth to power. There can be real consequences to boldly speaking the truth, especially when it challenges political, social, economic or religious systems that favor the powerful. Speaking the truth to powerful people can result in the loss of one’s job, the loss of one’s friends and allies, the loss of one’s liberty, and even the loss of one’s life.
We have a powerful example of this in tonight’s gospel lesson, which presents us with a shocking contrast. On the one hand there is the prophet John, the “voice crying in the wilderness,” now alone in his cell, doomed and helpless to save his life; on the other, the king, surrounded by the ‘successful’ and powerful members of his court. John is in prison because he has dared to criticize Herod for marrying his brother’s wife; he is paying a heavy cost for speaking the truth.
The king has arranged a party for his friends and loyal supporters. Present are advisors, military commanders, the leading people of the country – all of them “successful” as the world measures success. He provides them with rich food and abundant quantities of wine. Herodias – his crafty and scheming wife – arranges for their daughter, Salome, to perform a sensuous dance for her drunken father and his guests. Herod is so pleased by the dance that he offers her whatever she wishes, up to half of his kingdom. Counseled by her mother, Salome asks for the head of John the Baptist.
People in power are subject to the approval of others and, in order to save face in the company of these influential people, Herod has to concede to his daughter’s request, even though he is reluctant to do so. John is beheaded in prison, and his head is brought to the girl and her mother, who enjoys her moment of revenge.
The story reveals the vulnerability of the powerful, who, even if their intentions are originally good, may be bent towards evil by their own ambition; by their desire for fame and recognition; by their envy of those who seem more powerful or successful than they are; bythe fear of losing their power and privilege, or by the fear of alienating their wealthy and influential supporters. Those in power can often tempted to compromise their values, to cover up their weaknesses and failings, or to put a false positive spin on what they have done – all in order to maintain their place of power and privilege.
Mark includes this narrative in his gospel as a sober warning to the early Church of the real consequences of resisting the powerful. His first-century readers were already undergoing persecution: they were being betrayed by their neighbors and hunted down by the authorities. They knew the costliness of embracing Christian faith. They were suffering as a result of proclaiming the truth they had found in Jesus Christ and in his gospel. Mark puts their suffering in context, and reminds them of the suffering of John the Baptizer, and of Jesus himself. He means to encourage them to stay strong and to act bravely in the face of adversity.
The story of John the Baptizer illustrates the kind of courage that is required to speak the truth in the face of lies and distortions, a courage that is much needed in our own time, and in every age. It warns us that speaking truth to power is likely to have consequences.
It takes “guts” to speak up when we see something being done that is dishonest or wrong, or when we sense that something that is true is being ignored or covered up.
It requires bravery to state what we know to be true, when we know our truth will pose a threat to those in power.
It takes nerve to speak out against injustice, knowing that standing up for the poor and the vulnerable may put us at odds with others who believe that their lives will be adversely affected by the changes we are advocating.
It’s hard to speak the truth, but it’s also necessary. So necessary.
History is full of people who have braved the consequences of speaking truth to power: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dalai Lama, Dorothy Day, Anita Hill, Greta Thunberg.
Countless others, some whose names are known only to God, have told the truth even when threatened or persecuted. They have spoken up for justice, and have resisted the domination of the powerful. They have chosen to do what is right, to say what is right, in spite of the consequences that may befall them.
How might God be calling you today to be courageous in speaking the truth when you recognize injustice, when you see through the lies and deceptions of the powerful, when you perceive their hypocrisy and deceit?
How might God be calling you to speak up when you recognize racism, misogyny, xenophobia or other forms of discrimination?
How might God be calling you to speak up – in your family or in your church or in your workplace or in your neighborhood or in your country?
Silence empowers the oppressors. Be bold. Speak truth. And never give up.
The life and death of John the Baptizer is a witness to us all.
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