From BIRTHday to DEATHday – Saturday, 17th week in ordinary time – Matthew 14: 1-12
This has got to be a birthday party you want to forget about. There was no cake cut but a head chopped. What began as a ‘birth’ day ended as a ‘death’ day. St Matthew is borrowing this narrative from the text of St. Mark which was written a couple of years earlier and was already in circulation. The difference in the texts is that St Matthew cuts to the chase leaving out the details of the drama and simply comes to the point.
Even though Chapter 13:54 to the end of chapter 17 deals with the ‘acceptance of Jesus by his disciples’ it begins with his rejection by his own people in Nazareth and is followed by this narrative which seems to be the reason for Jesus to begin his journey to die for us. The death of one martyr is the trigger for the Son of God to lay down his life. In both the death of John and Jesus the similarities are not lost on the reader.
John and Jesus are both hauled before men in charge of leadership, (Pilate and Herod Antipas) who were not really convinced that they should be put to death. Both men were pushed to a bad decision by people who would ‘profit’ from such a death. Herodias would have got rid of the voice of conscience that condemned her adulterous and incestuous union to Herod and Caiaphas and gang would have got rid of what they saw as a religious rabble rouser who could set off a very edgy Roman army. Both men gave succumbed when they executed the death warrant; Herod to the lust of the flesh and Pilate to the lust of power. Both were edged on by public perception; Herod was worried about his oath before his guests and Pilate was worried about his loyalty to Caesar.
But since this text is a flashback in the Gospel let me do a bit of flashback for you. Herod, mentioned in the Gospel is Herod Antipas or Herod the Tetrarch(meaning one fourth). He was given the charge of Galilee and Perea but in reality was a puppet in the hands of the Emperor Tiberius. The son of Herod the Great, this apple did not fall far from the tree. In many ways he was like his father though some portray him to be weak and indecisive. Herod Antipas (21BC – 39AD) had divorced his wife, the daughter of King Aretas, ruler of the Nabatean kingdom. This was a mistake because Aretas made sure of Herod’s downfall.
So what really lost Herod Antipas his crown? His love for ‘his brother’s wife’! The woman in question is Herodias. Herodias was the niece of King Herod the great, the daughter of King Aristobulus IV. She was married off to Philip the son of Herod the Great and bother of Herod Antipas. Her husband was also called ‘Herod Boethus’. Philip chose to stay in Rome, living a quiet life rather than the spotlight he would be thrown under in Jerusalem. But Herodias had dreams and all it took was a visit from Herod Antipas for her to snake her way into his life.
While this union would have evoked hushed tones of condemnation from the religious elite of Jerusalem, it found a vociferous opponent in John the Baptist. This voice in the wilderness shook the corridors of power enough for Herod to have John imprisoned in Machaerus, one of Herod’s many palaces, this one in the Trans Jordan area. And then all it took was a birthday and an opportunity to win and woo Herod. John may have ‘lost his head’ with Herod’s moral life but this also made his loose his head, literally!
While Jesus told us that ‘the truth will set you free’ (John 8:32). Yet speaking truth to power also has its consequences. John was beheaded and Jesus was crucified. Speaking the truth does not insulate us from the wrath of those who have much to lose. People like Herodias and Caiaphas lurk in the wings, daggers drawn, and waiting for an opportune moment to bring down the righteous in an attempt to snuff out the truth. Should we fight back? Vengeance is mine, says the Lord! ( Romans 12:19)
Fr Warner D’Souza