Can I admit something to you? Just between us? I’ve never really liked the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” Maybe it’s just me, but whenever I hear someone say that it feels like the assumption is that the reason is always good. In reality, as the old meme says, sometimes the reason things happen is “you’re stupid and make bad decisions.” More often than not, sometimes things happen because addictions are powerful, mental health is fragile, power corrupts, and evil is real. This is precisely what happens in today’s Gospel lesson. A really bad thing happens to a pretty good person because sin is all too real.
You might recall that last week’s Gospel lesson ended with Jesus and his disciples travelling all around the Galilean countryside preaching repentance and performing miracles. When it was just one roaming Rabbi, nobody in power paid too much attention, but as the crowds around Jesus began to grow, and as his disciples began to branch out, word spread rapidly. The Good News of God’s plan of salvation was beginning to gain a foothold and it was seen as a real threat to the powers-that-be in both the religious and political realms. All around Israel, people were wondering who this Jesus character might be – Elijah, Moses, or another prophet – but Herod Antipas, the puppet King of Galilee, had no doubt, he was John the Baptist, risen from the grave.
Herod had good reason to be wary of Jesus and to wonder if he was, in fact, some sort of Zombie John the Baptist back to threaten his power and privilege. Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great who ruled Judea during the time of Jesus’ birth. The Herodian family tree is a bit hard to unravel, what with multiple wives and various sons with similar names, but after Herod the Great died or was killed, depending on which story you believe, three of his sons: Herod Archelaus, Philip the Tetrarch, and Herod Antipas, took rule over his kingdom. Our Herod, Antipas, ruled the region of Galilee in northern Israel from about 4 BCE until his death in 39 CE. After divorcing his first wife, Herod Antipas essentially stole his second wife, Herodias, from his brother, Herod II. Herod II had been removed from the line of succession because his mother knew about, but did nothing to stop, a plot by another brother, by a different brother, Herod Antipater II, to poison their father, Herod the Great. Confused yet? I know I am.
Anyway, according to the historian Josephus, Herodias “took upon her to confound the laws of [Israel], and divorced herself from her husband while he was still alive, and was married to Herod Antipas.” As you might imagine, a prophet like John the Baptist, who was deeply concerned with the sinful dealings of all of Israel, would have strong opinions about this, and he wasn’t afraid to share them quite publicly. Eventually, Herodias became fed up with John’s complaints and convinced her husband, Herod Antipas, to have him arrested. Interestingly, Mark tells us that Antipas refused to let John be killed for speaking out against their marriage, but instead kept him in protective custody where he enjoyed listening to his perplexing words. Herodias waited and watched for her opportunity, which finally came during the celebration of Antipas’ birthday. The powerful gathered, the wine flowed, and after watching his young stepdaughter delight the crowd with her dancing, Antipas blurted out, “Whatever you want, even up to half of my kingdom, it is yours.” Salome ran to her mother with excitement. “What should I ask for?” she wondered, but Herodias had no doubt, “The head of John the Baptist.” Salome returned to her stepfather, and the girl of probably only twelve, asked not just for the head of John, but that it be served to her on a platter. Fearful of losing face in front of his guests, Antipas had no choice but to oblige.
I’m guessing that the disciples who came to retrieve John’s body weren’t thinking, “everything happens for a reason.” There seems to be little, if any, redemption in this story. John the Baptist’s gruesome death happened because power and privilege combined with anger and violence. This deadly combination is all too common, even in 2021. Moreover, as theologian Debie Thomas points out, John the Baptist’s head ended up on a platter because Herod Antipas loved to listen to, but never really heard, the words of the prophet John. No matter how much he might have enjoyed his time with John, when push came to shove, Antipas had learned nothing about repentance, forgiveness, and grace. Rather, in that moment, he forgot everything he had heard, and impulsively reacted, choosing to save every last ounce of his overwhelming level of privilege over the life of a man he had come to respect.
As Christians, we have similar choices to make every day. It isn’t likely that we’ll ever have the power to order someone’s head be brought on a silver platter, thanks be to God, but there are plenty of moments in our lives when the choice between saving face and hurting another child of God is all too real. Borrowing again from Debie Thomas, personally, the death of John the Baptist invites us to ask ourselves questions like, “Am I so bent on conflict avoidance that I harm other with my passivity.” Or “Do I prefer stability and safety more than transformation?” Corporately, as a church and a society, we must consider, “When we choose silence for the sake of convenience, whose life becomes expendable?” And “When we decide that justice is too messy, chaotic, or costly to pursue, who suffers in the long term?”
I guess maybe it is true that everything happens for a reason, but often that reason is the result of sin and has nothing to do with God. Whether it is individual sins like pride, envy, greed, and bigotry, or corporate sins like white supremacy, heteronormativity, or xenophobia, the power of evil in this world is quite real. As not merely followers of Jesus, but disciples, we are called not to just hear stories like the death of John the Baptist and forget about them, but to learn from and be changed by them. The more we dig into these stories, looking for how evil is at work in the world around us and how Jesus calls us to lives of grace and love, the more we will be equipped, when push comes to shove in our own lives, to choose right over wrong, compassion over indifference, and love over hate. We may not have the capacity to beat down evil in our lifetimes, but every time we choose love, the Kingdom of God moves just a little bit closer. If everything does happen for a reason, may the reason we do anything be out of love of God and love of neighbor, to the glory of Almighty God. Amen.