Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, "This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears."
Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, "It is the Lord who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears."
Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, "This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God. " But the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he as not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, "This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him. " For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been telling him, "It is not lawful for you to have her. " Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.
But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter. " The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
The old Testament prophets often express burning indignation when one Israelite exploited or oppressed another, forced the sale of family inheritance, overlooked the needs of orphans and widows and turned might into right, just to impose their own desires. If even priests and temple officials supported such social injustices, then prophets like Jeremiah spoke out in the name of God, the people's ultimate redeemer or Go'el.
These social and secular overtones of redemption deserve our attention too. Theology must return to its biblical origins, which always shows God siding with the poor and defenceless. John the Baptist defended the rights of the ordinary people of his time and spoke up in the name of common decency. He died in this cause, protesting at Herod's elaborate wealth, sensuality, envy, and human respect. His life was whisked away by a dancing girl, put on display by her dissipated step-father. Matthew even records Herod's confusion between the Baptist and Jesus, whom he thought was John, raised from the dead. In a sense both Jesus and John the Baptist preached for the goals of the Jubilee Year and died in defence of the faithful life-bond between Israel and God.
Two men and two women feature in today's gospel, John the Baptist and Herod, and Herodias and her daughter. Of the two men, Herod was a man of power, whereas John was powerless; Herod had the freedom of an autocrat to do whatever he liked, whereas John had no freedom, being locked up in prison. Yet, at another level, John the Baptist had an authority and freedom that the king did not have. John had a moral authority that Herod lacked, and he had the freedom to speak out of his convictions, whereas Herod lacked the freedom of his convictions; he had John beheaded against his better judgement.
John had the authority of the person who was completely open to God's Spirit and that he had the spiritual freedom of the children of God. The gospels suggest that this is the only authority and the only freedom worth having, and very often it is to be found in people who might appear on the surface to have very little freedom or authority. The most authoritative and the freest person of all was Jesus, because he was full of the Spirit, and he was at his most authoritative and his freest at the very moment when he appeared to have no authority or freedom, as he hung from the cross. The more our lives are in tune with the movements of God's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the more we will share in the Lord's own authority and freedom, and the more we will begin to taste here and now that glorious freedom of the children of God that awaits us in the next life. [MH]