JOHN the Baptist was not known for his tact. If his view of marriage had prevailed, it could have changed the course of English history, for Henry VIII might never have married (and then divorced) Queen Katherine. Here is a useful reminder that none of us can ever know the ultimate ramifications of our choices and decisions. Best to “tell the truth and shame the devil”, as the Baptist did.
The story of his beheading sits in the Gospels as a digression, unconnected to what precedes and follows it. It was important to record it; for the story of the Baptist matters to all Christians, and not just because of his kinship with Jesus (recorded only in Luke 1.36). His part in the scheme of salvation is unique — because he was the first to recognise the true identity of Jesus (Luke 1.41), and because he died a martyr’s death witnessing to the truth, albeit before salvation was effected through Christ’s death on the cross.
The story of Herod’s disastrous birthday party follows a theme found in other traditional stories: the unforeseen consequences of a rash promise. It is a familiar enough theme for Ecclesiastes to issue a warning against it (5.2). Such rash promises are more than casual remarks: in the Gospel, Herod confirms his original suggestion with a solemn oath.
The message could not be clearer: we do not understand what we ask God for, nor foresee the outworkings of our desires. How could we? But the partial nature of our understanding makes us prone to doing things that are not themselves ill-intentioned, but which put us in the genuinely tragic position of having to choose not between good and evil but between one evil and another.
The story gives us pointers on what to do when we find ourselves trapped by our own rash promises. It would be hard to argue that what Herod did was “right”. But for him to have broken an oath to God would have been disastrous, too. This was a world in which dishonouring God could have consequences beyond the fault of the individual concerned. Jonah, for example, imperils an entire crew by his attempt to resist God.
One of the keys to a right interpretation here is in v.26. Herod feels constrained to execute John because of “his oaths and his guests”. I do not think that he is merely afraid of being criticised if he breaks his vow. To commit such an act would be monstrous: a blasphemous evil to inflict on people he had invited to his feast.
Herod put himself in a position in which he could not “do the right thing”. That left him choosing to condemn a human being in order not to offend other human beings or God. In his position, we might choose differently, and risk offending God instead. But, if we did, we would have to take on ourselves the consequences of shame and dishonour.
We may never find out how we would respond, but surely at least some of us would take the easy path, telling ourselves that John had brought this on himself. This is often how those who prefer the quiet life tidy uncomfortable truths out of sight.
Amos did not shrink from the challenge to uphold truth, however uncomfortable or risky. God had given him a part to play and he accepted it, realising that the gift of prophecy overrode his previous life and family identity. God is the master-builder, whose wall, built with a plumb-line (the ancient equivalent of the spirit-level app on my phone), is perfectly upright. He will test his creation by this means, and whatever falls short will be destroyed. “Passing them by no more” in v.8 is a way of saying that he will withhold forgiveness.
There are five visions in Amos. All of them are of everyday things suddenly charged with visionary meaning. When we turn to Ephesians, that visionary world is to the fore: heavenly places, election, adoption, inheritance — the images come thick and fast. One that ties this letter to the other readings is “mystery” in v.9. The word does not denote secret rites or sacraments: it points to what once lay hidden but now has been revealed: namely, God’s loving purpose, summed up in his Son. Here, at last, is a vision that all can share.