Choosing the Greater of Two Evils
The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison.
You make a mistake. You get yourself in over your head. You want the problem to just go away. But it doesn’t. It festers. And then one day the problem erupts. Instead of doing the right thing and coming clean, you make it worse. Far worse.
John the Baptist was no shy wallflower. He preached repentance from sin. He baptized. He lived what he preached. He called people out. He called leaders out for bad behavior. And that was a problem for Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea. John was rather outspoken and didn’t mince words when he condemned Herod’s divorce from his first wife and then marriage to his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Divorce was not popular among the people Herod ruled.
Herodias was also Herod’s niece. So it wasn’t just about divorce. And the worst of it was that Herod knew John was right. And as the Apostle Matthew tells us, Herod was afraid of the people because they considered John a prophet.
Herod had John thrown into prison. Let him preach to the guards. And Herod would have been content to let John rot in prison. A neat solution to a sticky problem. Herodias, however, had a different idea.
It’s Herod’s birthday. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, dances for her stepfather. He is so pleased with this “gift” that he promises her anything she wants. He makes the promise with an oath. Salome confers with her mother, and she tells Herod what she wants. “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter.”
Herod faced an immediate conflict of interest. On the one hand, he couldn’t embarrass himself in front of his guests. He couldn’t violate his oath. On the other hand, he didn’t want to offend the people. And he understood, if his wife did not, that John the Baptist was in prison for speaking the truth.
The text says Herod was “distressed.” However, perception and esteem won over justice. And Salome got what she asked for.
After this, life slides downhill for Herod. When Pontius Pilate sends Jesus to him to be judged, Herod will have none of it, not after what happened with John the Baptist. He sends Jesus back. He later fights a territorial war resulting from his divorce, and he loses. The Roman emperor Tiberias tries to bail him out but dies too soon. And then his nephew Herod Agrippa accuses him of a conspiracy against the Roman emperor Caligula, and Herod Antipas and Herodias are exiled to Gaul and disappear from history.
Herod solved his conflict of interest in the expedient way. He cowardly followed the path of least resistance. He could have accepted momentary embarrassment and denied Salome’s request. But he didn’t. And this one act shaped the rest of his life and how he is known to history.
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered John a prophet.
On Herod’s birthday the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever caught someone doing the wrong thing out of embarrassment or the desire to retain status? Has this happened to you? Could you accept embarrassment with hundreds of eyes watching how you would respond?
PRAYER: Father we are broken people, and we too often care for what the world will say rather than what you want. Give us the courage we need to do the right thing, the God thing. Help us see what the right thing is and to do it to bring glory to you, even at the expense of what others think of us. Amen.