Speaking Honestly

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. (Matthew 14:3-11)

So here we are, at the tragic and gruesome end of John the Baptist’s life.

Something caught my attention while reading this passage in Greek. It might seem like a small thing, but I think it’s worth reflecting on.

The Greek text says, very clearly, that “[Herod] beheaded John in the prison” (or, if you want the whole verse 10, something like “and [Herod], after sending [someone], beheaded John in the prison”). Both verbs―the sending and the beheading―are in the active voice. Herod is the subject, John the object. Herod beheaded John. He probably sent someone else to do the physical act of killing, but it is clear that Herod is the agent responsible for it.

I think this struck me because it feels a little more direct and blunt than the most common English translations, which say that “[Herod] had John beheaded” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, CEB, NASB). Herod had John beheaded. There’s a little more distance here; perhaps even a little more moral murkiness as well. Herod didn’t really do the killing himself. Is he really fully responsible? What about the person who was sent?

Maybe this thought is more about Matthew―and just about the Bible in general, and power, and words, and history-telling―than about John the Baptist, but I found Matthew’s directness striking and refreshing. Herod beheaded John. It’s awful, it’s gory, it’s tragic―but it’s the truth. It’s what happened.

Matthew tells the story differently from how I imagine Herod might tell the story. I think most of us are are pretty good are coming up with nice-sounding justifications for our own actions. And sometimes these justifications are so nice-sounding that we fool even ourselves.

I wonder what Herod would have written if he had sat down to journal later that night, once the guests had gone and he was by himself in his palace―sitting by the fire, one year older, reflecting on his life. 

Perhaps he would have written something like this, or at least some parts of it:

I love my stepdaughter so much. It has not been easy for her to accept me, and to accept that I am now a part of her mother’s life in a way I wasn’t before. And I understand that. But I really want her to like me.

So when we were all having fun together and she was dancing and enjoying herself at my birthday party, I thought, maybe today is the day we finally begin to have a better relationship. I thought, I want to show her how committed a father I can be to her. I can provide for her. I will give her whatever she asks. I want her to have whatever in this world will make her heart happy. Nothing is too big.

So I told her that. I thought, maybe she’ll ask for money. I can do that. The hand of a handsome young man in marriage? That can be accomplished. Maybe I can throw a big feast for her own birthday so that she can celebrate with her friends. Or I could get her a pony. Little girls like ponies, right?

I waited eagerly to hear what she might ask. But when she spoke, my heart fell within me. The head of John, on a silver platter.

Yes, I had imprisoned John. I couldn’t let him walk around saying nasty things about my wife and I for everyone to hear, could I? But I didn’t mean to kill him.

I told my stepdaughter I would do anything she asked. And, of all of the things in the world, she asked for that. What could I do? I had to keep my word to her.

I am a man deeply committed to keeping my promises. I am a man of integrity. And today that integrity was costly for me.

But I did what I had to do. The only thing I could do. The only thing that would maintain the trust of my guests. If I didn’t keep my word in front of them, what would they have thought? My people’s trust in my leadership is essential for the peace and security of our region.

And so, I sent a servant to do the only thing that could be done. My stepdaughter had to have what she asked for. I didn’t want to do it, but there was no way out. I was put in a terrible bind, and it grieved me deeply. There was no good option, but even so, I did the best thing I could do.

After all, that’s what leaders do. We make difficult choices. We do the right thing for the sake of the people, for the sake of order and stability. That’s what I did today.

Herod might have said all sorts of things to himself. And, if there were some tetrarch-friendly media outlets around at the time, they might have repeated these things. And these things might have begun to pass as news.

But the gospel writer Matthew says: Herod killed John. Herod did have a choice. He did have moral agency. Herod was not, in fact, in a difficult bind where he did the best thing he could do. Herod’s choice to kill John was a cowardly one, and it revealed how much more he cared about his dinner guests’ opinions of him―about people-pleasing―than about doing what was actually the right thing.

There is no excuse for what Herod did in murdering John, and Matthew does not try to make one.

I think that if Matthew were here in the US today, telling stories about recent history or current events, he would tell them in the same sobering yet refreshingly straightforward way. And I think we need this.

When a police officer kills a black man, I think we need to say so. “It was an officer-involved shooting” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the black man was [insert completely unrelated previous petty crime or other character defamation here]”―implying that the murder was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually murder―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When a man commits sexual assault against a woman, I think we need to say so. “He was such a promising athlete―we don’t want to ruin his life and career just because he made this one mistake” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the woman had had a bit to drink,” or “she was wearing something provocative”―implying that the assault was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually assault―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When speaking about things like these, we can use language to exonerate people’s actions, or to hold them appropriately accountable. Matthew does the latter, and in so doing―in telling the story of John the Baptist’s death with all of its horrifying and gruesome reality, and in holding Herod completely responsible for it―I think he honors John the Baptist’s own spirit of tell-it-like-it-is bluntness.

May we too have the courage to use language that does not minimize tragedy but speaks of it honestly and directly, and that refuses to falsely exonerate its perpetrators.

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