The Head of the Baptist

By Thabo Makgoba

Reading from the Gospel of Matthew, 14:1-12

1 At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; 2and 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.” 3For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, 4because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 6But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod 7so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 8Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” 9The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; 10he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. 11The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. 12His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.

Meditation

Revered as the herald of the Messiah, John the Baptist is a unique figure in our faith. As Saints and Seasons, the Anglican Church in Southern Africa’s guide to festivals and commemorations during the church year, says, he stands at the meeting-point of the Old and New Testaments:

As the last of the old prophets he was stern in his denunciation of moral corruption in the society of this day; and he pointed to Jesus, through whom the righteousness of God would be proclaimed, not by word alone, but by the Word made flesh.

This passage gives us a vivid picture of his brutal killing at the hands of Herod. The gruesome image of a man’s head on a platter shocks our modern sensibilities but for my family it is not an image confined to events that happened 2,000 years ago: in 1895, auxiliary troops employed by white settlers to crush my great-grandfather and his soldiers who were fighting to keep our land in the northern part of South Africa, killed him and brought his head to the settlers to prove they had done so.

There is of course a world of difference between the two stories, but they both go to show the depravity of evil in the world. In John the Baptist’s case, he knew what he believed as the truth and he acted accordingly. Unlike Herod who feared his subjects, John did not fear physical discomfort or suffering. He feared the Lord and was faithful even unto death.

The behavior of some rulers through history compels us to ask, as we did some years ago in South Africa when corruption in government was rampant, when does the church or a faith group withdraw moral support for a political dispensation?

The Most Rev. Dr. Thabo Makgoba is Archbishop of the Diocese of Capetown, South Africa; metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Southern Africa; and chancellor of the University of the Western Cape.