Keep speaking truth to power as long as your head remains on your shoulders

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EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, from you come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works. Give to us, your servants, that peace which the world cannot give, that our hearts may be set to obey your commandments; and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Last week Jesus met with rejection in his hometown of Nazareth and warned his disciples that they could expect the same. This week’s gospel lesson raises the stakes even higher. John the Baptist pays the ultimate price for speaking truth to power. This grizzly tale of palace intrigue, injustice and violence is a grim reminder that truth is often the first casualty of power politics and that silencing the messenger is frequently the preferred method of killing the message.

This story might resonate more with me if John had lost his head for rebuking Herod over his numerous acts of cruelty, violence and injustice. Instead, John takes Herod to task for what appears on its face to be simply a matter of personal morality. Herod divorced his first wife,  Phasaelis, the daughter of King Artreas IV of Nabatea, in favor or Herodias who had been married to his brother Philip. “So what?” I am tempted to ask. What bearing does that have on his competence as a ruler? There are numerous examples of successful leaders whose family lives left much to be desired. With so much at stake for the coming reign of God, it seems almost silly for John to throw his life away by sticking his nose into the middle of a domestic dispute.

Then again, I suppose we should ask ourselves whether morality is ever strictly personal. As everyone who has ever been married can attest, marriage transforms every other relationship an individual has. It brings together and forges ties between families that were formerly strangers. Marriage opens up the potential for new persons coming into the world who will have a large stake in the health and stability of that relationship and all the others connected to it. Neither entering into nor terminating a marriage is a matter of public indifference. In both cases, life changing ripples are sent out effecting numerous other parties. As it turns out, Herod’s divorce and illicit marriage played a huge role in escalating a conflict with his father-in-law Artreas that blew up into a military confrontation ending badly for Herod and his people.

Character matters. We worship the God of the covenant who keeps promises even when the cost of doing so is the life of God’s only begotten Son. Unlike God, we are frequently unable to keep the promises we make. For that there is forgiveness. But forgiveness does not absolve us of our covenant obligation to love our neighbors, even when we cannot fulfill the promises made to them in good faith.  When a marriage dissolves, both parties are responsible for minimizing the damage to their children, to their respective families and the friendships with others they share.  We are called to be as faithful in divorce as we are in marriage. It appears that Herod exercised no such care. He treated his family with the same contempt as he treated his subjects. The lethal consequences of his immorality were visited upon far more than himself and his immediate family.

Ordinarily, we think of prophecy as a very public act. Sometimes it is. But as Jesus taught us last week, the most difficult (and perhaps the most important) prophecy is exercised at home among the people with whom we live and work. It takes unusual courage to speak up for immigrants and refugees when we hear them vilified at the Fourth of July family picnic. Does what a few old white guys say around the BBQ pit really matter? Is it worth making a scene and spoiling a family event? I believe that in a culture that elected a president who mocks the disabled, ridicules women who have been sexually abused (some by himself), denigrates people of color and employs the power of the executive branch to separate children from their parents, “making a scene” might be the most important thing we are capable of doing. Prophets are called to unmask sin and expose it for what it is in the light of God’s reign. The prophet is God’s voice telling us the good news that “it doesn’t have to be this way.” That might make for some uncomfortable moments. It might cost you a friend or two. You might even put your social standing or your job at risk. But keep speaking, keep prophesying and keep telling the truth for as long as your head remains on your shoulders.

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