Most prophets come to untimely ends. This as true today as it was in the days of the Bible. For the prophet is a spokesman for God and his commandments, one who “speaks the truth to power” as the modern expression has it; and those who indulge in games of power have no desire to hear the truth.
As the popularity of Jesus grew, and as the curiosity about who he really was intensified, rumours started circulating that he was John the Baptist “come back to life”. John the Baptist had been put to death by King Herod, and the Gospel reading today describes the circumstances of his death.
King Herod was living publicly in sin with his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, without even the formality of a divorce. Everyone knew this, but few dared to speak against the king – except John the Baptist. His outspokenness earned him the enmity of the queen, who persuaded her king to have John arrested and incarcerated. Although Herod irritated by John, he was too superstitious a man to have the prophet put to death. Besides, he occasionally listened to John in prison, fearful and anxious as many monarchs are, that their evil past will catch up with them.
On Herod’s birthday, his stepdaughter Salome danced before the king and his guests, which prompted Herod to make the girl a rash vow: “Ask what you will, though it be half my kingdom!” The girl, instigated by her mother, Herodias, asked for the head of the prophet to be given her immediately on a platter. Herod bitterly regretted his rashness, but had to comply. His guards beheaded John in his prison cell.
The story of the death of John the Baptist is a kind of pre-figuring of the death of the Messiah, of Jesus himself. Both men, in speaking the truth without fear or favour, antagonized the political establishment. Both men paid for it with their lives. Of John the Baptist, Jesus was to say, “No one born of woman was greater than John,” for in the dedication and transparency of his life, the prophet of the Jordan is a model for us even today.