The critic is silenced at last
7th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B – Proper 10
Mark's Gospel shows us a picture of Herod Antipas as a man divided between his sin and his salvation.
As brutal and arbitrary as any ancient ruler Herod, nonetheless, cultivates a residual place in his heart for the preaching of John the Baptist - his consistent and fiery critic - who he has imprisoned in the dungeon. One thing leads to another and Herod is forced, because of his passions and the public vows he has made, to behead John in his prison and to present the prophet's head to his stepdaughter - known to us, traditionally, as Salome. The prophet John is finally silenced. The message he preached, however, has only begun to make itself known.
A painting by Peter Paul Rubens called "Herod's Feast" hangs in the National Galleries in Edinburgh. It's a ghastly rendering of the very moment when the head of John the Baptist is brought on a plate to Herod's table. It is, I might add, a particular favourite of Edinburgh schoolboys brought on outings with their classes to the Galleries.
In the painting, the assembled guests look down the table to where Herod is seated as host. He, and not the severed head, is the focus of attention. On Herod's face is written the anguish of a man who is sorry that he has silenced his opposition - his small channel of grace.
Our enemies, you see, are not always our enemies. Sometimes they are the only people able to speak the truth to us.
There are moments when we would do almost anything to be rid of the trouble we sense within us - the unrequited longing, the dissatisfaction and inner turmoil - or the critics around us. Cut the head off, we might, mutter - put it out of our consciousness, forever.
And this would be a good and efficient thing to do unless, of course, things were seriously amiss in our households and in our souls. That nagging voice would the be the best thing about us and not the worst - a voice which we would silence at our peril.