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THE ALL IMPORTANT TRUTH

Father Francis's picture
Beheading of Saint John the Baptist

The death of John the Baptist is a real-life tragedy involving four characters. The hero died because he spoke the truth; the other three were complicit in his murder. Each had a different attitude to the truth, and each of them has something to teach us.

Herod was a king who thought this gave him the right to do and have whatever he wanted. What he wanted most was Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, and so he was living with her in an immoral relationship. When John the Baptist appeared on the scene, calling people to repent of their sins, Herod might have been inclined at first to listen. But Herod was also a weak man who allowed himself to be ruled by the women in his life. He was so enthralled by Salome's dancing that he rashly promised her anything she wanted and could not lose face by going back on his word, so he granted her request and ordered John's execution. He knew that to keep that oath was to break a far greater law but he must have stifled his conscience rather than face the anger of Herodias and the contempt of his friends. John was murdered by Herod's weakness.

Herodias was an ambitious and manipulative woman. As Herod's mistress her position was a precarious one, and she could not have afforded to tolerate any threat to her status. When John condemned her sinful behaviour she presumably knew in her heart that he spoke the truth and that Herod might actually heed the prophet's words. Her hatred for him knew no bounds, and she planned and waited for an opportunity to destroy him. That opportunity came at Herod's birthday party when she encouraged her own daughter to ensnare Herod with a lascivious dance. When the foolish king offered the girl anything she wanted, Herodias had her revenge. She told her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. For her, truth had to be subordinated to her ambition. John was murdered by Herodias's fear and hatred.

Salome, the beautiful young daughter of Herodias, was perhaps the least culpable, yet it was on her actions that the plot hinged. She was willing to dance in front of Herod and all his friends, making a shameless exhibition of herself. Even by the standards of the time this behaviour would have been shocking, something associated with a prostitute rather than a princess. The king's admiration must have appealed to her vanity and the promise of half a kingdom was irresistible. Perhaps she was surprised when her mother told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, but she made no protest. In fact, she demanded his immediate execution, adding the gruesome request that his head be presented to her on a dish. For Salome, it was all a game and truth counted for nothing. John was murdered by her cruel selfishness.

Then there was John himself. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, begging people to correct whatever was wrong in their lives and prepare to receive Christ. His sense of purpose was so strong that he simply had to speak the truth, no matter how unpopular it might be. He was a man of enormous courage who was willing to confront the tyrant Herod with the truth, even though he knew he might die for it.

What is our attitude to the truth? Are we sometimes like Herod, easily persuaded to cast the truth aside to avoid the disapproval of our friends? Do we deny the truth, as Herodias did, because the consequences of accepting it would be too painful? Like Salome, do we simply not care about the truth, but go along with the crowd because that seems the easiest thing to do? Or are we brave enough to speak up for the truth as John the Baptist did? It takes a great deal of courage to speak out against the injustice, cruelty and immorality we see around us. We risk unpopularity, the loss of job, respect, or friends. But God's approval is worth more than the admiration of men and women.

We thank God that there are many good people who are willing to face this kind of martyrdom and we ask Saint John the Baptist to give us some of his courage and integrity so that we may never fail to speak the truth.