At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and 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." For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been telling him, "It is not lawful for you to have her." Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter." The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
John’s fate prefigures that of Jesus. If John was put to death, how could Jesus – who was “a prophet without honour in his own country” – be expected to escape a like fate? In each case their teaching was interpreted by politicians as an intrusion on their sphere. To this day, this happens in the world.
At that time, nobody even nodded towards freedom of speech: to denounce a ruler's character was suicidal. Israel had a long-standing tradition exempting prophets from severe punishment for their speech, a rule that only the most vicious rulers broke. Herod was one such ruler. John reproached Herod for violating the law against incest (Lev. 18:16). We know how Herod thanked him for that.
But the story didn’t end there. King Aretas, the father of Herod’s repudiated wife, was aggrieved by Herod’s treatment of his daughter, and he didn’t hold his feelings in: he waged war and inflicted a humiliating defeat on him. This led many people to believe that God had used Aretas to punish Herod for the execution of John. The trouble with this interpretation – and all others like it – is that it sees God as part of the squabble; it sees God as just a more powerful politician.
When a politician says to a religious leader, “Stay in your own spiritual world and leave the real world to me,” or “Leave science to the scientists,” he is saying that religion has nothing to say on any question that he chooses to call ‘political’ or ‘scientific’. Would he also say, “Leave medicine to the doctors,” silencing everyone else on questions such as abortion, euthanasia, etc.? Or leave wars to the military? Or financial affairs to bankers? Religion has something to say to everyone, and more than a little to say to politicians. Scientists and doctors have all endured long years of arduous study; but politicians, like auctioneers, have no specific training for their job. Nobody should be intimidated by them. There is the witness of countless brave people, from John the Baptist to Oscar Romero.
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