“When a Prophet Speaks Truth to Power” (Mark 6:14-29)
“Speak truth to power!” It is a phrase that has become a cliché, an overused, hackneyed expression of the political left in this country. The saying “Speak truth to power!” has lost whatever impact it may have once had. It’s become a mere slogan now, used, for example, by the Occupy movement, a bunch of rich white kids camping out to protest the terrible oppression they are suffering. And so “Speak truth to power!” has become almost a laugh line now, to satirize those who don’t have much truth to start with, and they’re speaking it in empty slogans to perceived power that isn’t necessarily doing much of anything wrong.
But that is definitely not the case with our Scripture readings today. There, both in the Old Testament Reading and in the Holy Gospel–and, more generally, throughout the Bible–speaking truth to power is no laughing matter. On the contrary, it is deadly serious, and it can be downright dangerous. Today we will see what happens “When a Prophet Speaks Truth to Power.”
The prophet in question in our Gospel reading today is John the Baptist. Well, actually it refers back to John the Baptist, but it starts out by talking about Jesus, at a point some time after John had been killed. We read: “King Herod heard of it,” that is, Herod heard of the ministry that Jesus was doing, preaching and teaching and calling people to repentance and casting out demons and healing the sick–“King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, ‘John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘He is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’”
The first thing we notice here is that there was something about Jesus that reminded people of the prophets of the past, whether of the recent past, like John the Baptist, or of the distant past, like Elijah and the prophets of old. Jesus was like them in some way. In his doing mighty works that showed the hand of God was upon him, in his boldly calling sinners to repentance–yes, in his speaking truth to power–Jesus was speaking and acting like a prophet would speak and act.
So King Herod was saying to himself, “Boy, these reports I’m hearing about this guy Jesus–he sounds a lot like John, the fellow I just had beheaded. I wonder if this is John raised from the dead, come back to bother me all over again.” Well, no, Herod, your guilty conscience may be bothering you for what you did to John, but this is not him. This is Jesus, his own man, but you’re right in recognizing the similarities between the two.
And this then is what prompts the flashback in our text, the account of how John had spoken truth to power and paid for it with his life. The person in power was this same King Herod–not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great, who was around at the time when Jesus was born and had the baby boys of Bethlehem massacred. But this King Herod was not much better. This was Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod had dumped his first wife and married his brother’s wife, a woman named Herodias. This was a rather immoral thing to do, to say the least; a clear violation of God’s law. But Herod was in power, so who’s going to stop him?
Well, John may not have been able to stop him, but John was going to let Herod know that what he was doing was wrong. He kept on saying, publicly, openly: “Herod, you may be king. You may have a lot of power and might. But might does not make right. What you are doing is not right in God’s sight. It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” John was not afraid to speak truth to power.
Herod did not like to hear this, but it especially got under the skin of his wife, Herodias. She must have been thinking to herself, “Who is this little twerp out there in the wilderness calling us out? Who does he think he is? Herod, you’re the king. Do something about it! Have that man arrested! In fact, I’d really like it if you’d have him put to death!”
So Herod had John arrested and thrown into prison, but he would not put John to death. Herod knew that John was speaking the truth, that he was a righteous and holy man of God, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it. But his wife, Herodias, was still steaming and had it in for John.
Then the right opportunity came along. It was Herod’s birthday; he’s having a big birthday bash; all the high and mighty and powerful people are there. Herodias’s daughter comes in and does a dance for the guests, kind of like the scantily-clad girl popping out of the birthday cake. This entertainment pleases Herod, so much so that he makes a rash statement: “I’ll give you whatever you want, up to half of my kingdom.” The daughter consults with Mom; Mom tells her what to ask for; and voilà, it’s John’s head on a platter. Herod can’t get out of this; he made a promise, in front of all these guests. And so John gets beheaded. In the end, speaking truth to power cost John his life.
But then, this was nothing new. When a prophet speaks truth to power, power often strikes back. When a prophet speaks truth to power, the prophet can expect persecution. It was that way with the prophets of old. Think of Moses, telling Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” But Pharaoh hardened his heart and would not. Think of the prophet Samuel, confronting King Saul. Think of Nathan, confronting King David–although in that rare instance, the king in power listened to the prophet and did repent. But generally, it is dangerous for a prophet to call out a king. Elijah–we heard him mentioned. The prophet Elijah rebuked King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel. Jezebel tried to hunt Elijah down, much like Herodias went after John. Or in our Old Testament Reading today, the prophet Amos–Amos spoke out against King Jeroboam, and it did not make him a very popular person. Speaking truth to power is not easy, nor is it safe.
So it was for Jesus. The powers that Jesus spoke truth to were the religious leaders of the Jews, the scribes and the Pharisees. Jesus called them out, exposing their hypocrisy and pronouncing woe upon them for misleading the people. This did not make Jesus very popular with them. They hated Jesus. They had it in for him. They conspired against him and plotted how they could do away with him. Finally, their plans succeeded. They had Jesus arrested, and they sent him over to Pilate, the Roman governor, on some trumped-up charges. They whipped up the mob against Jesus and put the pressure on Pilate to bend to their will, which he eventually did, even though he knew Jesus was an innocent man. He condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion.
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be prophets. It is a high-risk profession. But here’s the thing: Jesus and John and Elijah and the prophets of old–they are all speaking God’s truth to power. And so God is with them. And if God is for us, who can be against us? Yes, the people in power can shut us down and take our life, but they cannot stop God’s word. Speaking truth to power may be high-risk, but even more so, it is high-reward. God will vindicate his servants in the end.
And indeed, that is the point of this story. For in the unjust taking of Jesus’ life, there is the basis and the reason for the prophet’s reward. For Jesus is far more than a prophet. He is the very Son of God. He is Truth incarnate, Truth with a capital “T.” But Jesus knew he would go into suffering and death by speaking God’s truth. Yet he did so willingly. There is a unique purpose in his suffering. Christ would die to pay for all of the sins of the world, the sins of the high and mighty, and our sins too. For even people who are not all that powerful still need to have their sins forgiven. This is what Jesus has done for you.
Here is the truth that Jesus speaks to us: Yes, you are a sinner. It doesn’t matter if you are a king or a commoner, you still have sinned and broken God’s law. It may be through sexual immorality, like Herod taking his brother’s wife, or like people despising God’s institution of marriage by their divorces or by shacking up with someone outside of marriage. Or maybe your sin is in your secret pride of how much better you are than those bad people, all the while bearing grudges and harboring unforgiveness in your heart. In all these ways and more, we thumb our nose at God and look down our nose at people. This is not good. This is sin, and it merits death.
So Jesus calls us to repent, to give up on our own goodness and to find our righteousness elsewhere–namely, in him. “Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress.” Yes, look to Christ for your righteousness and your forgiveness and the sure hope of your eternal salvation. Jesus speaks this truth to you today, and you can count on it.
When a prophet speaks truth to power–when Christ speaks his truth to you, whether you are powerful or not, the wise course is to listen to him and repent of your sins and trust in the only one who can save you, and that is, in Christ himself. When that prophet speaks his truth to you, you can expect absolution and perfect redemption and blessings beyond measure.