Formations 11.12.2017: What We Stand For

Matthew 14:1-11

Image of John’s Beheading from the Codex Sinopensis. (Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander Hamilton, at least as played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, asks Aaron Burr early in their relationship, “If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?” This tension between principle and calculated ambition defines Hamilton and Burr’s relationship through the remainder of Hamilton.

But Miranda, who wrote the musical in addition to playing its title character, challenges his audience to reform that central question. By placing Burr as the narrator, he allows audiences to empathize with Hamilton’s antagonist and see that Burr actually stands for many things.

As Hamilton indicates, Aaron Burr did seek his own political advancement, just as most politicians do. And yet Burr’s other commitments, particularly to his family, function as more important motivators. In this complexity, Hamilton invites us to ask a variation on the original question: when you stand for many things, what will you fall for?

These questions guide us as we remember John the Baptist’s execution because this story makes us examine the highest concerns of both John and Herod Antipas.

From the very beginning of this story, Herod reflects a commitment to violently silencing his critics (v. 5). This desire to kill John is obviously evil, and yet Herod’s other commitments, at least in a vacuum, are not so immediately problematic. Seeking the approval of the governed and the respect of his peers (vv. 5, 9), shielding his family from criticism, and keeping his promises (vv. 9-10) are in many ways healthy concerns. But for Herod, his consistent desire to protect his reputation supercedes these other commitments, culminating in his decision to execute John.

John’s commitment, on the other hand, is remarkable. While Herod’s life is fraught with the tension of his various responsibilities, John appears to be singularly resolved to tell the truth and preach repentance. It’s not hard to imagine that John would need to care for and teach his disciples, but his central commitment enables him to pursue his call despite imprisonment and even execution.

Like John and Herod, we stand for a number of things. We care for parents, children, and friends. We spend hours at work and at church. We try to seek justice, share hospitality, and sow harmony in our communities. Though these responsibilities are all good, they sometimes seem incompatible—whether our work asks us to give up some of our ideals, or whether caring for our families leaves less time for friends, or whether challenging injustice leaves our loved ones vulnerable.

But in these places, when many good commitments pull us in many directions, John invites us to ask, what will we stand for and what will we fall for?

Discussion

• What are you committed to?
• What conflicts sometimes emerge between these responsibilities?
• What are your central values and highest priorities? How might these priorities frame your other commitments?
• What practices can help us to identify and cultivate these values?
• What practices might help us hold these values in times of conflict?
• How does our experience with Jesus shape our values and commitments?

Reference Shelf

Antipas and John

In v. 9 Herod is called king, surely an ironic twist because though Antipas ruled Galilee from 4 BC to AD 39 and had pretensions to be a king, it was precisely the request to be called king by Rome and everyone else, the request for the title, that eventually got him sent into exile in AD 39 by a paranoid Caligula. In fact, he was tetrarch of the region of Galilee and Perea. Antipas must not be seen as a good Jew. Besides his forbidden marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, which was prohibited according to Leviticus 18:13 while the brother was still alive, Antipas also built his capital Tiberias on top of a pagan cemetery, something an observant Jew would never sanction. A good Jew would never even enter the city due to its uncleanness. In many ways he was a chip off the old block, being a son born to Herod the Great and his Samaritan wife Malthace in 20 BC.

It is clear from this story that Herod in fact does not know Jesus, though he knows reports about him. He has heard the rumor that Jesus is John come back from the dead, and apparently this rumor originated in an attempt to explain the origin of Jesus’ power. The theory was that this power was at work in Jesus because he had come back from the dead. This way of putting things (“these powers are at work in him”) is especially apropos for a Greco-Roman audience that believed in certain humans as conduits for divine power.

The portrait of John in v. 4 as one who criticizes an improper marriage suits the characterization of John as an Elijah figure (cf. 1 Kgs 19:1-2). In terms of the logic of the story, if indeed Jesus had arisen into the public eye once John was off the scene, it is understandable how Herod might think “The one who I beheaded has come back to haunt me.” At v. 3 the actual retrospective begins. Herod said what he did because he had John arrested for protesting Herod’s sinful relationship with Herodias. But in fact Herod did not immediately do away with John once he was imprisoned. The imprisoning of John apparently was a compromise measure taken by Herod, and Mark’s account suggests he did so to placate Herodias. This seems historically likely to be the case because imprisonment was in general not in itself a form of ancient punishment; it was a way of holding a person until his case had been cleared or judgment had been rendered.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 282–83.

John and Repentance

Both John the Baptist and Jesus encountered their audiences with calls to repentance. John not only proclaimed the need for repentance (Matt 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9) but also preached and administered a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Matt 3:11). Jesus’ proclamation announcing the arrival of the kingdom stressed the need for repentance (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17). For both John and Jesus, the call to repentance was closely associated with the proclamation of the coming eschatological age, the arrival of the kingdom. To this extent, repentance (“turning”) was almost equivalent to conversion, just as later in the church, repentance became especially associated with conversion and baptism.

Repentance could also signify change of attitude or moral change ( 2 Cor 7:9-10; 12:21; Rom 2:4) or even reaffirmation of the faith (Rev 2:5, 16, 21-22; 3:3, 19).

John H. Hayes, “Repentance,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 754.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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