Today’s passage makes for unsettling reading. It was once wisely observed: ‘Power corrupts – and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ We can see this writ large, both in our current world and also in the venal figure of King Herod, who sits at the heart of our reading.
All the traits of corrupted power are there: living as if the rules of decent behaviour don’t apply to him (vv17-18); rough treatment of critics and anyone who dares to oppose him (v17); an ego which can’t be seen to lose face or risk losing power (v26).
And yet, this same ruler was strangely drawn to the wild holiness of John. He protected this man from those who would do him harm and even had regular sessions of ‘spiritual direction’ – although the radical change of life which John would no doubt have described to him made no sense to his ears!
This passage is a sobering reminder that those who wish to challenge corrupt power risk paying a heavy price. And that, too, remains part of our world today – not least in the countless other untold stories of faithful Christians in many countries around the world, who suffer quietly and unheralded for their determination to follow Christ, whatever the cost.
I am challenged, too, to reflect that such challenges do not only happen in other parts of the world. In days gone by, I used to be much bolder at lobbying and advocating for issues of justice and righteousness here in the UK. I wrote regularly to my MP when I lived in London and Bristol, among other ‘acts of advocacy’. Have I just mellowed or just got less brave? It’s hard to say – but I am inspired and challenged by the bravery of John, as well as by my fellow sisters and brothers whose living witness speaks loving truth to power (and whom the church honours in prayer next month).
May God grant both them – and us – grace to live righteously; and be willing to hold human power to account, whenever the Lord calls us to act.