Heads on the Platter

by Linda Ryan


Matthew 14:1-12 (Eucharistic reading)


It’s been a while since I read the story of Herod and his adventure with John the Baptist. I looked at it today and I though that it was kind of a contemporary tale as much is a biblical one. John the Baptist had ticked Herod off by condemning his marriage to his brother’s wife, and finally Herod had enough guts (or perhaps gall) to throw John into prison. Herod was afraid to kill John because of John’s popularity among the people who considered him a prophet.

Herod had a birthday feast at which his wife’s daughter, the one we think of as Salome, danced in Herod’s honor. He was so delighted with the performance that he offered the girl anything she wanted. After consulting her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Before long, the gospel tells us that John’s head was brought in, maybe on a silver platter, maybe on one of pottery. At any rate, John was dead. The rest of his body was given a burial by his disciples.  

The thing it reminds me of in our time is there always seems to be someone looking for somebody’s head on a platter, figuratively if not literally. We are always looking for someone to blame, and wanting a very public and very stark acknowledgment that somebody has messed things up royally and has paid the price. We do it for criminals, we do it for politicians, sometimes we use it for church people, like those involved in sex abuse of young people and children. There are times we expect CEOs of giant corporations who have been caught fiddling with the books or taking too much of a pay raise while laying off employees at the bottom of the ladder or failing to acknowledge their contribution by periodic raises. We especially look for people in the public eye. We love putting people on pedestals, but then we take even more joy it seems in knocking them off. Ask just about anybody in Hollywood and they’ll tell you that it happens. Today’s hero may quite likely be tomorrow’s villain.

It used to be a custom at great feast, especially times like Christmas, to have the head of the roasted pig brought in on a platter and placed in the center of the table, the place of honor. . People then were a little more nonchalant about eating parts of the head, but it was the centerpiece of the of the dinner and a reminder of where the roast pork on the plate came from. I don’t know that anybody remembered John the Baptist while looking at that pig head, but I also doubt that John the Baptist head had an apple in its mouth and was surrounded by greenery and food of festive color. Different times, different cultures, different presentations.

John the Baptist was imprisoned because he had called out Herod for marrying a person that was not appropriate for him to marry. Marriage laws were pretty strict, and there were certain relationships that were considered out of bounds. Herod committed one of those. In order to keep happiness in the family, he had to do something about John who had been openly speaking about the impropriety. Herod’s wife, with the help of her daughter, finally gave him a way of doing it while saving face. He couldn’t be held responsible because he had promised a girl anything she wanted as a reward for her dance, usually referred to as the dance of the seven veils. The girl asked her mother, the mother told her what to say, the girl went to Herod and repeated it. Lo and behold, it was done. A prophet was dead, the problem was solved, and the one who gave the order could not be blamed.

I am sure lots of people have had a time when he felt like somebody was looking for their head on a platter for some reason. Maybe most people have never experienced that kind of anxiety or feeling of fear, but I, among others, do get caught having made a mistake. We don’t like feeling like our head is going to roll because of something we may or may not had any have any control over. Certainly John the Baptist didn’t think it would end that way, although being imprisoned might have been a broad hint.

We all look for ways to get out of what consequences there may be of actions that we take. We try our best to do things right and properly, but sometimes, despite our best efforts, the boat gets loose from the mooring before the crew is all on board. Somebody has to pay for that boat getting loose, and usually it’s the captain and the crew members who were supposed to be minding the mooring lines. An official of a corporation with access to company financial dealings gets away with multimillion dollar fraud and embezzlement. In France, basically all it for one to lose their head was to be a member of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. A wrong medical decision, a lost lawsuit, a scandal of some sort — all are reasons for heads to roll.

We all need to look to see how our actions match up to what we say we are doing and believing. It’s difficult to claim to be a Christian if one is not looking out for others, or acting in ways that hurt others simply for one’s own benefit. We don’t have to have a dance of the seven veils in order to get tangled up in the situation that could have catastrophic results not just for us but for others. John had been spreading the message of the one to come and of living the right life. Pointing the finger at a notorious union got him into trouble. I wonder if he had moments in prison when he regretted those words?

Reading the story makes me want to be a turtle even more than I already am. In order to keep my head firmly on my torso, I feel like I need to pull myself back into my shell and just observe the world without getting into conflicts or causing any ripples in the pond. It’s not a good way to be. It is certainly not the way to stay out of trouble, because trouble find me no matter where I hide. If I make a mistake, I have to bear the consequences. Thank God for those who help me face my consequences and help me learn not to repeat that kind of thing. They keep my head off the platter.

I wonder — whose head do I think deserves a platter, or does anyone deserve it? I can certainly think of people I would consider as being prime candidates, but I’m just one person, one small person without much of a voice or say in what goes on in the greater world. Still, I can only wish that more people might pay attention to the beheading of John the Baptist and why. It’s all to easy to pick out representatives of the Herods, the Herod’s daughters, and the Herod’s wives, but much harder to spot the  people like John the Baptist in our world today. Maybe I  should look harder, or perhaps I should try to see myself speaking the truth as John did.

Am I too eager to get out the silver salver, or am I witnessing to the power of God rather than humankind? Guess I’m going to have to really think about that one for a while.

God bless.



Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter.  She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale


Image: Artemisia Gentileschi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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