The voice of the prophet John, clamoring for justice and proclaiming the coming of the Liberator of Israel, was becoming more intense and pressing each day. Those who came to listen to him felt he was in a great hurry, as if he knew that his days were numbered…
Baptist: Open your eyes wide! Be ready, so that when he comes (he-who-is-to-come is already here), all of you will know him and will meet him!… No one is to say: “I have been baptized. I have been purified in the river; it is enough!” Being baptized is not the end of the road, but the beginning! When the Messiah comes, he shall commence the liberation of Israel. All of us must follow him and be collaborators of the Messiah. That is, if he comes….
A Woman: Oh gosh, I hear the trumpets of the Messiah! Don’t you hear that noise, my countrymen?
A Man: Lady, will you stop that silly talk and listen to what the prophet is saying….
A Woman: You listen, man! I am not deaf; I can hear. I’m telling you that the Messiah’s caravan is coming here!
A Boy: Look there! The Messiah is coming!
All: The Messiah! Prophet John, the Messiah is coming!
On the road descending from Jericho, a long caravan of extravagantly decorated camels was seen coming, preceded by a group of slaves clothed in silk, and blowing their trumpets. But no, it was not the Messiah who was coming, but King Herod and his court. They were to move to the palace in Machaerus on the other side of the Jordan, beside the Dead Sea. They had to pass through Betabara in order to get there.
A Man: Lady, if this is the Liberator that we’ve been waiting for, then we can now die…. But no, it is Herod and his men!….
A Woman: Look how the carriage wobbles! How fat he is!
A Man: He is about to burst!
Herod Antipas, was the Governor of Galilee, the last of the sons of Herod the Great. We loathed his father for having imposed heavy taxes on us. A chip off the old block, the son was likewise an unscrupulous and unjust man, corrupted by vice, with utter disregard for the Lord and the sufferings of his people.
A Man: Hey, prophet John, King Herod is heading toward us!
A Woman: The nerve of this man! What does he want from us?…
A Man: Let him be, Lady. If he wants to be baptized, then we shall see how his weight will pull him down and drown him in the waters….
A Woman: That’s right. Let us all drown him!
The prophet remained strangely quiet as he watched the approaching caravan. The carriage where Herod was riding did not go near for he was an extremely superstitious man. He was scared of the prophet with long hair, and with a tongue like a sword, about whom he had heard many things. The caravan followed the road leading to the palace in Machaerus. While it was still a little far, John broke his silence, and with the force of lightning, he faced the people who were milling around the riverbank.
Baptist: See how this man stinks! He smells rotten!… A decaying fish begins to reek a foul odor through the head. The acts of injustice committed in this country are so prevalent that the stench is unbearable. Who else but the leaders of this country are the rotten ones. Herod, as well as his administration, is corrupt. He lives by the blood of the innocent and the sweat of the poor… But his reign is not forever! The worms are eating him up! As I break this old walking stick, so will the Lord destroy his throne! Herod will fall, and he will be toppled amid joyful shouts, with the coming of the Liberator of Israel!… You are to witness this with your own eyes and there will be great rejoicing!
John exposed before the people all the crimes and abuses committed by the unjust king. Among those gathered, however, were followers of Herod who were spying on the people. And what was expected did happen.
Herod: So, he said all those things about me? Too bad, I would have wanted to hear it… Be that as it may, it is good that they talk about me…
Servant: He also said that…sss….sss
Herod: Really? What an insolent man!
Servant: That you can not live with….sss…sss…
Herod: How dare this hairy man say that of me!… And in front of the people, at that!…
Servant: That the queen is living in sin….
Herod: This man is conspiring against my government! He is dangerous…
Servant: They say he is a great prophet, the one sent by God, the Most High!
Herod: Silly! The time of the prophets ended a long time ago… If not, then, I’ll finish him off now!… I want this John immediately, this son of Zechariah!
Servant: What if the people resist?…
Herod: The people! They only bark, they do not bite! Tell the men to be armed, in case…
Servant: When must they leave, King?
Herod: Right away. The sooner, the better. I’m anxious to see the face of this famous prophet of the desert.
And so it was. John was ordered arrested by Herod, was bound and brought to the prison cell of his palace in Machaerus. More and more people gathered along the riverbank, as they saw him being dragged by Herod’s men. They wanted to prevent the soldiers, but were helpless. The women wept aloud and grieved: “Once again, the masters of power and might silenced the voice of the prophets.”
In a few days, the riverbanks of the Jordan were abandoned and as silent as before John came with his powerful voice and filled them with hope and life.
John was shut up in the basement of the palace in Machaerus, in a dark and narrow cell where other prisoners perished while serving their sentence….
Herod: I have long wanted to see you, John, son of Zechariah.
Baptist: So have I, Herod Antipas, son of the wicked Herod, the Great.
Herod: See how ironic life can be…. Until yesterday, you were the “prophet” …but now, you are no more than a mouse in my trap. What things have you been spreading about me? Come on… speak up!
Baptist: I only said what everybody already knew. That you are an unjust king, and that God will topple down your throne. The last thing I said was that you were living with your sister-in-law, your brother Philip’s wife.
Herod: Herodias is my wife!!
John: Herodias, who is as brazen as you, is Philip’s wife. You stole her away from him. You must give her back to him!
Herod: How dare you speak to me like that!
Baptist: And how dare you fiddle with God’s laws!
King Herod started to bite his nails. He was too scared. The blazing eyes of the prophet terrified him…
Herod: John…. prophet John…. Who are you? Who taught you to speak to the people the way you do?… Are you the Messiah?… Speak up!
John: I am not the Messiah. I proclaim the coming of the Liberator of Israel. He is already coming, and he will strip you of your crown, leaving you naked before the people. He will also tell you to your face the acts of injustice you have committed, as well as your vices!
Herod: And where is this Messiah that you are talking about?.. Who is this Liberator of Israel?… I want to meet him…!
Baptist: You will not see him. You are too sinful to see him.
Herod: I will see to it that they cut off your tongue to be thrown to the dogs!
Baptist: You are scared, Herod. You are carrying on your shoulders the burden of your abuses against the people. You are afraid, because you know that God takes into account your sins.
Herod: I’m not afraid! I’m not afraid! I’m not scared of anyone! Neither am I terrified of you, you liar!
Baptist: You’re afraid of the truth!
Herod: No, my soldiers are here to defend me! I have the armies, I have palaces, and I have the power! And now, I also have you, the prophet! Ha… ha… ha..! Now, what have you got to say?
Baptist: I have already told you everything. First, you must return your brother’s wife. Then, we shall talk.
Herod: But Herodias is my wife! I love her! She’s mine!
Baptist: She isn’t yours. You have no right to live with your brother’s wife!
Herod: Neither do you have the right to raise your voice to me!… What makes you think you have the right to do so?. I am the king of Galilee and you ought to respect me!
Baptist: Respect you? Now, you are making me laugh. How do you expect me to respect a man who is full of vice, who earned his throne through intrigue and all sort of treachery and bribery, a man whose government wallows in a pool of blood?
Herod: I am the authority and you have to obey me!
Baptist: My authority comes from heaven. You were born of a woman, like everyone else, and you were born naked, like everyone else. The worms will eat you up like everybody else.
Herod: Shut up! You shut up..!
Baptist: The only king I have is the one from above; him I obey!
Herod: John, wouldn’t you like to leave this place… and talk to the people again…? We can talk this over. Wouldn’t you like to go back to the Jordan and be a prophet again? Do you know that your fate is in my hands, and if I will it, I can give you your freedom.
Baptist: No Herod. You are mistaken. My fate is not in your hands, but in God’s. Yours are empty… and tarnished. Soon, they will be tied, and your power will be put to an end with the coming of the Liberator of Israel….
Herod: Give me a cup of wine, Herodias…
Herodias: You have drunk a lot today… Herod. Is anything the matter?
Herod: No, nothing. Nothing is wrong with me.
Herodias: I know you too well… You cannot deceive me… This “prophet” is worrying you. This John whom you have imprisoned in the basement.
Herod: Stop talking about prophets… You know nothing about them. The prophets are sacred people.
Herodias: Sacred people! Ha! You know what should be done to them? Have their throats cut to silence them. Say, Herod, why don’t you have John’s head cut off?
Herod: Shut up!
Herodias: If you really love me, you will do it for me. Do you love me?
Herod: You know I love you so much, Herodias… so much… hmmmm.
Herodias: Are you afraid of him? Do not fear him. The moment you have him beheaded, you will be the same powerful man as before…
King Herod wanted to kill John, to get rid of that voice that bothered him unceasingly. But he was afraid of the people in Israel who knew that John was a prophet who spoke on behalf of God.
The gospels speak of two Herods, Herod the Great who, in alliance with the Romans, governed the country tyrannically from the year 37 before the birth of Christ. He was also known to be responsible for the killing of innocent people. When he died, four years before the birth of Christ, the country was divided among his three sons. Herod Antipas, the youngest of all, was the contemporary of John the Baptist and Jesus. He ruled Israel, Galilee, as well as the zone of Perea, along the eastern side of the Jordan. He was given the title “Tetrach,” but the people called him “King Herod.” Though married to a Moorish princess, Herod Antipas became the lover of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip. This situation resulted in a war in which many innocent people were killed. The king was an ambitious man and without scruples. Historical accounts describe him as a squanderer, a tyrant ruthless to anyone opposing him (and there were many) and a very superstitious man. He also collaborated with the Romans, the lords and masters of the country, who had totally supported him in exchange for large monetary rewards: On behalf of the Romans, Herod Antipas collected taxes from the people in Galilee and Perea.
One of the many accusations hurled by John the Baptist against the corrupt system of his time was directed against Herod Antipas whom he publicly charged with living adulterously with his sister-in-law. John’s accusation was not a mere question of “morality.” The king’s adultery was like the last fruit on a tree that was completely rotten. Herod’s reign was corrupt because of acts of injustice, squandering, theft, crimes…. there was not even a minimum of political or social morality. This was what John vehemently condemned.
Herod, in compliance with the Jewish religious norms, would go to his palaces in Machaerus and Jerusalem, to attend festivals, and to go to the Temple to pray.
On one of these occasions, he ordered the imprisonment of John. Herod feared the people’s movement instigated by the prophet and he wanted to retaliate against John’s accusations of him in public.
Machaerus was a fortress built along the eastern shore of the Dead Sea in Perea. Herod the Great fortified it and built a magnificent palace about twenty years before the birth of Christ. His son Herod Antipas would celebrate his great feasts in the palace. It was here that John the Baptist was imprisoned and ordered beheaded by the king. In the year 70, the fortress was destroyed by the Roman armies. To this day only its ruins are preserved.
Herod feared John, even when he was imprisoned, because the prophet, sensing great freedom within him, and fearless even before death, confronted the king and told of the king’s acts of injustice to his face.
(Mt 14; Mk 6:14-20; Lk 9:7-9)