Hope, Tragedy, and Why Our Labor Does Not Need to Be in Vain

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the report about Jesus. “This is John the Baptist!” he told his servants. “He has been raised from the dead, and that’s why supernatural powers are at work in him.”

For Herod had arrested John, chained him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, since John had been telling him, “It’s not lawful for you to have her!” Though he wanted to kill him, he feared the crowd, since they regarded him as a prophet.

But when Herod’s birthday celebration came, Herodias’s daughter danced before them and pleased Herod. So he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. And prompted by her mother, she answered, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter!” Although the king regretted it, he commanded that it be granted because of his oaths and his guests. So he sent orders and had John beheaded in the prison.

His head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. Then his disciples came, removed the corpse, buried it, and went and reported to Jesus. When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone. (Matthew 14:1-13)

When I read this story, I find myself wanting to respond the same way Jesus did — by finding a place to be alone and silent.

There’s deep suffering here, the kind we can’t make poetry out of.

The Tragedy of Tragedy

We humans love a good tragedy. But this one isn’t good.

John was the greatest man ever born of a woman, according to Jesus. Yet his death didn’t take place in battle, or on the steps of the temple, or even in the sort of martyrdom that became so emblematic of the church throughout the Roman Empire in later centuries — death in an arena for his faith.

At least Stephen and Paul and Peter and the rest died because they were Christians being faithful. John died off-stage and on a whim, at a party, because of spite, lust, and a pride that was hardly worthy of the name — just a cowardly desire to save face in front of one’s drunk friends.

If the story makes us sick, it’s supposed to. There’s no other response worthy of it. It ought to sit in our stomachs and churn. Tragedy is a real thing in this world, and at its most real, there’s no romance to it — nothing Shakespearian to make it beautiful. It’s just ugly and awful and worthy of our deepest grief.

Scripture is honest about tragedies like this. It doesn’t try to dress them up, even as it offers us more in response than nihilism and despair.

A Hope Beyond This World

For me, the only beautiful line in this story is that one that describes Jesus’s response — “When Jesus heard about it, He withdrew from there by boat to a remote place to be alone.”

It’s beautiful to me in its starkness, because of how much it says about grief in so few words. It’s beautiful because this is how I personally grieve, and so Jesus’s withdrawal to be alone makes me feel less alone. It’s beautiful because it dignifies grief, and honors the close relationships that mean so much to us, and acknowledges loss.

And in its silence, it nods to the reality traced out above — that sometimes tragedy is only tragic, and there are no words to explain it or make it seem different than it is.

At the same time, there is no despair evident in Jesus’s grief. He held things in the tension we all must hold: between the reality of brokenness in this world and the hope of resurrection and the life to come — which has already begun to manifest among us no matter how much it doesn’t look like it at times.

Looking back over the gospel of Matthew, we can see this tension highlighted over and over, but especially within the parables themselves. One of the great themes all along has been that God’s kingdom would come to the world in a hidden way and grow in a hidden way.

In the kingdom, nothing would ever be quite it looked like. Defeats would be victories. Martyrs would wear crowns. Despair would have no place, because in a kingdom where death has been conquered and everlasting life assured, the future can only be hope.

John’s death was one of the great early manifestations of this truth: that the kingdom would often, maybe even usually, look defeated — but it never would be.

In the second of Isaiah’s four Servant Songs, the voice of Jesus in the Old Testament sings of this theme of apparent defeat — a tragic downward turn, as seen in John’s death (and later, in Jesus’s own):

But I myself said: I have labored in vain,
I have spent my strength for nothing and futility;
yet my vindication is with the LORD,
and my reward is with my God. (Isaiah 49:4)

There in Isaiah, this paradox of tragedy and triumph is declared. Though the Servant expresses the conviction that all is lost, there is still hope — and the Lord will not fail to bring the promised reward:

And now, says the LORD,
who formed me from the womb to be His Servant,
to bring Jacob back to Him
so that Israel might be gathered to Him;
for I am honored in the sight of the LORD,
and my God is my strength—

He says,
“It is not enough for you to be My Servant
raising up the tribes of Jacob
and restoring the protected ones of Israel.
I will also make you a light for the nations,
to be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”

This is what the LORD,
the Redeemer of Israel, his Holy One, says
to one who is despised,
to one abhorred by people,
to a servant of rulers:

“Kings will see and stand up,
and princes will bow down,
because of the LORD, who is faithful,
the Holy One of Israel—and He has chosen you.” (Isaiah 49:5-7)

Great in the Kingdom

The world measures success and glory in many ways, but they are all different from how the kingdom measures them. There was nothing glorious about the death of John, yet it did not make him any less great in the kingdom.

For that matter, few would have seen glory in his life either — he was a desert wild man who wore camel skins and foraged for his meals and aggravated the local authorities. His great accomplishment was dunking thousands of people in a river and proclaiming another man to be the Messiah, which he didn’t even manage to do without his own doubts. He was offensive and couldn’t function in society. And Jesus called him great.

Of course, in our own day, we can easily gild everything I just said and make it glorious in its own way. There’s an undeniable romance to renegades. And we have thousands of years behind us in which we have turned many prophets and ascetics into legends. What glory to stand up against the might of empires and proclaim the truth of God!

In all honesty, some people in John’s own day might have glimpsed that glory too. Based on the crowd’s reaction to him, perhaps many did. But it wasn’t the trappings of his calling that made him great — the wardrobe and the stinging indictments of powerful people. It was his love and faithfulness to God. So, it turns out, you could be an iconoclast and not love God at all; you could call out oppressors and be just as bad as they are.

And so, you could live a life not at all like John the Baptist’s and still be called great in the kingdom. You could be an accountant and a dad, great in the kingdom. You could be a barista and a sister, great in the kingdom. You could be a mother of twelve or single at fifty, working a corporate job until you retire or eking out a living in a mom-and-pop. You could be a pastor, a chef, a CEO, or a shoeshine boy. Great in the kingdom.

What matters isn’t your role; it’s your love. It’s your faithfulness. And it’s the kingdom itself — the realm and family that has taken you in and changed you into something more than earthly.

Being in the kingdom may not keep us from tragedy. It may even lead us into it. But tragedy will never be the end, because for us, the future can only be good.

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This is Part 230 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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One response to “Hope, Tragedy, and Why Our Labor Does Not Need to Be in Vain”

  1. Susan Sikes Avatar

    This is great! I just read this very thing this morning!

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