“The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for his guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”
He didn’t want to do it–that much is clear. The Gospel writer is at pains to tell us that he “was deeply grieved” over the prospect of having that good man John executed. Herod’s problem was that he knew full well the difference between good and evil. And when you know what is good you are equipped to make a righteous choice and responsible to do it. But upon one little word–“yet”–this whole lurid story of human weakness and evil hinges.
Herod was saddened, and yet there were other considerations that came into play–political considerations, personal ones too. There was the rash and impetuous oath the king had sworn in front of his guests, a promise to give a spoiled child virtually anything she wanted. And like every petty politician of his sort, Herod felt the need to appear strong. And like every parent, even the worst, he felt the pressure to keep his promises, no matter rash and ill-considered. He had gotten himself into a corner, and now there was the devil to pay. The right response to the girl’s viperous request for the head of John the Baptist on a platter was obvious, as most right responses are. No. But he said yes instead, to his eternal regret.
This story would be just a salacious footnote in Mark’s Gospel story if Herod’s problem were not ours too, beloved. Too often we also let our value as human beings be determined by the worth we have in the eyes of others. It is an immature way of thinking; it is the way teenagers think. In many ways this is as much a story about immaturity as about weakness and evil. Way too often our choices like Herod’s are determined at what others think and not by what we know to be right.
So we have two men contrasted here, the king and the Man of God. One powerful but weak, the other powerless but strong. The king was governed by his fear of consequences. The Man of God who wasn’t afraid of them—when Herod took his brother’s wife, Herodias, John openly said it was adultery according to the Law of Moses. He told the truth regardless of the cost. So St. Mark tells us that “Herod himself sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison.” Herod took John’s freedom away, but the king didn’t do anything more because, although his wife, Herodias, had a deadly grudge against the prophet, yet—and there’s that word again—“Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.”
And why was that? Herod was not a righteous or holy man himself—by no means!–but he did recognize the real thing when he saw it. That he protected the Man of God only goes to prove what my father used to say—“There is some good in the devil’s cat.” There was a spark of goodness in King Herod. Every good thing, no matter where we find it, comes from the power of the Holy Spirit. So the Holy Spirit was at work even in Herod, the corrupt, scumbag politician, whose old man of the same name had ordered the massacre of the infant children of Bethlehem, according to St. Matthew’s gospel. King Herod was a man born, raised, and graduated in the school of evil.
Yet—and there is that word again—“when he heard [John the Baptist talk] he was greatly perplexed.” People like Herod don’t understand the language of God, but they are drawn to those who speak it. He was a murderer and a petty tyrant and yet. . . and yet he liked to listen to him. The Holy Spirit is at work in the worst of human beings, just as in the best of human beings the devil is alive and well and doing his worst. It goes on like that—push and pull–but eventually a choice has to be made.
Herod’s choice came on the night of his birthday, appropriately enough. He gave himself a sumptuous birthday party. It was a stag affair. It probably wasn’t an orgy, but at a Roman dinner party there would be a lot of booze. Then at the climax of the evening, there was a special birthday surprise. It wasn’t a birthday cake with Roman candles on it, but it was certainly something hot. The daughter of Queen Herodias, Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, danced for the guests.
Which she must have done well, because when she had finished Herod said to the girl—“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you, even half my kingdom.” The girl ran to her mother to say—“What shall I ask for.” And her mama told her—“Ask for the head of John the Baptist.” And that is what the girl requested—the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things because we don’t know any better. These mistakes are still bad, and occasionally they have disastrous consequences, but the danger to our souls is not great. They are in the end just mistakes.
Sometimes men and women, like you and me, do bad things by accident, intending to do the right thing. These accidents are still bad, and we suffer the consequences of them, but the danger to our souls is negligible. Things like that happen. We make mistakes as long as we try.
But Herod’s choice was not like that at all. He knew the choice he was making was evil, yet he let other people’s opinions determine his decision. He was not quite a monster, but he did a monstrous thing, for which the Gospel writer does not forgive him. Because when we know right from wrong, when the Holy Spirit tells us clearly the difference, then we are in the greatest danger, beloved. Those are the choices for which we are fully accountable.
We are all faced with choices we know are between right and wrong. We think that some of those choices are personal—no one else’s business. But there is no such thing as a purely personal choice—every choice is made in reference to other people, judging our worth. It is easy enough to make a decision because of the opinion of others, but it takes the courage that comes only from the Holy Spirit to make a decision in spite of their opinion. Yet those are the only decisions that can be called good or right.
Faced with the biggest moral decision of his life, Herod made it not on the basis of right, but out of regard for a vicious teenager and her still more vicious mama and the opinion of a brunch of drunken cronies. Like Pontius Pilate on another occasion, Herod was more concerned about the judgment of insignificant players than on whether he was putting an innocent man to death. Both men had their excuses. Tyrants always make excuses. They never want to take responsibility for anything. But no excuse ever really works. And we need to keep that in mind as we face Herod’s choice, whether to do the right thing and face the consequences–because the right thing always has consequences–or to do the wrong thing for the sake of other people’s opinions.