Thursday, February 04, 2016

Herod, John and Jesus

By Colleen O’Sullivan

Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison…  John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”  Herodias (Herod’s wife) harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so.  Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody.  When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.  (Pleased with his daughter’s dance at his birthday party, Herod said he would grant her any wish.  Her mother told her to demand John the Baptist’s head on a platter.)  The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her.  So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head.   (Mark 6:17a, 18-20, 26-27)

O Lord, I want to follow in your footsteps.  Call me back when I wander.  Pick me up when I fall.  Let me ever be aware of your loving and merciful presence beside me.

I cannot read a word of New Testament Greek (or any other type, for that matter), but something I read in a commentary on this passage jumped out at me.  When Mark writes about Herod’s reaction to his daughter’s request for John’s head, he says “the king was deeply distressed.”  The Greek word perilupos, translated here as “deeply distressed,” is the same word that Mark uses later during Jesus’ agony in the garden when Jesus says to Peter, James and John, “My soul ‘is sorrowful’ even to death.” (Mk 14:34) Jesus’ overwhelming sorrow I can understand, but using the same word with reference to King Herod made me do a double take.  Maybe I should look again at this man who is usually vilified. 

Somehow I doubt Herod was a stranger to executions, so there must have been something very compelling about John the Baptist for such upset.  Perhaps Herod had the sense that this strange prophet he locked up actually knew what he was talking about.  Maybe Herod wanted to hear more about the One John said was coming.  Maybe John was one of the few who dared to speak openly and honestly to the King and Herod found that refreshing.  Or maybe in the wake of all these conversations, in that moment after he ordered the beheading, Herod saw himself for what he truly was – a weak man who indulged his wife even when he knew she was wrong, someone who partied too hard and got carried away, a sinner who had just signed the death warrant for the only person willing to tell him like it was, someone who had just destroyed his only chance for a better life.

Speaking truth to power is often dangerous.  The powerful don’t easily let go.  They don’t like feeling threatened.  John’s story is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ story.  Proclaim the Word, whether it’s the promise that someone greater is coming, or that the Kingdom of God is at hand, and someone feels threatened.
When Jesus invites us to come and follow him, sometimes I wonder if we have any clearer idea what we’re signing on for than did the first disciples.  Our culture encourages us to feel entitled, to believe that life should be fair or that if we “play by the rules,” we’ll be rewarded with earthly riches.  That’s the American “way.”  So, when adversity strikes, we get bent out of shape.  

Something’s wrong!  Maybe what’s wrong is our expectation.  Jesus is beckoning us to an adventure that transcends anything our culture offers.  Jesus is inviting us to follow in his footsteps, to take the way of the Cross.  There is no other route to Easter and the Resurrection.  He promises to be with us every inch of the way, but he doesn’t promise us an easier route than the one he walked.   

Lent is less than a week away.  It is worth taking the time now to prepare for how we will observe this season.  Lent is a time for examining how we are making the journey.  Are we following in Jesus’ footsteps or do we find ourselves taking detours, searching for an “easier” way?  As we make our way day by day, are we following Jesus’ example and touching those we meet with love, compassion and mercy?

There are many resources out there to aid us in our reflecting.  A dozen or more in the Ignatian tradition can be found at 

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