Monday, July 27, 2009

Give me the head of John the Baptist

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the 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. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

- Mark 6:14-29

A flashback is included here in the gospel of Mark, so that we understand Herod's fear of John's return. The early Christians had an extremely high regard for John the Baptist; here we are given to understand John's fearlessness in speaking the truth even to Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great), governor of Galilee - popularly called "king." One can imagine with what fear Herod now calculates that John the Baptist is resurrected.

In this flashback, we are given to understand the events that led to John the Baptist's beheading. The king's banquet, on his birthday - he's invited no doubt all his highest ranking guests in his kingdom that are possible for him to invite. Before everyone, he makes a gesture of largesse - he will give to his daughter anything she desires, because her dancing has so pleased him and his guests. So - the woman to whom Herod is married in the marriage denounced by John the Baptist plots a cunning plot. She tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod himself is aware of John's righteousness - he fears him. But he cannot go back on a promise he's made before all of his kingdom, so to speak - the courtiers and officers and leaders, all the great of Galilee. It is too much of a social debacle in his calculation of what is important for his status and his position. So he gives in and has John the Baptist beheaded.

Somehow in this story of Herod we find something rather pitiful in this "worldly" great man. He knows that John is holy and righteous. There is something inside of Herod that responds - he is perplexed and yet he likes to listen to John. We could consider this Herod's "true self" - his heart of hearts. Like his counterpart in Judea, Pilate, Herod is of "two minds." He has a worldly life to live of power, and yet in his understanding within himself there is something tugging at him which causes him to respect - and fear - John the Baptist. But because of appearances, that worldly self that is hostage to our own image in the eyes of others, for worldly status and power, he nevertheless commits what he knows to be a sin: he has John beheaded.

The result of this act is no doubt the tremendous fear and guilt that will accompany his thoughts about Jesus: that John the Baptist has been raised. We know that after Jesus is crucified - against the better understanding of Pilate as well - this will seal the friendship between Herod and Pilate. They are two competing Roman rulers in the region who will then become friends based on a pact sealed by mutual guilt, by what remains hidden in the face and use of worldly power and expediency.

In this story we can come to understand notions of "true self" or what it means to live a spiritually committed life and so live a life of authentically chosen actions which stem from our heart of hearts, or the soul that is loyal to its Source. We also come to understand guilt and its accompanying that layer of "false self" that lives for the surface, for gain, for our image in the eyes of others and so often accompanies rank and worldly power - although of course the bible is filled (even in these same gospels) with images of those with worldly power who also live righteous lives. So, we understand these choices to be optional. Rank or position does not confer the need for such behavior but rather offers the opportunity for choice. Leadership requires hard choices, no matter what the case may be. But those who are enslaved by image, by possession, by fear of loss are weak and cannot make the difficult choice.

In some way, we all have this choice. We all - at all times - have the choice of being true to our souls, our "heart of hearts," and thinking about our image in the eyes of others. Which do you serve? This is always our question we must answer for ourselves.

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