No In-Between for Sin: Our Place in the Story of Herod and Herodias
Today’s Gospel (Mark 4.35-41) has all the makings of a great American movie, television show, or even newscast: namely sex and violence. The story of Herod and Herodias has it all. In fact, it has as many sins in it as the Pirates of the Caribbean. All seven of those deadly sins are well represented in today’s gospel.
The story begins with Envy and Lust as we find Herod more interested in his brother’s wife than he is in his own wife.
Then comes Greed, as Herod divorces his wife and takes his brother’s wife – Herodias – for himself.
Enter John the Baptist – the prophetic voice of God’s Truth – who admonishes Herod and Herodias for their sinful actions. (Among other things, this arrangement was actually incestuous, as Herodias was also Herod’s niece. Suffice it to say that Herod has a complicated and unflattering family tree.) John the Baptist’s rebuke incites the Anger of Herodias, who is not at all amused by the admonition. She wants John dead. But Herod doesn’t want to kill the prophet, so in order to appease his wife’s Anger, Herod has John put in prison.
Then we have Herod’s birthday party, a celebration of debauchery if there ever was one: filled with Sloth, Gluttony, and more Lust. At the party, we find a drunken Herod aroused by the sensuous dancing of his step-daughter Salome (Herodias’ daughter).
He’s so drunk and enflamed with passions that he promises to give the girl anything she desires. Not exactly a prayerfully-discerned decision on Herod’s part.
Herodias seizes the opportunity, and tells her daughter to demand the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
This sinful tale ends with the murder of John the Baptist at the hands of a cowardly and prideful Herod. He made this thoughtless promise in front of a party-full of guests. And it is in the end his pride which prevents him from turning back on this drunken oath.
It is amazing the kinds of things our Pride inspires us to do, just to save a little face.
What began as good old-fashioned adultery ends in murder: the shedding of innocent blood.
This story can be viewed from two primary perspectives, namely Herod’s, or John the Baptist’s. We could say, “We need to be more like John the Baptist.” We need to be the voice of Truth crying out in the wilderness of sin. We need to live lives of righteousness, and admonish our brothers and sisters who are acting in sin. We need to stand up for Gods Truth, and not count the cost. We need to be unafraid to die for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
And all that is quite true.
But I would like to consider this story from the perspective of Herod and Herodias. Frankly, there is much in their actions that we can identify with. (Dare I say, we are probably closer to their sinfulness, than we are to John the Baptist in his righteousness). Perhaps in considering the predictability of their sinful patterns, we can be inspired to avoid some of the same pitfalls of the spiritual life.
This story of Herod is a picture of the slippery slope of temptation and sin, and the perils of following our passions.
For starters, we see that there is really no such thing as a “small” sin. That’s because “small” sins always lead to “bigger” sins. The spiritual life is as much about “What we do,” as it is “Where we are headed.”
There is no such thing as a small sin, because of where it all leads. Sin is a progression. It represents a direction. Our passions are bottomless. When we feed them just a little they will always want more. And they are never satisfied. What began for Herod as a little hanky-panky with his sister-in-law ended in bloodshed, war, and eventually exile for he and Herodias.
Thankfully, this spiritual principle works in both directions. Just as there is no such thing as a small sin, there is also no such thing as a small act of faith, or hope, or love, because of the direction in which they point. If small sin leads to big sin, so too does small righteousness lead to big righteousness.
Let us take care that in every little step of our spiritual lives, we are headed in the right direction.
The next thing we can learn from Herod, is that as much as we would like to, we simply cannot live in the in-betweens of sin and righteousness; of the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of this world; of Good and Evil.
Did you catch the little detail that Herodias was the one who wanted John killed? Not Herod. Herod actually “feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe.” And “when he heard him, he was much perplexed; and yet he heard him gladly.”
It seems that, even though John the Baptist is calling Herod out in his sinfulness, Herod is actually kind of inspired by John. He certainly has a healthy respect for him.
So Herod goes on trying to live in this sort-of in-between; sinning away on the one hand, and maintaining this strange, captive relationship on the other.
How often do we find ourselves in a similar scenario in our own spiritual lives? Sinning on the one hand, and on the other keeping Gods voice of admonition locked away in a prison in the dungeon. Living how we want, and keeping God in a box on the shelf. We can go visit God from time to time, be inspired by His Word, have a healthy respect for Him, but then we go back to our normal life and carry on just as we were.
Like Herod, we cannot live in the in-between of sin and righteousness, something will give. As the saying goes, we cannot have our cake and eat it too.
Sin wins out in the end for Herod.
John calls into question the sinful choices of Herod and Herodias. But rather than repenting and reforming, their sin finally compels them to silence the voice of admonition.
For Herodias it is her Anger at John. For Herod it is his Lust for his daughter-in-law’s dancing. For both of them it is their Pride. And together they kill John, the forerunner of Christ.
For a moment they enjoy the illusion of victory.
St. Ambrose writes, Herodias “exults as though she had escaped from a crime, because she has slain her judge.”
Another commentator writes, “She murdered John that she might sin in peace”
But of course, God’s voice cannot be silenced. It is the centerpiece of the Christian Faith; that even death cannot silence the Word of God.
Beloved, the true endgame of sin is not the delightful sensation of pleasures and unrestricted freedom that we imagine it to be. The end result is always some wretched combination of shame, guilt, anxiety, paranoia, and fear. Which is exactly where our gospel story begins.
It begins with Herod freaking out at reports of Jesus performing miracles. Herod knows he has innocent blood on his hands, and he is convinced that Jesus is John the Baptist, risen from the dead. His deeds have pushed fear and paranoia to the forefront of his mind. Which is, of course, a terrible way to live.
Commentator William Barclay says, “The sinning life is the haunted life.”
The devil’s voice of temptation is a terrible lie of destruction. It always seems so delightful on the surface, like that tree in the garden. But in the devil is always self-serving, and only interested in taking life.
The Truth is that Our Lord’s voice of admonition is a voice of Love. It is only interested in serving us, and giving life.
The Devil tries to inflame our passions to the end that we would destroy ourselves and those around us.
God on the other hand, would sooner die, than to refrain from guiding us into all righteousness. That is how much He loves us!
John the Baptist did not admonish Herod for his own health, any more than Jesus died on the cross for his own health.
God’s voice of admonition is always a voice of Love – the words of a loving Creator to His creation.
Unlike Herod and Herodias, let us heed the Word of God that we might turn from our sin and live.
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that we may know and understand what things we ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.