Today we get to see King Herod’s response to the uncomforting action of speaking love to power. And we also see the tragedy that unfolds when we are so focused on ourselves and our own concerns and circumstances that we cannot see or hear anything else.
When John the Baptizer speaks, King Herod listens. He might not like what he’s hearing – but he’s interested all the same. Listen: 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.
He was greatly perplexed – and yet he liked to listen to him. That shows us that here is a leader who is hungry for knowledge, maybe even one who might “hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Here, it seems, is an opportunity for the Kingdom of God to break through.
Except Herod fails to keep his eyes on the prize. John is speaking, and Herod has been listening. But then two tragically self-centered narratives collide. The first is that of Herod, who is open to the Word of God, but so focused on his desire to save face in front of his influential guests that he backs himself into a corner. And the second narrative, which collides with Herod’s story, is that of Herodias, who seems to be open to nothing but revenge. She is entirely focused on retributive justice, which is no real justice at all.
How often have you felt like Herodias? How often have I felt that way? I know what it feels like to nurse and to nurture that legitimate grievance, to tenderly care for that pain, to find satisfaction in the familiar rut of self-righteousness.
Sister Helen Prejean invites us to consider what justice looks like – and what it looks like can often be not at all what we expect.
Sister Helen is a religious of the Order of St. Joseph of Medaille who lives and works in Louisiana. She first came to the attention of many of us through the book and movie Dead Man Walking, when she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon, visiting Sean Penn, as Patrick Sonnier, on Death Row.
Sister Helen relates the story of meeting the parents of Patrick Sonnier’s victims, a teenage couple. The parents of the girl just averted their gaze and walked on by – but Lloyd LeBlanc, the father of David LeBlanc, walked up to her and said, “Sister, you can’t imagine the pressure we’re under, everyone telling us we need to push for Sonnier to die, saying, ‘You got to be for the death penalty or it’ll look like you didn’t love your boy.’ And I kept going to church on Sunday wanting the priest to talk about the gospel of Jesus calling for us to forgive, and we couldn’t hear it anywhere. And I caved in.”
Sister Helen said she was taken aback – that she had just assumed that every victim’s family wanted revenge and called it justice.
“I caved in,” Mr. LeBlanc said. “I said, ‘I want to pull the switch, I want to cause them pain like they caused me. And then I began to notice what was happening to me. I was angry all the time. And I said, ‘Uh-uh.’”
“You know, Sister, most people think forgiveness is weakness: ‘Well, you killed my son, well, I forgive you.’ Like you condone it. I don’t condone it. But I was losing my life, too.”
Sister Helen says that Mr. LeBlanc was the first victim’s family she met who taught her that forgiveness is not what you do to lift the burden of guilt from the person who hurt you – but it’s saving your life.
And that’s what neither Herod nor Herodias chooses.
Focused inward, centered on himself, Herod makes an impulsive, foolish promise – “Anything you want! Half my kingdom!” And then he doubles down because he’s too self-centered and too proud to modify his promise to something a little more manageable in front of a room full of influential local men.
And the girl goes to her mother – “Mama, he said I could have half his kingdom.”
Imagine the scene. Imagine Herodias, a woman in the first century, suddenly becoming the ruler of half a kingdom, gaining security and leadership and all the perks – and she throws it all away. Because she is entirely laser-focused on revenge. “I want John the Baptizer to hurt like he hurt me. I want him dead.”
This is not justice. This is drinking rat poison and waiting for the rat to die. When I become, when you become, so turned in on ourselves, we have taken away from our own souls the things that give us life.
After achieving the instant and momentary gratification of having John beheaded, Herodias and her daughter disappear from the pages of Scripture. We don’t know how their lives turned out. But we do know what happened to Lloyd LeBlanc, whose heart, like Herod’s, was hungry for the Word of God. Mr. LeBlanc recognized that a desire for retributive justice was killing him, and he set that burden down. “They killed our boy but I’m not going to let them kill me.”
Herod, Herodias, John the Baptizer are long gone, under a couple of millennia of dust. You and I and our natural inclination to hold a grudge, to want to think of justice as making the scales balance, are still here. So what do we do with this cautionary tale? Herod Antipas made a stupid pledge and lacked the courage to spare the life of a man who perplexed and intrigued him by speaking the Word of God. And Herodias is remembered only as someone who was so focused on her desire to cause pain in return for pain received – that she threw away the promise of half a kingdom. Where does that leave us?
It leaves us with the good news that can be so elusive in this narrative: the good news that each of us can choose to define justice through God’s mercy. And when we do that, we find, like Lloyd LeBlanc, that we can choose to release the thing that is killing us. We can choose to align ourselves with the way of Jesus. We can choose to walk in the light.