King Herod heard of all this, for by this time the name of Jesus was on everyone’s lips. He said, “This has to be John the Baptizer come back from the dead—that’s why he’s able to work miracles!”
Others said, “No, it’s Elijah.”
Others said, “He’s a prophet, just like one of the old-time prophets.”
But Herod wouldn’t budge: “It’s John, sure enough. I cut off his head, and now he’s back, alive.”
Herod was the one who had ordered the arrest of John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison at the nagging of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. For John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herodias, smoldering with hate, wanted to kill him, but didn’t dare because Herod was in awe of John. Convinced that he was a holy man, he gave him special treatment. Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.
But a portentous day arrived when Herod threw a birthday party, inviting all the brass and bluebloods in Galilee. Herodias’s daughter entered the banquet hall and danced for the guests. She charmed Herod and the guests.
The king said to the girl, “Ask me anything. I’ll give you anything you want.” Carried away, he kept on, “I swear, I’ll split my kingdom with you if you say so!”
She went back to her mother and said, “What should I ask for?”
“Ask for the head of John the Baptizer.”
Excited, she ran back to the king and said, “I want the head of John the Baptizer served up on a platter. And I want it now!”
That sobered the king up fast. But unwilling to lose face with his guests, he caved in and let her have her wish. The king sent the executioner off to the prison with orders to bring back John’s head. He went, cut off John’s head, brought it back on a platter, and presented it to the girl, who gave it to her mother. When John’s disciples heard about this, they came and got the body and gave it a decent burial.
This passage is one of those that feels like it’s been ripped out of a bad fantasy novel. Yet, here we are. The story of John the Baptist being beheaded is one of those cautionary tales about speaking truth to power. He demanded that the king of Israel have integrity, morality, and character. He didn’t let the king get away with doing whatever he wanted simply because he was the king. John spoke truth to power and it cost him his head.
Yet, one of the aspects of this story that I had never really noticed before was the line, “Whenever he listened to him he was miserable with guilt—and yet he couldn’t stay away. Something in John kept pulling him back.” John, in the midst of his truth speaking did it in such a way that Herod kept coming back to him. What was it about John that drew Herod in?
I think that what we see in John is authentic holiness and righteousness. It’s the same traits that we see in Jesus.
In our day those who act holy often repulse those who they would consider to be “unholy.” Yet, Jesus and John drew the “unholy” in with their holiness and righteousness. They didn’t put off a “holier than thou” vibe. No, their holiness and righteousness came from within them. It was simply who they were.
Why is it that holiness and righteousness in our day is repulsive and in their day it was attractive?
I don’t think that’s the right question. I think the better question is what makes their holiness and righteousness qualitatively different from so many in our own day and age?
Jesus was perfectly holy and perfectly righteous and yet “sinners” were drawn to him because in his presence they heard truth but also received grace and love.
What I’m beginning to learn is that the kind of holiness and righteousness that so many of us practice is “self.” We are “self-righteous” and we are “self-holy.” We seek to practice these ways of being to place ourselves in a position above others to look down on them and make them feel bad. We want to see their contrition and their brokenness. We want them to see our goodness and we want them to know that they don’t measure up.
I have been doing a lot of soul searching on this for the last few weeks and I have to say, I’m so guilty. There’s so much ugliness and self in me that I feel like it’s a never ending struggle. Learning to speak truth boldly and yet have it be rooted in grace and love is difficult. It’s a skill that I have not mastered, nor do I think I ever will. I think that I’m going to be an apprentice in loving well for the rest of my life.
I desperately want to grow in this area. Ugh. Following Christ is hard.
How are you doing in this? I’d love to hear from you and if you’re practicing a holiness and righteousness that is rooted in loving well or loving self.