You see, Herod was afraid of John. He also realized that John was a just and holy man, and even protected him. When he heard him speak he was very perplexed, yet he enjoyed listening to him.
Mark 6: 20
In their commentary on this passage, John R. Donohue and Daniel J. Harrington point out that Mark’s description of John as “a just and holy man” parallels that of the historian Josephus. Josephus “calls John a good man preaching dikaiosyne (“righteousness”) and eusebeia (“piety,” i.e. proper relationship with God). Herod’s fear of John, as well as his attraction to John’s teaching, is based on the truthfulness not only of John’s preaching but of his person. John has criticized Herod for his sexual immorality, but in doing so he has more deeply challenged Herod’s infidelity to his own original calling. In his very person, John the Baptist expresses fidelity and commitment to his true identity and call, a fidelity that expresses itself in faithful consistency to his commitments. Herod is taken with what we today might call the “authenticity” of John the Baptist. The measure of John’s words and actions is ultimately the truth of God’s call in him and to him. He is “pious” in the sense of living and expressing his life in harmony and consonance with his originality, that is with the unique image of God that is his foundational life form. Herod, who is greatly distanced from his true call and vocation, finds his deeper possibilities as a human person stirred by John’s authenticity and fidelity to his spiritual identity.
Today’s reading from Hebrews is a call to faithfully live out our commitments. “Continue to love each like brothers and sisters, . . . remember always to welcome strangers. . . . keep in mind those who are in prison . . . and those who are being badly treated, . . . marriage is to be honored by all . . . .” Fidelity to our vocation in the deepest sense of the term is manifest in fidelity to the commitments we make that express that vocation, that original calling that is ours. John the Baptist is no “reed shaken by the wind,” but he is rather one who is faithful to his calling and maintains his commitments regardless of the cost — even to death. It is this integrity and authenticity that appeals to what is deepest in Herod. Unfortunately, although John stirs the deeper life and truth in Herod, Herod lacks the righteousness and piety to carry out in his life the word that he hears. As Donohue and Harrington point out, Herod “exemplifies the fate of the seed (“word”) in the allegory of the seeds (4:13-20), where the seed that falls on rocky ground represents those who receive the word with joy but have no root in themselves (4:16-17).”
It is the difficulty in living out faithfully and to the end the commitments we make that fashions and forms us into persons “who have root in themselves.” As Herod betrays himself as a result or the forces of his own timidity, pride and lust, so our fidelity to the truth in us is constantly challenged by our vital impulses, our cultural pulsations and our functional ambitions. It is in the struggle to do our duty, to live out with integrity the call that is ours that we come slowly and throughout life to have root in ourselves. Our own formation is often most served by our struggle to continue to care for and be responsible to those to whom we have committed ourselves in the face of their and our own failures, selfishness, and disinterest.
When the purpose of life together, in marriage, friendship, or community becomes mutual self-gratification, our commitment to each other is paper thin. When others cease to gratify us, we readily toss them aside for another. When the work of faithfully living out our call becomes too demanding, we settle for distraction, addiction, manipulation and control, or overwork. When we experience the inevitable disappointment of the limits of others, we grow angry, resentful, and cynical. When shared life becomes too much work, we can opt for an independence and a solipsism whose destiny is self-alienation.
Herod is, on the surface, a person of power and significance. John the Baptist is apparently an imprisoned failed preacher and prophet who will die an ignominious death at Herod’s hand. Yet, the gospel makes clear that Herod’s “power” and the violent actions that spring from it are really manifestations of cowardice and weakness born of despair. John’s presence in his life presents Herod with a choice. “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live. “ (Deut. 30:19) In the authentic fidelity of John, Herod experiences, even ever so dimly, the possibility of truly living the life he has been given by God. Yet, he chooses rather to betray the deeper call for the sake of living out the values of “the world.” The violence and cruelty that he inflicts on the world are but the product of his own unrecognized despair, his despair of accepting and living out in humility his true original call.
Our responsibility for our life and our true and original calling is manifest in our fidelity to our deepest commitments. We engage and inter-form with the larger world through our response to our immediate situation. When I accept and respond to the primary commitments I make in my life as the expression and incarnation of my unique life call, I am becoming more and more rooted in myself, which is in God. I am developing the piety which is the right relationship with God who calls me moment by moment to live out my true identity and life’s work. To give up on this deeper work and on the commitments I have made is to despair of my own life. John the Baptist holds fast to his call to the end. Herod flirts with the appeal of integrity but readily betrays it because he has never seriously undertaken his own personal formation which would allow that deeper call to take root in him. May we remain awake to our own struggles to be faithful to our commitments and, through this wakefulness, become more and more rooted in ourselves and in God.
In unconsciousness of being in despair a person is furthest from being conscious of oneself as spirit. But precisely the thing of not being conscious of oneself as spirit is despair, which is spiritlessness—whether the condition be that of complete deadness, a merely vegetative life, or a life of higher potency the secret of which is nevertheless despair. . . for the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unconscious of being despair.
Every human existence which is not conscious of itself as spirit, or conscious of itself before God as spirit, every human existence which is not thus grounded transparently in God but obscurely reposes or terminates in some abstract universality (state, nation, etc.), or in obscurity about itself takes its faculties merely as active powers, without in a deeper sense being conscious whence it has them, which regards itself as an inexplicable something which is to be understood from without—every such existence is after all despair. . . . . . . by relating itself to its own self, and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it.
Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, pp. 178, 182