Not So Fast!
The Lord taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.” I think we can find something in today’s gospel reading that will help us understand what sort of obstacles we face in our efforts to submit ourselves to God’s will.
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Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time
King Herod heard about Jesus, for his fame had become widespread, and people were saying, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead; that is why mighty powers are at work in him.” Others were saying, “He is Elijah”; still others, “He is a prophet like any of the prophets.”
But when Herod learned of it, he said, “It is John whom I beheaded. He has been raised up.”
Herod was the one who had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, whom he had married. John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”
Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so. Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody. When he heard him speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.
Herodias had an opportunity one day when Herod, on his birthday, gave a banquet for his courtiers, his military officers, and the leading men of Galilee. His own daughter came in and performed a dance that delighted Herod and his guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” He even swore many things to her, “I will grant you whatever you ask of me, even to half of my kingdom.”
She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” Her mother replied, “The head of John the Baptist.” The girl hurried back to the king’s presence and made her request, “I want you to give me at once on a platter the head of John the Baptist.”
The king was deeply distressed, but because of his oaths and the guests he did not wish to break his word to her. So he promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head. He went off and beheaded him in the prison. He brought in the head on a platter and gave it to the girl. The girl in turn 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
NOT SO FAST!
She went out and said to her mother,
“What shall I ask for?”
Mk 6, 24
As I like to remind people, the Bible is neither a science text nor a history book. That’s not what the Bible is for. It is a tool, which, if used well, can aid in the spread of the Gospel. The Bible is not the Gospel itself. The Holy Spirit is the one who spreads the Gospel, generally (but not always!) in cooperation with our efforts – we who are the disciples of Christ. It is necessary for the ‘Good News’ to be spread and to be received; but the Bible may or may not be involved in the process.
If you evaluated the scriptures with the same standards one uses to evaluate a scholarly work of history, the Bible would fail. Actually, it wouldn’t be the Bible that had failed; it would be you who had failed. You would have failed to understand how the Bible is properly used. Now, please allow me to be so bold as to request that you understand how I’m using this reflection. My purpose is to tell a story in order to make a point. In doing so, I will draw some facts from history while screening out those facts that are irrelevant to the point I’m making. I may also include details that are mere speculation. I’m not even trying to teach history. I’m trying to sort out some of the aspects involved in following God’s will – aspects involved in me following God’s will, and in you following as well.
The setting of today’s Gospel story is in First Century Palestine. I love this story and I have heard it many, many times. Whenever I hear it, though, I recall another story I know that is set in Sixteenth Century England. In both stories we meet a king with the same name as his deceased father, a father who was also king. In both stories, the new king was actually the younger son of the old king but rose to power because his older brother died as a young man. In both stories, the young king marries his older brother’s widow. In both stories an outspoken holy man enters the scene with something to say about the king’s marriage, something the king is not at all pleased to hear. In both stories, the holy man’s disapproval of the king’s behavior gets him beheaded.
The old story is about King Herod, the new about King Henry. The wife in the old story is Herodias, in the new she is Catherine. Phillip is the brother in the old story, his name is Arthur in the new. The holy man in the old story is John the Baptist, Thomas More is the holy man in the new story. The Church recognizes both John and Thomas as saints.
Same story? Hardly! In fact, the stories are in direct opposition to each other. John denounced Herod for taking his brother’s wife and, of course, he had scripture on his side: “You shall not have intercourse with your brother’s wife; that would be a disgrace to your brother.” (Leviticus 18,16) and, in another place, “ if a man takes his brother’s wife, it is severe defilement and he has disgraced his brother;” (Leviticus 20,21) John told Herod what to do, but Herod refused to do it. Herod thought his own way of doing things was better.
In the other story, the king wanted to get out of his marriage. In fact, he found the same passages John the Baptist had found and claimed that they justified a divorce. In this case the holy man found a different passage, “When brothers live together and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall come to her, marrying her and performing the duty of a brother-in-law” (Deuteronomy 25,5). John the Baptist told Herod to end his sinful marriage. Thomas More told Henry that ending his marriage would be a sin. And both had scripture on their side!
If nothing else, I hope these stories give pause to anyone who hopes for a society where everyone does “as the Bible teaches.” Clearly, it’s impossible to rely upon the Bible to settle points of law. Using the Bible to settle arguments is to misuse the Bible.
In order to make sense of these stories we have to believe that both John and Thomas were doing more than simply interpreting scripture. In both cases, something must have been going on within the life of the spirit, something invisible to non-believers, something more than ink on parchment. Both kings claimed a right to decide for themselves how to behave. Both kings evaluated their ‘options’ and decided for themselves which option would be better for them. Both kings were told that the LORD doesn’t defer to human power and that they, like all people, must submit to His authority – even when God wants us to do something we don’t want to do.
We read, in today’s gospel, that Herod was pleased with his daughter and offers her “whatever you wish”. Haven’t you ever wanted to be in that position? Haven’t you ever tried to please someone in power, hoping you’d be able to get what you wished for? Isn’t that the way of the world? We all ‘do our dance’ and hope for an opportunity to decide for ourselves what is going to happen. The girl got her opportunity and, I’m sure, she considered her opportunity a ‘good thing’ while she was asking for her mother’s advice. I’m thinking that the day eventually came when the girl figured out that power and choice don’t always lead to happiness. Happiness, as Jesus taught, is “every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4, 4). Happiness is doing what God wants.
The thing that God wants isn’t always the thing we read in the Bible, it’s not always the thing that the people in authority direct, it’s not always the thing we think will make us happy; but the difficulty we have following God’s will isn’t really a difficulty in finding out what God’s will is. Our difficulty is that we resist God’s guidance because we want to be in charge. Whatever we may say, when you come right down to it were more interested in being God than in following Him.
Read the scriptures, by all means. Study them and learn to interpret them from those who are wiser than you; but don’t imagine that you will be guaranteed a holy life by mastering the Word of God. God isn’t looking for you to become wise, He’s looking for you to become meek.
We human beings have a million ways to distract ourselves from what is really going on, and what is really going on is that you’re in the midst of a battle between God’s will and your own stubbornness. Herod was so stubborn that he killed an innocent man in order to be able to have his own way in defiance of what God wanted. Henry did the very same thing. They were kings, and power had made them prideful. Guess what? You don’t need to be a king to become prideful. Pride isn’t about having power, it’s about deluding yourself into thinking you’d be better off with the power to do as you’d like.
All of us have to wrestle with our propensity to become stubborn, and if we know the Bible well we’ll be able to find verses to justify our own stubbornness. As long as we live we’re liable to come to a fork in the road where we’ll want to turn one way but God will say, “Not so fast!” It happened to Herod, it happened to Henry and it will happen to you – one way or another. When it does are you going to be willing to become meek in the presence of God, or are you going to give Him an argument?