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Two Tragic Sins Seen in One Gospel Passage

August 30, 2017

The tragic Gospel passage about the death of St. John Baptist (which we read in daily Mass on Tuesday) is a study in two common sins that afflict most of us. While the results of these sinful tendencies may not always be this dire, the damage wrought is often significant. Let’s take a look at each in turn.

The sin of human respect – This is a sin wherein we fear human beings and their opinions of us more than we fear God and what He thinks of us.

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 she 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. She 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. Herodias’ 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 replied … “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 (Mark 6:18-27).

The key insight from this passage is that Herod Antipas (not Herod the Great, who was dead by this time), knew in his conscience that he was wrong and that what John the Baptist had said was right. He was living in an adulterous and legally incestuous relationship with Herodias, his “wife” but who was actually the wife of his brother Philip. Herod was disturbed by what John had said to him and John’s words also harmonized with the voice of God deep within him. Herod’s first sin was fearing Herodias’ wrath more than God’s righteous judgement. Because of this, he imprisoned John.

Herod then made things worse at a critical moment when his “wife,” through her daughter, demanded an evil thing: murder. Herod was deeply troubled by the request, knowing it to be wrong. But again, because he feared the opinion of his guests, Herodias, and her daughter, Herod consented to this evil act and had John beheaded. Herod feared man (his guests, Herodias, her daughter) more than God. This is the sin of human respect.

I have written more on that sin here: What Is the Sin of Human Respect?  For today’s reflection, however, simply note that this is a widespread human problem. It is amazing how afraid we are. Our fear is not so much of physical danger, but rather of being ridiculed, scorned, or rejected by others. Many people will do almost anything to be liked, to be esteemed, and to “belong.” A great many of our sins spring from this desperate “need” to please and to be respected by others. Meanwhile, we marginalize the Lord; His truth is suppressed or ignored and the reality that He alone will judge us one day is conveniently forgotten. This is the sin of human respect.

One might think that Herod, a powerful king, would not have been very concerned by what people thought of him. But how did he rise to such a position? Most likely by making compromises, ingratiating himself to others, and conforming to what was politic and prudent in a cunning and worldly way. One who spends his life doing such things does not suddenly find a spine. So Herod heard the voice of God in his conscience, but feared human beings even more.

The sin of “harboring a grudge”

John had said to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And so, Herodias harbored a grudge against him and wanted to kill him but was unable to do so (Mk 6:18-19).

Sadly, harboring grudges is a common problem for us. If not addressed, a grudge (which is a form of hatred or wrath) grows like a cancer.

The Greek text describes Herodias as ἐνεῖχεν αὐτῷ (eneichen auto). The Greek root enecho means “to hold in.” Auto is an intensifying pronoun. Thus, a rather literal translation is that Herodias “held in, within her deepest self” an anger against John. A Latin expression for having a grudge is estuans interius ira vehementi, which means “to be seething inside with destructive anger.”

Yes, Herodias was harboring a grudge, nursing wrath until the day when she could exact her revenge. Her simmering wrath grew until it burst forth in a murderous rage.

We have all harbored grudges against others, often as a response to having been hurt. Many stifle their rage just beneath the surface and continue to feed it. Though it robs them of internal peace, they somehow feel righteous in doing so, thinking that it honors the pain they have experienced in some strange way. In nursing this grudge, they encourage it to grow and draw energy from other more profitable human activity. They lie in wait for an opportunity to wound the one who hurt them, whether in small or large ways. It can even lead to wishing the other dead or to violent acts. Communities, families, races, and nations harbor grudges, too. The horrifying effects are seen in hatred, violence, war, and genocide.

Sometimes we are the victims of grudges. Others seem to hate us without cause. What was an unintentional offense, a misunderstanding, or a simple disagreement is wrathfully held by another who will not let go. No amount of clarification or even an apology will suffice.

Identity politics and the sharp political and ideological divisions of our time also contribute to a “take no prisoners” mentality, rooted in grudges and exceptionally harsh criticism.

One of the solutions to this tendency is to strive to cast our cares on God. If we have been hurt in some way, especially if we think it undeserved, God asks us to give it to Him. In effect He says, “I saw everything that happened. Give me your pain. I promise that if the person who hurt you dies unrepentant, he will answer to me for what he has done. Lay down your anger now and give it to me. I will carry it. I know where the truth lies” (see Rom 12:19, inter al).

Therefore, we should neither harbor grudges nor be too angry with those who harbor grudges against us. Give it all to God. Be free of the wrath of holding a grudge. Harboring a grudge or being unforgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. 

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  1. Julia says:

    “A great many of our sins spring from this desperate “need” to please and to be respected by others. Meanwhile, we marginalize the Lord; His truth is suppressed or ignored and the reality that He alone will judge us one day is conveniently forgotten. This is the sin of human respect.”

    I was pondering why this is so, and the nearness of the punishment inflicted by society outweighs the eventual, far off, punishment of the Lord. Doing the right thing is very hard against the opinions of those around us who may disown us, fire us, ruin our life for decades.

    I’m not excusing it, but fear that my strength would fail me as well. I’m thankful I have not yet been put to the test.