“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul puts down his pen. He is old, and his eyes strain in the lamplight. He has worked for weeks with his colleagues on this massive magnum opus, a missive to the church in Rome which tackles everything from the peculiar grace of God in the death of a peasant man to the unexpected delay of his hoped-for return, from ancient laws turned upside down to the hard-to-follow footsteps of a wild Spirit. This is it. This is everything. And in the midst of his great life’s work, he seems confused. “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes out each word, as if writing each would help. Perhaps it is a rhetorical device, an example of humility by way of a performed confession. Perhaps it is sincere bewilderment. Perhaps it is regression towards a thing he tried to quit, perhaps another widow begging bread whom he hastily dismissed. He is trying to explain how a solitary soul can want a thing so badly, can want to stake a claim on the brightest light he’s seen and follow glady, yet still find that every other choice he makes instead seems to lead in the opposite direction. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” There is no next line for now, he blows the lamplight out and goes to bed.
Some thirty years before he wrote, in the majestic ballroom of a palace, a crowd of courtiers and officers has also fallen silent. In the middle of the hush is a king, or at least a kind of half-king, a tetrarch, or the ruler of at least a quarter of a kingdom, a small man practiced at making big grabs for power. His name is Herod. Across from him is the daughter of his current wife, a girl of maybe twelve, wearing nothing or maybe next to nothing. Hers are the words which have cut a startled pause out from this room, this banquet which she had only moments earlier riled with her dancing. In the quiet which she has suddenly replaced that dancing with, she repeats herself, lest her words were not clear the first time. “I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.” Her voice seems small for the demand she is making. Herod seems small, for that matter, for a man with the power to take or save the life of his helpless prisoner. The scriptures tell us he is deeply grieved. He likes listening to John, despite the fact that he is frequently perplexed by the prophet’s words. He fears John as a man of God, a man with a message from God, possibly for his very life, even as he recognizes the threat which John poses to his kingdom, even as he keeps him under lock and key for his own secluded audience. He does not wish to kill the man. Yet he cannot refuse the girl before him, for he swore an oath to her in his lust, an oath in front of all the guests he wants so desperately to impress. And so, despite his grief, despite his longing to hear more from a man whom he finds deeply, spiritually compelling, he has the poor man’s head cut off, he shuts him up for good, for appearances; and the party carries on. I wonder if the half-king understands his own actions. Or if he, like Paul, who would write in the years to follow, does not do the thing he wants, but the very thing he hates.
It is easy for all of this to seem exotic. In the middle of a Gospel full of fishermen and farming and nights at sea and miracle healings comes a scene with worldly royalty. In this flashback to his palace Herod seems very different from the country folk who populate the rest of the Jesus story. Indeed, most depictions of this scene in Western history only emphasize exoticisms. Legends name the daughter Salome, painters love to show her scantily clad, Oscar Wilde wrote a whole play delving into the pathos of a girl who fetishized a prisoner in response to the way she had been objectified by her step-father. Yet all of these exotic things are precisely what makes these characters so familiar to me. I find Herod more like us than any other man in the Gospel. He has heard the Word of God, a Word of protest against the injustice of his life, and he has tried to keep it safe. He did not extinguish it entirely at first, he paid respects, he spared the life of a holy one for as long as he could and kept it in a locked room underground. In the meantime he built as great a life of riches as was possible on the backs of those less fortunate. He desired the praise of peers, so he threw parties for them. He married for power, he married to claim another quarter of the kingdom. He let his lust serve as an unquestioned entertainment. He built a life with all the earthly privilege he could muster. He is a man who is utterly compromised. When he finally agrees to have John killed the blood doesn’t even touch his own hands; he says a word and it is done for him. In his heart, he does not wish to silence the Word which he has heard from God, yet the life he has made demands it. I wonder if he understands his own actions. Or if he, as Paul sometimes would, does not do the thing he wants, but the very thing he hates.
What does Herod really want? Does he want to let the revelry continue undisturbed? Does he want to feast at the cost and blood of others because it is easier to say “yes” to a party which is already underway, to the image he has made into a sure goldmine for himself? Or does some deeper part of him long to tear his robes in two and rush down to the basement so he can sit at the feet of a smelly crazy man of God repenting of the evil he has done, ready at long last to live for someone other than himself? The choice is his! He could follow his heart’s deepest yearning for the Lord of Life Itself! The silent pause of this choice is deafening. In the end, his choice is complicity. In the end he chooses death. The guards place the bloodied head of a homeless man in the hands of a little girl. The world reels on in its blood-drunk dance, laughing haughtily that death has ruled the day once more. Where could there possibly be any hope in this at all?
Paul knows. He wakes up in the night. “I do not understand my own actions,” he murmurs to himself. He returns to his parchment and his pen. “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” he writes. He has already made the same choice Herod did a hundred times. There was a time when the Word of God was as close as a prisoner in his own dungeon, and what did he do? He mowed the down those who dared to speak it. He shut them up. He locked more of them away and made a profit for himself off their blood. Just like Herod, Paul has been complicit with the power of the world, the power to silence that which we most need to hear. But Paul has another word to add. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” He writes each word out, as if writing each will help. He has learned that for as many times as he has tried to shut the Word of light out from the center of his life, that Word has risen up to speak again. That Word will not remain silent. Paul, in his age, has come to learn that the Word of God which his innermost being desires more than life itself, which nearly every other member of his body seems intent on opposing, is a Word of senseless love which has more power to forgive, more power to revive, more power to keep on living than any worldly power Paul has left in him to keep on stifling it. Believing this, there is hope. Believing this there is still time to tear the robe in two. Believing this there is still time to rush down to the dungeon where the secret of true life has long since been sequestered far away. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Despite the worst of it, God still holds out hope for Paul. Despite the worst of it, God still holds out hope for Herod. Despite the worst of it, God still holds out hope for every one of us.