Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29
Egged on by her mother, Herodias, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist. And it was delivered to her on a plate. It really is a bit of an unsavoury story – personally, I would prefer not to conjure up too detailed an image of the head on the silver platter, it’s very easy to make oneself feel quite queasy. And the reward was given as a result of a young girl dancing for a group of men – our safeguarding team might have something to say about that. But the basic story appears not to be disputed – either within the Gospels or from contemporaneous writing. Josephus records as a matter of fact that John the Baptist was beheaded. Even for the bloodthirsty Roman society of the time, this isn’t an everyday story.
What was it about John that caused him to inspire such extreme emotions? Let’s try to unpick a little about who he was and how he managed to generate those reactions. This was about something more than a man who was a bit of a nuisance, or who was annoying, this was about someone who, for whatever reasons had become a threat; someone who had become a thorn in the flesh and who, at the same time, couldn’t just be dismissed out of hand.
We read today that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. Herod liked to listen to him. So Herod’s relationship with John was complex. He liked to listen to him, but he didn’t always like what he heard. The early Gospel reports of John describe him as rather an unkempt and unappealing character – sharing his truth regardless of what people thought.
John seems to have been one of those characters who simultaneously attracts and repels. And we can recognise those traits – there are people whom we have all come across who draw us into their message, who have a magnetic presence and yet who at the same time cause us to look for the nearest route to escape. Those complex responses may be because we would prefer not to hear whatever it is that the person has to say – either to us or to the wider world; perhaps because their method of delivery makes it difficult for us to accept what they are telling; perhaps because they are just someone who seems so different from us that we find it difficult to relate their message to our own day to day living and decision making.
And then there are those charismatic characters who draw us in but leave us feeling uncertain about whether or not to really trust what they are saying. Those people who have an attractive and compelling personality, who seem to be talking a lot of sense – at least in the beginning – but who somehow have a dangerous edge.
Today is St Benedict’s Day and that first century monk can perhaps help us to navigate a way through these tensions. Right at the beginning of his Rule, Benedict says: listen with the ear of your heart. He’s suggesting to his monks and followers that they listen in a holistic way. If we just listen with our ears and process in our heads, we have a partial engagement with what we’re hearing. If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we’re engaging with a process of deeper discernment, allowing ourselves to respond intellectually and emotionally and spiritually to whatever we come across.
So rather than having an immediate and perhaps impulsive response to being told that something is good – or not good – Benedict is encouraging us to pause, to take the time to consider what we’ve heard and to check out whether or not it is of God. And that is really the test. Is this something from God, and therefore, even if it’s something that doesn’t appeal to me, something that it would be right to do or explore? Or is this something that appeals to me and might make me feel good, at least for a short time, but is contra to what I understand to be God’s will? And how on earth do we discern the difference between these things?
Herod did know something about discernment- we’ve noted that he knew that John was righteous and holy. I wonder how he knew that. We gather that kind of information from a wide lens kind of observation. We will often have a gut instinct about someone – for instance if we encounter someone whom we feel that we might not be able to trust. We might have a physical response to that person, maybe raised hairs or an increased heart rate, and we are likely to attend to those feelings, at the very least to be a bit wary.
One of the ways we discern the nature of other people is by observing their motivation for engaging, or not engaging, with other people. We might notice those people who appear to give selflessly. People who put themselves out for neighbours or friends; people who, when we are having a rough time, are the ones who stick around and offer to help in ways that make a difference. People who are generous in their offers of hospitality, who are flexible and accommodating. These are traits that we find attractive and which resonate with our understanding of what God might be asking of us.
If we see people in action, if we experience their way of being in the world, then we are much more likely to be in a position to see – and to hear them – with the eyes and ears of our hearts. To be able to take that rounded view, to consider a range of information.
So coming back to John. He was a rather unusual character, but he doesn’t appear to have had any self centred or selfish ambition. He endured all sorts of hardship, didn’t make himself popular, spoke truth regardless of the response.
Herod was right to see him as a man of God. And when we encounter charismatic people – either in the flesh, or even on some kind of a screen, they may at first sight be a little unusual or even intimidating. They may dress differently or have unusual ideas about diet. What they have to say might be inspired by God – and we owe it to them and to ourselves to check that out.
Benedict might offer some help here – towards the end of his Rule he says this: No monastics are to pursue what they judge better for themselves but, instead, what they judge better for someone else. I think that it’s much easier for us to discern what might be better for someone else, simply because our personal desires don’t get in the way. So when we hear those challenging and potentially prophetic voices, let’s allow ourselves to measure their words and ideas against what might be better for other people. What might be better on a bigger stage. What might be better from a holistic perspective, trying to get past the clever words that can be so seductive and potentially destructive and finding ways to listen with the ears of our hearts.
We all sometimes need to be challenged; we all need to be encouraged to check out our decision making; we need to be reminded that we have a responsibility to others in all that we do. That’s an element of our Christian calling – that’s how we take seriously our promise to follow Jesus.