Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Why would a king fear a prophet of the Lord? How does a man like Herod, a man with wealth, political and military power, and the loyalty of Imperial Rome, become anxious about a backwoods preacher? At first glance, prophets are nobodies. Disreputable, destitute, wandering madmen. No family ties. No wealth, no power, no prestigious academic credentials. They have no institutional affiliations, no grant money, no access to the media. Their overwhelming stench drives even the unwashed paparazzi away! So, who are these men who give kings sleepless nights? If they are truly prophets of the Lord, then they have one thing any king would fear: a mandate from God to speak the truth. While God's prophets preach the Word, kings play the game of politics, a game of influence in the acquisition of power. And the fact that prophets have nothing lose—nothing to bargain with, nothing to compromise—well, this makes them dangerous indeed. Herod murdered John the Baptist on a whim. The preacher from Nazareth is quickly becoming a problem though a much more elusive one. Himself a priest, a prophet, and a king, Jesus goes around claiming to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. With nothing to lose, nothing to compromise, he is an imminent threat to the secular power of kings. And King Herod in particular. As the Body of Christ—each of us, baptized as priests, prophets, and kings—as the Church, do we pose an imminent threat to the secular powers that rule us? If we don't, we should.
There was a time when the Church could cause kings and queens to quake under their royal bed covers. No monarch legitimately ruled without the consent of the Church. Popes could foment a national revolution by relieving a monarch's subjects from their sacred duty to obey their betters. The Church commanded armies, treasuries, orders of knights, and, most frightening of all, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Just ask the Holy Roman Emperor, King Henry IV about those keys! But Herod doesn't fear Jesus b/c Jesus can rouse the rabble and arm them, or because he can buy a spot in the line of royal succession. Herod is anxious about Jesus, perplexed by this itinerant preacher for the same reason that most rulers fear those with nothing to lose: there's nothing—short of death—to stop them from speaking the truth. And in the case of Christ, death proved to be an international catalyst for the spread of his Good News!
As the Church, the Body of Christ, each of us baptized as priests, prophets, and kings, do we keep our rulers awake at night worrying about the truth we might unleashed upon the realm? Though fear can be a powerful motivator for getting the right thing done, we no longer rely on ecclesial knights and papal armies to threaten kings with the violence of heaven. In all the ways that truly matter, we have become more powerful by abdicating power, wealthier in abandoning wealth, and holier in surrendering the pretenses of an Imperial Church. But are we stripped bare enough to bring the prophetic word to those who would threaten what we have left? Christ warned his disciples that to be faithful to the end they could prefer nothing and no one before him. Anything and anyone we choose before we choose Christ is something or someone for us to lose when the king gets anxious about our truth-telling. Then, we are forced to choose again and again, each time we are called upon for the sake of unity, or fashion, or convenience, each time we are harangued to compromise or lie or cheat, we must choose. Christ or power? Christ or influence? Christ or celebrity? Christ or popularity?
The preacher, Qoheleth, famously laments: “All things are vanity!” Futile, fleeting. For the Church, this is not a lament but an expression of hope. The Good News of Christ Jesus is no thing. Neither futile nor fleeting. And if we, his Body, are to be prophetic in a time of corrupt and violent power, we cannot flinch from speaking the truth. So, let me ask you: how do you think your head will look on a silver platter?
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