04 February 2011

Don't be a Fool

4th Week OT (F)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

At some point in his life, Herod was probably a wiser man than he was that night when Salome danced for him. He probably made wiser choices based on better information. His choices may have helped some, hurt some but overall they were probably more beneficial than his rash decision to grant the dancer her heart's desire. This is not to say that Herod was wholly righteous, only that he probably wasn't always a fool. Fools are made not born, and it takes time to become a genuine fool. King Herod is a good case of an otherwise morally complex man devolving into foolishness. We might start the history of his moral decline by looking at the corrupting influence of wealth and power. We could also look at how having people fawn all over him lead him to believe in his personal infallibility. Of course, we can't ignore the impact that a beautiful, young woman can have on an older man's sense of right and wrong. But Herod's decline started well before Salome dropped her first veil. Like all once great men and women who fall, Herod's devolution into foolishness started with pride. Salome and her mother, Herodias, took advantage of the king's pride and lust and turned his generosity into murder. But they were successful only because Herod was ruled by fear. We know this when we ask and answer this question: why does a powerful king keep a holy and righteous man in locked away? Fear makes us foolish, and foolishness is the enemy of wisdom.

Herod locks John the Baptist in prison b/c he fears the prophet's righteousness, a righteousness derived directly from John's contact with God. Mark tells us that “when [Herod] heard [John] speak he was very much perplexed, yet he liked to listen to him.” This tells us that Herod is still capable of discerning wisdom even though it puzzles him. Herod knows that marrying his brother's wife violates the divine law. Yet pride will not allow him to confess the sin and repent of it. John's persistence in preaching against Herod's sin compels the king to imprison John, thus keeping John close but also preventing him from preaching against Herod publicly. We can almost hear Herod's internal conflict. God's wisdom and the king's conscience draw Herod to John's preaching, but power, lust, and misplaced generosity prevent him from choosing wisdom over foolishness. Having consistently chosen to accomplish apparently good ends by evil means, Herod reaches a point where Salome and Herodias tip the scale and the king murders John, becoming, in this deadly choice, a Royal Fool.

Fools are made not born. In fact, fools are self-made, constructed, if you will, out of hubris, and played by men and women who once listened to wisdom. If Herod's power and pride started his decline, then fear accelerated it and hard-heartedness sealed the deal. Like all of our moral choices, vice is a habit. We choose again and again to call evil Good. Over time, we are no longer capable of recognizing the Good and come to believe that in choosing Evil we are choosing Good. Herod believes that keeping John in prison prevents political unrest. Even though he is distressed by Salome's request for John's head on a platter, Herod justifies the prophet's execution as an act of fidelity to his oath, fearing embarrassment if he breaks it. The king is motivated at every decision-point by vicious habits and these habits take him—step by step—right into the claws of foolishness. 

Hearing, seeing, and doing God's wisdom are all habits. Choices and actions we must take one at a time, step by step. Each decision we make brings us closer to foolishness or closer to wisdom. If God is our light and salvation, then let our prayer be: “The Lord is my helper, and I will not be afraid.” I will not to fear.

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