Whom do you seek to please? Whom do you fear? A powerful leader seeking to please himself, King Herod desired to kill John the Baptist for referring to God's law above Herod. Fearing the people, Herod at first refrained from killing John because the people considered him a prophet. Seeking to please his unlawful wife's daughter and his dinner guests, Herod finally ordered John's head on a platter. Herod's reference points were whimsical, multiple, and self-serving.
Fr. Timothy Lowe shares the story of Herod and John the Baptist, reminding us that our reference points matter. We are called to refer to One Lord, serving and fearing only Him.
Read the full episode transcript here.
Hollie Benton 0:04
You are listening to Doulos, a podcast of the Ephesus School Network. Doulos offers a scriptural daily bread for God's household and explores servant leadership as an Orthodox Christian. I'm Hollie Benton, your host and executive director for the Orthodox Christian Leadership Initiative. And with me today is co host father Timothy Lowe, former Rector at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem. So glad to be speaking with you again today, Father Timothy!
Fr. Timothy Lowe 0:31
Likewise, as well, Hollie.
Hollie Benton 0:33
So Father, when we envision servant leadership, we naturally think about service to others, loving my neighbor, caring for the people. I've even heard bishops and hierarchs say we need to give the people what they want. But what happens when the people don't want what the Lord wants for them? What if the people, the group, the mob, want someone's head on a platter? What is a servant leader, especially a doulos, a servant of the Lord, supposed to do in a case like this? Today, we're going to hear the story of John the Baptist from Matthew's Gospel, the story from which the common metaphor of someone's "head on a platter" comes.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 1:12
Ouch, ouch. No, you asked the question there about what should we be doing? I think just a general principle. First of all, Hollie, it's all about reference points. Not the ones we you know, imagine in our heads, but the ones upon which our lives actually are built. Sometimes there's that little hypocrite in us where there's a difference between what we proclaim and what we actually do. And like all things, it is the doing that reveals who we really are, what our actual reference points are. Let's just say it out loud, Hollie, if we are actually servants, we both know this word, doulos, servant, slave, it's the same word. And the idea is that we are a slave of a master. We're actually servants or slaves of the Master Jesus. And when this is the case, I honestly think, Hollie, the question you pose, but what are we to do and so on, actually, things become quite easier, simpler, if you will. He eliminates all the other allegiances by definition. And of course, we have this reference in the Gospel of Matthew, you can't serve two masters, you will love one hate the other one. So sometimes a lot of the crises that we have, personal or even corporate as communities, are crises of being caught between, if not two masters, three masters, four masters, the fearful mob you mentioned, which is one of my favorites in the Gospel of Matthew. Even now in America, Hollie, we become very much afraid of the fearful mob, it has presented itself in all kinds of ways in our politics. And someone recently said, Oh, we've just become a banana republic. And I think he was right, actually, then I thought about No, we're a large country, there are several banana republics going on in regional America, which are our challenges towards living. That being said, we know our life is also a toss between other people for our time, our commitments, corporate America, if you work in that environment, any place where you're not your own, so to speak, there's always a cost. There's always a cost. And we're gonna read it today about the cost of being the servant of the Lord, and of no one else, no one else.
Hollie Benton 3:11
So the story from the Gospel of Matthew. "Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodius, his brother Philip's wife, for John had been saying to him, it is not lawful for you to have her. Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people because they consider John a prophet. On Herod's birthday, the daughter of Herodius danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist. The king was distressed. But because of his oath and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl who carried it to her mother." So what I find, Father Timothy, so curious about this is the fact that Herod's fear of the people was at work on both sides of the story. First, his fear of the people kept him from killing John. The people consider John a prophet, and I suppose Herod was afraid of an uprising and losing his position of power, even though he presumably had the power to kill John when John preached against him, offended him, and his relationship with Herodius his brother's wife, and then Herod's fear of the people, specifically his dinner guests, because he had made oaths and had a reputation to uphold. His fear of the people motivated him to finally go through with the murder and beheading of John the Baptist. So we can certainly say that Herod gave the people what they wanted, he feared them. Yet on the other hand, we know from Scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the fear of the people. Herod was certainly not motivated by this fear of the Lord. When we talk about servant leadership as a doulos tou theou, we try to make a pretty big deal about the foundation, you mentioned the reference points of servant leadership. I really do think it starts with the first and greatest commandment, "Thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." This love of the Lord, this fear of the Lord, is what informs and shapes the understanding and behavior in following, trying to follow, the second commandment, "Thou shalt love your neighbor as yourself." So without following the first commandment, without the reference point of that first commandment, loving the Lord, I don't think there's any way that we know how to love our neighbor. If we think we can serve people without serving God first, then I think things are gonna go haywire just like they do with Herod. Leaders can make a real mess of things by simply serving the people and appeasing the mob. So tell us what else is going on here, Father Timothy, with the story of Herod and John the Baptist.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 6:06
Well, I'm always interested in how Matthew characterizes someone like Herod, who's a known historical figure, actually, he's left the biggest footprint, if you will, of any ancient person on the ground in this now modern state of Israel and Palestine. So the irony I find here is that Herod is mentioned twice in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter two with the coming of the Magi. And then we all know the story unique to Matthew of the suspicion and fear and everybody's stirred up because it's the new King. How's that possible? And then, of course, the slaughter of the innocents. It is a reference to his character, which is historically accurate and being a ruthless, horrible, incredibly successful leader. Dominated, crushed everybody. And another aspect of the irony of this picture here, Matthew 14, is that he was not weak. He was iron fisted, he was ruthless. The fact that he killed his favorite wife and three sons, one of his desert fortresses, just by the Dead Sea, it's a historical fact. So in other words, he was not afraid, but anybody that threatened his power he did what most despots do, they eliminate them. So you have this execution. Remember what I just said about reference points. Even King Herod has a reference point. According to John, this is the beginning of the conflict as portrayed. In other words, there is something over and above that even Herod himself must answer to. Now yes, you can be afraid of the mob and want to preserve your honor and dignity all in a stupid vainglorious way. But Herod assumes, like actually many of us, that we're the top of the food chain. But alas, John thinks it is a law of God that is above him, see, a reference point. So Herod is guilty. his present wife, and the whimsical killing. His present wife Herodius, there was a vacancy, he had killed his favorite, so he had to find another wife, just joking, of course, also, she is guilty of the murder ofJohn. And I think also we have to include in the chain of people, the unnamed daughter, also somehow guilty. My point is, when there's this kind of behavior, down the chain of command, people could say no, and could stand up and break the chain. I want us to look more at Herod as a type of behavior, who has power and authority, but others also participate in that power and authority. At some point, someone has to stand up against the flow, if that happens, there are repercussions. And it's in any walk of life, anytime you're seeing injustice being done, whether it's in the job, whether it's in the community, whether it's on the national stage, or whatever, we all have a reference point, and cannot or should not necessarily be silent. So you said in contrast to all that silliness, there is the fear of God as the beginning of wisdom, the starting point, and I think that was a perfect starting point, the fear of God. In other words, He is terrifying, He is powerful, through whom we believe we will stand and be judged. And so that is the beginning of wisdom, not the fear of others, not the fear of our political leaders, not the fear of our bosses at worked. And yes, we have to negotiate the minefield of jobs and lives. But there comes a time when lines are crossed, that we might be called to be a voice in the wilderness, a voice of repentance, or a voice of judgment. "It's not lawful for you to have her." You mentioned the commandments, loving God and loving the neighbor, and absolutely. So this means that wisdom is practical. It's not theoretical. Wisdom means walking and doing. It's not just an idea that's dancing around in our head, titillating us for our own pleasure or even the public displays of importance like it was with Herod and not wanting to lose his reputation. As if the historical Herod really cared. So anyway, I want us to think on this one aspect. And that is on this word, leadership. We know that being a servant is not being a leader per se, but being a follower, a servant of your master. Take myself as an example, Hollie, I'm a priest, albeit retired. So clearly, I'm not functioning as a priest that is defined usually liturgically and pastorally, and leading a community and that part can change, I can retire. I'm here in Myrtle Beach, enjoying life, but I still have, if you will, everyday functioning of a slave to a master.
And this remains the one and only true reference point, I'm not free from showing my obedience to God, by loving my neighbor, keeping His commandments, those things always remain. Even though technically, I'm not a leader to a community, I don't have people under my authority, I'm not running an institution like I did in Jerusalem. That's not the case here, but still my life has not changed in terms of reference points, I am not now free to do whatever I want, I'm still the functioning slave of the master. So this is why I want to rejoice that I am free. Don't be offended, I am free of the institutional enslavement. I don't have to entertain and come up with programs for young people. I don't have to appease their parents, if I disappoint them or they're unhappy. I don't have to organize social events to build up a community life. I don't have to appeal to all the ethnic heritages that define so much of our communities, I don't have to dish out even advice. I don't have to raise money to build or maintain our buildings you see, or to pay the 20 Grand it cost to ensure the last church I was in. If you have certain realities of communities and buildings, you then are its servant. No, for me, it's much simpler. It's much simpler. And so for that, I'm grateful. I just simply get to follow God and His commandments in my day to day life. And that means responding to whatever comes into my boring life. And trust me, retirement is boring just to forewarn you, Hollie, when you get there, it's gonna be boring. And so you're gonna look for something else to serve, because you have time on your hands. But maybe God will use us at his discretion once in a while to burp out a prophetic word like John the Baptist did. "It's not lawful for you to have her." He's putting Herod underneath the commandments of God. Very simple. He's not doing a revolution. He's not going out podcasting, and on social media and whatnot, it's just simply, it's not lawful. You too, are under authority, and not just to yourself. But it cost John his head. Herodius, in the story, seeking her pound of flesh seizes the opportunity. Herod wants to please. John gets silenced. And what perfect way to get rid of a prophet than just to cut off his head. My point is when we are called to speak, and trust me, those of us who areOrthodox Christians, so most of our life is in an Orthodox Christian community context, it's going to be not to our political leaders, the Bidens and the Trumps, it's gonna be within our own church leadership. We may have to speak out. Oh, yeah, I think we know the chips then will fall where they fall. Because it's God using our vocal cords and not thinking that I'm a prophet. As we see today, prophets come and go. And they usually are short lived by definition. They disturb power, they threaten power. They challenge it with a word. This is the whole importance of the word. They challenge it with the word, not with guns, not with uprisings, not with organized AK47 and civil war in America. No, they challenge with the word of truth. That's why I laugh at first Kings 19, and poor Elijah, who in his life is threatened. His life is threatened, he flees, he flees. John the Baptist doesn't get that option. He gets arrested. He flees, goes to the wilderness and he flees all the way to Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai, if you will. And there God asked him, What are you doing here? And then he imagines, this is for those of us who think we're servants of God, this is the warning, not to the Herods because that's easy. He imagines that he is alone, that he is the Holy remnant himself. The last one who hasn't bowed the knee to ba'al, that itself is our temptation. We imagine that we're more than what we are as servants as slaves. Our role is very simple. It's to follow and to do the will of the Master. But this goes against American psychology and our cultural upbringing, where we really are someone unto ourself, and this is our undoing, okay, this is our unmaking, actually, because we come from a culture that is independent, free spirited, self defined. And without reference points, and it's getting worse. That's why, you know, you mentioned earlier, the mob and the craziness of America right now. It's just everybody's self governing.
They voted themselves in, and you can't get rid of them unless you silence them. It's also indicative of a deeper problem. But be that as it may, God told Elijah, Don't worry, I got more voices out there. Whatever happens to you, you can be replaced. That's not an escapism, that's not a cop-out for me. Just no, no, that's a fundamental truth, you are replaceable, you will be replaced. You are dust and to dust you shall return. But in the meantime, you still have this business. And that's it. That's it. In that sense, hopefully, we can be less anxious, less anxious, it's a very anxious ridden time. And I can tell you countless stories going on in people's lives. When I look at the last few years of my COVID life, which is relatively benign, it still was fraught with all kinds of permutations of anxiety and uncertainty, and that that being said, Do not be anxious. Do not be anxious. Why? Because God is your Father. Why? Because you're choosing this way, which is long and narrow, which means it's easy, and it never ends. But at the end, you see you're serving. And so you might hear the word, Well done, good and faithful servant, Enter into the joy of your Lord. Reference points again. So Hollie, we see the life of John the Baptist, as portrayed in Matthew, which is actually very short. But Matthew talks about John the Baptist more than the other Gospel writers. Chapter three, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, the baptism and so on. He gets arrested and disappears completely, almost immediately. And then he reappears when he's in prison, and asks the question, Are you the one we are looking for? Should we look for another? The point is Matthew uses John to voice the question, Are you the one? And Christ doesn't say, yes. He just simply says, go and tell John and his disciples what you see and what you hear. That's the evidence, what you see and hear. In the end, the poor have good news preached to them. And then ironically, Matthew uses that, for Jesus to launch into a long soliloquy. It's unique to the Gospel of Matthew, since we're talking about John the Baptist and his death, you need to read Matthew about John who he was, and praises him in a way that is unique. People need to go read chapter 11 after they hear this podcast, go read it, it's unique, praises him. The climax is when he says he's the greatest born of woman, you can't get a higher compliment, and then dismisses it completely. Oh, by the way, he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. So he uses John and then sets us up for this point, which is the punch line, right? Least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. That's the reference point. That's where the wisdom of God will take us. We don't know the how's, the when's, the where's, it's none of our business. That's the carrot dangling before you and I, and we just simply obey the masters voice. There we are, Hollie, once again, John the Baptist comes and goes, brutal death, murder, hypocrisy, vainglory of power and all of that and do not think it could be otherwise. Because if you want to be on top of the food chain, you have to maintain it. However, that is. Herod became absolutely paranoid. Paranoid, was a brilliant and ruthless statesman, managed Rome and Judea, prodigious builder, yes, he erected more buildings than anybody else. When they think they found his tomb on Herodion which was his palace outside of Jerusalem in the hills outside of Bethlehem. It had been smashed and destroyed. And they speculate that after he died, that people came and just destroyed his mausoleum, break it and smash it to pieces as their petty revenge against the tyrant. So, there we go, John the Baptist beheaded, gone, Herod, tomb smashed, and here we are wondering what's next. It's the word of God. Loving God, by showing we have care for the neighbor.
Hollie Benton 19:19
Thank you, Father Timothy. Reference points, sometimes a duty and responsibility to speak out and point people towards the word of the Lord as the reference point, realizing that it might cost you your head, but also not being too full of ourselves thinking that we're God's gift to humanity in declaring His word because He's got other voices to use. We are passing away.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:43
We are passing, but there's work to be done.
Hollie Benton 19:46
That's right. Thank you, Father, Timothy. We'll see you next week.
Fr. Timothy Lowe 19:50
Absolutely. Take care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai