In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. King Herod perceived John to be a holy and righteous man; however, he was easily swayed by the influence of others who were uncomfortable with the truths John preached. Herod didn’t want to kill John the Baptist, but when he was pressured to do so in front of a crowd, he gave in and called for his execution.
This moment represents a major test for both men: Herod’s will is tested against the influence of others, and John the Baptist faces the final test, to stand in defense of the truth even unto death. Their lives up until this point could not be more different—while Herod lived in hedonism and extravagance, John the Baptist wandered in the desert and ate locusts. While Herod relished his power and sought to assert dominance, John, a model of humility, deferred any praise, pointing others toward Christ instead of himself.
All of Herod’s small, daily decisions did not prepare him to stand up for what was right when the moment came. His tendency to embrace luxury and vainglory, of settling for what is comfortable instead of making sacrifices for what is truly good, prepared him to crumble under pressure. He became weak and easily manipulated by evil. He was conditioned to give in to what was easy, and in the end he yielded to his desire for the approval of others.
John the Baptist, on the other hand, lived a life of extreme sacrifice and spiritual conditioning. He gave up worldly comforts in order to focus on what was truly important: the coming of the Messiah. He did not allow himself to be ruled by his desires; rather, in a spirit of humility and self-control, he ordered his desires toward God’s will. He urged others to prepare the way of the Lord, to be vigilant and ready for His coming. His own heart was fully prepared to receive the Messiah, even to die for Him. When he was arrested and imprisoned, he accepted his circumstances as part of God’s will. He didn’t brood over the fact that after a life of asceticism, he sat alone in prison while sinners sat with Jesus and watched Him perform miracles. John knew that his life’s work wasn’t over and that his reward was still to come. He held fast to the truth in the face of death, continuing to prepare the way of the Lord by preparing the way to the Cross.
He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much. —Luke 16:10
1. El Greco, Saint John the Baptist / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist / PD-US