Today’s feast, alternately called “The Passion of Saint John the Baptist,” “The Martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist,” and “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist,” is not only a reminder to “keep one’s head” and not overindulge in food and drink when entertaining and making merry—it also reminds us that it is neither losing our good reputation nor the threat of man that we should fear, but God alone.
In the Gospel for today, we read that “Herod feared John, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man, and kept him in custody” (Mk 6:20). Perhaps we can look on Herod and feel a tinge of sympathy—he had arrested John to keep him near to himself. John’s teaching made him curious, and if it hadn’t been for Herod’s desire to save face after getting carried away in his merriment, John would have remained alive and Herod might have received the gift of faith and accepted the Gospel. If, however, Herod had been more concerned with doing what was right before God, fearing God’s punishment rather than the loss of his own credibility and reputation in front of his friends and subjects, he wouldn’t even have been in such a predicament. What can we make of Herod’s “misplaced” fear of John?
In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas distinguishes four different kinds of fear: worldly, servile, initial, and filial. He says, “These three fears [servile, initial, and worldly] regard punishment but in different ways. For worldly or human fear regards a punishment which turns man away from God, and which God’s enemies sometimes inflict or threaten: whereas servile and initial fear regard a punishment whereby men are drawn to God, and which is inflicted or threatened by God.” Filial fear is based upon charity, and can be described as a kind of “ordered” fear, where a man fears the one to whom he submits himself, such as a son to a father.
Herod did not fear God, but man. He feared that John was more powerful than himself and could inflict God’s judgment over him. Herod knew that keeping John in custody was really just a show, that he really had no power over John, for we read that it was on account of Herodias that he kept him in prison (Mk 6:17). But if Herod had feared God, he would have feared being separated from Him, feared His justice and punishment for having married his brother’s wife.
Every day we make decisions based on different kinds of fear. We wake up earlier to beat the traffic to work because we fear the punishment of garnished wages, loss of productivity, or of being fired. We choose water or juice instead of soda for fear of detriment to our health. We lock our doors at night for fear of an intruder and the harm he could do to our family. Many of these choices are healthy and good, and serve to glorify God through prudent choices and care and concern for those we love, including ourselves.
When, however, we find ourselves making decisions based on fear of man—because our reputation might be tarnished for being seen as too devout, or because we’ll be excluded from future events with people we care about—we lose our perspective and forget that we are made for God, both in this life and in the life we will have with Him after Jesus’ glorious return. This means there is no need to fear what another man will say about us or do to us, since justice is God’s to dispense, and His justice is far greater than the harm done to our reputation. When we seek to please God, even in the minutiae of our daily lives, and treat Him as our friend Whom we speak with throughout the day, the motivation for our actions moves further from fear and closer to charity.
Herod heard John’s preaching and knew of the justice of God, yet he chose to fear his loss of reputation instead of believing in the God that John preached. His decision to “save face” in front of his friends was profoundly foolish. As Christians who, in the midst of daily life, must evaluate our actions and decisions based on the truth of the Gospel, let us keep the wisdom of Solomon in mind: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7).
Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, The Beheading of John the Baptist