Have you ever done something you can’t forgive yourself for? Have you ever carried around a burden that you just couldn’t let go of? Usually, when we think of the bad guys of the Bible, Herod makes the list, but I actually have sympathy for him. When he had John the Baptist killed, he did a bad thing, but, as Mark tells us (6:13-29), the memory of his decision drove him crazy.
This weekend, I was at Camp McDowell for a Cursillo event that focused on “Stories God’s People Tell.” As part of that event, a priest read a children’s story to us. I don’t even remember the name of the story, but I remember how it went. It’s a classic tale of the new kid who comes to school and is rejected by the others, but it is narrated from the view of one of the rejecters. That should have been my first clue. As the reader made his way through the story and told of moments of cruelty and heart-break, the whole audience was drawn in. When he got to the part about the new kid’s seat being empty one day, I could tell that the story wouldn’t end well. Sure enough, the girl who had been tormented by her peers never came back, and the chief tormentor, whose voice we hear throughout the story, is racked with guilt. And so, too, are the readers.
Like the main character in the book, Herod doesn’t realize what he’s really done until it’s too late. In a drunken, lustful, egotistical gesture, he promises the daughter of his bride whatever she asks, but, when she request the Baptizer’s head on a platter, Herod regrets his decision. But there’s nothing he can do now. He’s made the promise, and he has to keep his word, so he orders that John be beheaded. That he was trapped by his own words only heightens his anguish.
When Herod learns about Jesus and the signs he is working, he quickly accepts that John the Baptist has returned from the dead. Stop and think about that. How likely is it? Resurrection wasn’t common place. Dead is dead. Yet Herod is so overwhelmed by his own mistake that he accepts a ridiculous tale that only serves to torment him further. “Who could it be? It must be John the Baptist, coming back to get me.” You and I stop and think of how stupid that is, but it didn’t matter for Herod. Guilt is a powerful thing. It can make us believe terrible and irrational things.
Herod’s story didn’t end well, and neither did the children’s book. But that’s why both are compelling. Neither story would resonate with my own experience of guilt and an inability to let go of my sins unless they left me hanging. I am spurred towards forgiveness (and also to making better decisions) by both stories. I’ve made some terrible choices in my life, but the question remains—how will the story end?
By giving us Jesus, who went from the dark death of the cross to the light of new life, God suggests that our story is supposed to end well. No matter what sin we take on ourselves, God is offering us forgiveness. But sometimes that’s a hard thing to accept. Sometimes we need to come back to the cross to realize that even those most terrible things that we have the hardest time letting go of have been taken away from us by Jesus. His story demonstrates that there is nothing that can keep us away from a God who loves us even beyond death.