Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man… (Mark 6:20)
And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her. (Mark 6:26)
Today the Church commemorates the Beheading of John the Forerunner, who is a significant figure in all four of the Gospels, preparing the world for receiving the Christ. It also sets up the trivia question, On what day of the year does the Church celebrate Herod’s birthday?
In Mark’s Gospel, King Herod is portrayed as a rather weak man governed by his fears. Herod fears John (because of his holiness and righteousness) but fears his impious wife even more! Herod makes a rash unrestricted promise only belatedly realizing its unintended consequences. His wife takes advantage of his weaknesses to get her revenge on John the Forerunner. Herod’s fears and weaknesses lead him into a position he was trying to avoid and then he has to give in to events to save face. He is sorry (has remorse) for the position he has gotten himself into, yet does not repent of his words and chooses to murder John as the path of least resistance. It is a case where remorse does not lead to godliness. Herod is a study of a man who has a position of governing power but who is governed by his weaknesses.
St Isaac the Syrian offers encouragement to us not to despair because of our failings because Christ not only forgives our sins, He also heals in us all which is lacking:
Do not fall into despair because of stumbling. I do not mean that you should not feel contrition for them, but you should not think them incurable. For it is more expedient to be bruised than dead. There he is, indeed, a Healer for the man who has stumbled, even He Who on the Cross asked that mercy be shown to His crucifiers, He who pardoned His murderers while He hung on the cross (Luke 23: 34). ‘All manner of sin‘, he said, ‘and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men‘ (Matthew 12: 31), that is, through repentance. For a brief moment of mourning He pardoned Simon, who had denied Him, and after His resurrection He commanded him to become the head of His flock. Three times He asked him, ‘Dost thou love Me?’ on account of his threefold denial of Him, so as to confirm his pardon (John 21: 15ff).
Christ came in behalf of sinners, to heal the broken of heart and to bandage their wounds. ‘The Spirit of the Lord’, He says, ‘is upon Me, to preach good tidings unto the poor; He hath sent Me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim forgiveness to the captives, Recovery of sight to the blind’ (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18), and to strengthen the bruised by forgiveness. And the Apostle says in his epistle, ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15). And his Lord also testifies, ‘I am come not to call the righteous, for they that are whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick’ (Mark 2:17). . . . But do not sin, O man, expecting that you will repent; and do not succumb [to sin] being confident of forgiveness! Remember that death will not delay. (THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES OF SAINT ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 314)
While our Lord Jesus Christ is forgiving, merciful and patient, St Isaac warns us not to attempt to take advantage of the Lord assuming that He has to forgive us. I think it is a character in a John Updike novel who expresses his belief that the world is perfectly made: God’s duty is to forgive sins and our duty is to sin. Following this logical fallacy leads to hell (being separated from God) in St Isaac’s thinking.
My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)