August 29, 2022

On the Beheading of John the Baptist and on Herodias (St. John Chrysostom)

On the Beheading of John the Baptist and on Herodias

By St. John Chrysostom

Again Herodias is raving, again she is making a disturbance, again she is dancing and again she is trying to have John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. Again Jezabel is going around trying to seize the vineyard of Naboth and chase Elijah ito the hills. I think that I am not only one to have fallen into a trance, but all of you listening to the voice of the Gospel are as astonished as I am at John's frankness of speech and Herod's empty-headedness and the animal frenzy of the godless women. What do we hear ? Herod has John arrested and thrown him into prison. Why? Because of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip.

The empty-headedness of Herod induced by the wretched women is contemptible. What is one to say? How is one to describe the wickedness of those unchastised women? It seems to me that there is no wild beast in the world to match an evil woman. I mean, of course, the evil woman and not the good and reasonable woman. I know modest and good women, whose lives I must recount for the edification and love of the good.

There is no wild beast in the world to match an evil woman. Among the quadrupeds is there anything fiercer than lion? No. Among the reptiles is there anything more cruel than the serpent? No. But the lion and the serpent are much less evil, as the wise Solomon in confirmation of my claim is wítness: "I preferred to live with a lion and a serpent than with an evil and garrulous woman." And lest you think that the prophet has spoken insincerely, learn from these examples: Daniel was treated respectfully in the den by the lions, but the righteous Naboth was slaughtered by Jezabel. Jonah was kept alive in the whale's belly, but Samson was shorn, bound and handed over to the enemy by Delilah.

John was plagued by serpents, snakes and vipers in the wilderness, but murdered by Herodias at dinner. Elijah was nourished by crows in the hills, but she hounded him to death after the boon of rain. What did she say? "If you are Elijah, I am Jezabel. May the gods do to me whatever is fitting if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you."

Elijah was afraid. He turned this over in his mind and walked off into the wilderness, a journey of forty days. He walked from Rathmen, begging to die, and said: "Lord, let this be enough for me. Take my life. I am not better than my fathers." Alas! Was Elijah afraid of a woman? The one who brought rain to the world with his tongue? The one who brought down fire from heaven and raised the dead? Afraid of a woman? Yes, he was afraid. There is no wickedness to compare with an evil woman. Wisdom bears witness to my homily thatthere is no head above the head of a snake, and no evil above that of a woman, the most evil and sharpest weapon of the devil. It was through a woman at the beginning that he overcame Adam in paradise; through a woman that he drove the most gentle David to the treacherous murder of Uriah; through a woman that he forced the wise Solomon's disobedience; through a woman that he shaved and blinded the brave Samson; through a woman that he dashed the children of Elias the priest to the ground; through a woman that he  bound and incarcerated the noble Joseph; through a woman that he beheaded John the light of the whole world. And I am speaking only of human beings. Through a woman he cast down the angels from heaven and through a woman he slaughters and kills, dishonours and violates all. For woman is shameless and spares no-one. She does not honour the Levite, respect the priest or revere the prophet. A wicked woman is the worst possible evil. Even if she is poor, she is rich in evil. If she is wicked and wealthy, she is a double evil, an unbearable creature, an incurable disease, an untameable wild beast. I know that snakes can be coaxed into submission and lions and tigers and leopards can be treated gently and tamed. An evil woman insulted becomes frenzied and flattered becomes excited. And if she is married, she can work on her husband night and day to sharpen his appetite for guileful murder, as Herodias did with Herod. If her husband is poor, she can rouse him to anger and fighting. If she is a widow, she can dishonour all men by herself. Her tongue is not bridled by fear of the Lord, she does not look towards any future judgement, she does not look up to God and she does not know how to keep legitimate friendships. It is nothing for an evil woman to hand over her own husband to death. The righteous Job's own wife carelessly handed him over to death of blasphemy when she said: "Say something against the Lord and die." O one of wicked nature and unholy disposition, she had no pity when she saw the insides of her husband covered with seething blisters, like burning coals, and all his flesh consumed by worms. She was not moved to pity when she saw him utterly contorted, labouring and struggling and barely able to breathe. She remained pitiless when she saw one who had formerly worn royal purple lying naked in the dirt. She paid no mind to their former intimacy or to any of the fine glorious things that had adorned her because of him. But how could this happen? "Say something against the Lord and die." O woman's grace, remedy for mitigating pain, law of marital love - did she ever say anything of the sort when you were ill? Did she not heal your illness with prayers and good works ? Is not this temporary chastisement enough for him, or do you wish to consign him to eternal punishment for his blasphemy? Do you not know that all blasphemy and sin will be removed from man? Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be cancelled in this life or the one to come. Do you want to see another companion of this wickedness? Show me Delilah. For she shaved the brave Samson, handed him over to the enemy, her own husband who had shared her bed, whom she cared for, caressed and loved more than herself, whom she loved one day and deceived the next, whom she lovingly cared for one and deceitfully buried the next. Was he not handsome? Indeed, who at that time was more handsome ? He had seven curls on his head, the beautiful image of the seven-lamps. Was he not brave? Who was braver? He strangled the fearsome lion alone on the road and destroyed thousands of foreign enemies with a single  jawbone of an ass. And was he not holy ? He was so holy that when he was thirsting in a drought he prayed and water sprang forth to relieve the drought from the jawbone of a dead ass that he was holding in his hand. And this handsome. brave and holy man was bound by his own wife and handed over like an enemy to foreigners. How is it that a woman can overpower such a strong man? From the innate goodness of the man ? For she stole the secret of his strength one night used strong potions to overcome him when he was naked. This is why Wisdom instructs you: "Be wary of your wife lest you entrust her with anything." Tell me what sort of beast has ever contrived such a thing against her mate? What reptile wants to destroy her own partner? What sort of lionness wants to deliver her mate to be slaughtered? Consider the apposite words of Wisdom: "There is no head above the head of the serpent and no wickedness above the wickedness of woman?" In a word, he who has an evil wife let him know that he has been paid in full for his lawless acts. There is evidence of this. Listen to what Wisdom says: "A wicked woman will be given to a lawless man in return for his evil deeds." But let that be an end of the homily about the wicked woman.

Let us now talk of the good woman, especially since there are such women present. For good women see the virtues of the good as theirs and regard their labours as their own crowns. An example of a good and hospitable woman was the blessed Shunamite, who encouraged her husband to build a home for Elisha so that he might have peace and quiet. She put a bed, table and lamp there for him. The bed was not devoid of garments but had sheets suitable for a prophet and the lamp not without light but with light from burning oil, the table not without bread but laden with food. What is one to say of that blessed widow who received the  prophet Elijah ? For whom poverty was not an embarrassment because of the wealth of her good will, who had no bread or wine or food or anything else to comfort her in her poverty. She had no land to grow food. She had no vineyard where she could grow the sweet grape. She had no tree to provide her with delicious fruit at harvest time. How could she when she had no land for food or vines. But always at harvest she wouldwalk behind the reapers gleaning whatever she could and in this way store food for a year. It was to her that Elijah went during the famine when the entire earth had become almost desiccated for lack of rain, when the  sky had become deep red, when the air was brazen and the clouds bridled, when there was no plant, no flower, no seed, no dew, no ears swaying, when the rivers began to dry up and the sources of the waters in the springs were being choked by the heat. The salt waters of the sea began to increase because there was no influx of sweet water, the rainfall and showers having stopped. At that point Elijah went to the poor widow. You know how much she suffered even in times of plenty. The prophet left the wealthy who had enough  bread and came down the hill to visit her. Why did he who could bring down fire from heaven with his words not bring down bread for himself ? Was he not able? Yes, he was. But he did not do this. Why? So that he would not deprive the widow of the benefits of hospitality. And, besides, he would replenish her handful of flour and tiny amount of oil by blessing them. The prophet did not go so much to be fed by as to feed the poor widow and reveal the hidden goodness of her heart. God who is able nourishes all the saints in the world by His own will. He retains the gift of being able to distinguish the well-disposed hearts at the time of hospitality by their fruits. For there may be times when there is no-one to take care of them, for example when He provides nourishment through birds, as with Elijah in the mountains, or through a foreign prophet, as with Daniel in the pit, or through a sea creature, as with Jonah and the whale, or He rains down food, as with our fathers in the desert, when there was no-one there to take care of them and He rained down manna from heaven and made water flow from rocks. With the saints living harmoniously with others in the world, He keeps back His right hand. But if He sees that they are in difficulty, He releases it to help them achieve salvation through His  benefactions. Elijah went off to the widow, who had nothing but a handful of flour, which, with difficulty, served as a meal for her and her children. What did he say to her? "Give me a little water in a cup, and I will drink." As she went to get it, he called after her: "And a little bread." She said what she did not have and confessed what she had. "What!" "As the Lord lives, I wish I had hearth cakes, but I have only a handful of flour and a small cruse of oil." "Amazing that amid such shortage you do not refuse to offer what little you have !" How many of the filthy rich, when asked  by friends for favours, refuse them, blandly asserting that they have nothing? And even if they can  be persuaded to give, they draw up iron-clad agreements, in which they bind the receiver with the fine print and they require cast-iron security. But she unhesitatingly was willing to offer the handful of flour. And what did the prophet say to her? "Hasten and get me some hearth cakes, first for me and then for you and the children." What the prophet said was a trial, a test of the heart and proof of her willing disposition. The heart of the blessed woman was, as it were, under a yoke and she was  being tested.What was she disposed to do ? To be good to her own children or entertain the prophet? She chose to stint herself and her children and receive the prophet. For she knew that those who receive prophets in the name of a prophet will receive the reward of a prophet. Those who provide a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple will not lose their reward. What is that the prophet said? Hasten? Was he so hungry that he needed to hasten ? No of course not. But  benefaction is serious, joyful and warm, without grief or compulsion. God loves the joyful giver. Hasten and confer your benefit first upon me and last upon yourself and your children. Hasten, as Abraham hastened at the arrival of the angels to his cattle for a calf to fetch a lamb. And as Sara hastened to the hearth to get the bread concealed in the heavens. Hasten and make your sacrifices to God as Abraham has done. And not for yourself first and then for me, like Cain, Ophni and Phineas, the sons of Eli the priest, who insulted God by being the first to take the first fruits from the offerings made to God. Sara zealously did what was prescribed. Abraham, looking at the rich hearth bread, received it and spoke and filled her house with good things.The handful of flour, he says, will not run out from the barrel or the oil from the cruse until the Lord brings rain down upon the earth. Why until then ? It has to be. New grace was needed, as of rain falling, to complete the old law. The word was followed by the deed. Do you see how good women enjoyed the fruits of hospitality ? For the fruits of good deeds are illustrious and the root of practical wisdom unshakeable.

Women, you have heard about the deeds of wicked women and the virtues of good women. Love the latter and want not the former. Imitate the latter, despise the former, that you may follow in their footsteps, I mean those of the good, and be counted among the chorus of the saints in Jesus Christ, for his is the power and the glory forever. Amen.