What is the line between duty and honour? It’s clearly a question that concerns us, since it’s been long debated among people. Most of our literature – from Lord of the Flies to The Lord of the Rings – is focused on the idea of honour, and when it takes on a life for us beyond duty. Every superhero movie is, in fact, in one way or another, a butterfly story – a story of honour in doing the right thing emerging from the duty that one feels to do what is right with the power that we have. When we hear of people making sacrifices beyond what is required of them, of taking a personal risk beyond their job description, we are fascinated. In fact, for many it was what distinguished the pilot who so carefully landed the plane on the Hudson River in New York from the ship’s purser who ran trying to save a guest while the cruise ship sank off the coast of the Italian island. The first case was someone executing his duty, very well and brave to be true: what we admired was that the pilot did as he had promised to do by taking on the uniform. The ship’s purser, who was an accountant, did in fact what his captain should have – he went beyond his duty or obligation and chose to act with honour. If duty put us in places where we must act – honour then would guide us in the manner of our action.
Now John the Baptist, who is certainly, to my mind, one of the most honourable men of the Bible, was always getting himself into trouble. He told it like it was. And that made people not like him so much. He wasn’t shy about laying down the line between duty and honour, and busting up a lot of rules people were all too happy to follow back then. Duty was fine – important even – to John. It was what laid out your obligation to one another. But the gospel, and Jesus who was coming, was adding the better part of it: the honour of doing the right thing, not out of duty, but because it is the right thing. John made a lot of people uncomfortable – mostly the people enjoying the benefits of everyone else below them doing their duty.
This morning’s gospel has several examples of duty and honour. First we hear that there is conflict between Herod and John because Herod’s wife (Herodias) doesn’t like John. She is threatened by John because he is telling Herod that his marriage to Herodias is invalid. Herod has married his brother’s wife. Now according to an old Jewish law called ‘leverite marriage,’ Herod can marry (in fact it is his duty to marry) his brother’s wife should his brother die before that union produced any male offspring. In fact, it was seen as the duty of the brother because it not only continued the blood line, but it supported the woman involved and any of her children. However, Herod has married his brother’s wife while his brother is still alive and married to Herodias. This is John the Baptist’s objection.
Herodias is threatened. Her desire is to make sure that John the Baptist stays out of her way. She waits for the appropriate time at a party where her daughter wins a goodwill gesture from Herod in front of all the guests. The daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist. And suddenly Herod is caught in his promise – he is trapped by his oath. We are told, clearly that he wasn’t happy about this — he was deeply grieved — but that out of regard for his oath and his guests, he acquiesced. John was beheaded in prison, and his head served on that now famous platter – giving us our saying.
All of us sitting here can say that this was not an honourable act. Herod hid behind his duty and committed murder rather than break an oath. He became blind to duty and fell far short of honour.
What is the lesson for us, who are unlikely to find ourselves in Herod’s place anytime? Well, there are many times when we have to choose between what is expected of us and what we know we should do. Between what is our obligation – to our family, to our employer, and to country – and what honour requires of us. Most of the time, being lucky enough to be Canadians, we don’t find ourselves in much conflict. But we all know there are times our duties blind us. We are so concerned about getting to that work meeting, that we don’t stop to help someone in need. We are so worried about our legal responsibility and risk that we don’t go beyond it when we should. Consider that lifeguard in the United States who saved a man’s life and then lost his job for it: he had stepped outside of his dutiful place – the space he was obligated to watch for drownings – and gone to save someone outside the zone. We all considered it crazy that he would be fired for it, and yet all of us, at one time or another, have worried too much about breaking an obligation, instead of acting with honour. Sometimes we lose sight of who our ultimate duty is to – and that is God. God defines our duty in terms of honouring others and ourselves. In the end, I imagine Herod realized that he had done honour that day to neither.
Scott, Sophie, and Carol had a duty to attend the Eastern Synod Assembly and pay close attention to all the work of the larger church. They fulfilled their duty. Their honour will guide them in a manner of action for this community of faith and for the youth and young adults across our synod.
The Ninneman family had a duty to bury Emmi a few weeks ago. They fulfilled their duty. Their honour will guide them in a manner of action that will keep Emmi alive by remembering the woman who said, “I tell you the truth,” and “Isn’t that right, Hans?” and all of the different ways that Emmi’s life should be remembered.
All of us have a duty to one another in this community of faith. Our honour will guide us in a manner of action for the way we care for our parents, our children, and one another.
If duty put us in places where we must act – honour then would guide us in the manner of our action. Don’t fall into the Herod trap —blinded by duty. Let God be your guide and honour your reward. Amen.