Even the worst of people can have an unexpected attack of conscience. Call it the ghost of his dead mother, but King Herod starts to wonder if he’s gone too far, been too immoral, done one deed too foul for the universe to accept. He begins to wonder if there is such a thing as bad karma. In Mark 6:14-29 (see Remembering John the Baptist, last week’s take on the same passage) we read how Herod is haunted by the thought that his beheading of an innocent man, John the Baptist, might have been a mistake. John, or someone with the same miraculous powers as the baptizing prophet, has been seen in public. The rational response would have been for Herod to dismiss it. So someone else can preach, heal, and raise the hopes of the masses. Prophets and Messiahs are like weeds in ancient Palestine, you got to keep pulling them up and chopping them down. But, conscience isn’t always rational or convenient. Even the most hardened despots can find themselves going momentarily soft.
Then again it could have been all for show. Herod had political reasons to want to appear to be sincere and religious from time to time. By telling people that he feared that John the Baptist had been resurrected, and that he was sorry, he threw a sop to his religious right, while not committing himself to any real change. You see, even in the best of us, our conscience is but background noise unless it leads us to real repentance. Religious feelings are wasted on King Herod. Within a year he is given a similar situation, when Jesus appears before him in chains. Herod is as unwilling to listen to Jesus as he was to repent when John the Baptist was in his throne room. He sends Jesus back to Pontus Pilate with a note, “Execute this one.”
Even good people are in the habit of ignoring their conscience. We get busy in life. We get persuaded that we deserve things — that tax cut made possible by stealing from the next generation, that promotion at work which only requires us to forsake our principles, that secure life lived within a gated community surrounded by only our kind of people. Yes, we deserve to have our sins, our greed, our gluttony, our prejudices, free from any sudden attack of conscience. So we all, keep the inner voice of God on a short leash.